The beautiful and damned actress Lída Baarová

Lída Baarová

Lída Baarová was one of the most famous and successful Czech actresses to have ever lived. Her career spanned over 70 years, in the course of which she starred in a whole number of both Czech and German film classics. She even made it into Federico Fellini’s ‘I Vitelloni’ in 1953. But she is perhaps best known for her life off-screen, as one of Czech film’s most unhappy characters. Lída Baarová’s beauty attracted the attention of Joseph Goebbels, and her career - tragically for her - reached its peak in Nazi Germany shortly before World War Two.

Eva Urbanová is from the Czech Film Archive. She says that Lída Baarová’s career started in 1931, when Lída was still very young:

“Lída Baarová was quite simply a very beautiful woman. She was already beautiful as a young girl, she was extremely charismatic, and had lots of what we call ‘sex-appeal’ today. So she couldn’t fail to be noticed by the people making the movies. And she herself wanted to be an actress, so she went to the conservatory to study acting. But she didn’t finish her studies, because when she was very young - when she was 17 - she got an offer to star in a film. And it turned out that she wasn’t just a pretty face, she was good at acting too. So she didn’t go back to school and it was here that her film career began.”

This is an extract from one of Baarová’s most famous films, ‘Dívka v modrém’ (Girl in Blue). In the movie, Baarová plays a 17th century countess, who gets brought back to life in 1930’s Czechoslovakia. Here she is speaking in an antiquated sort of Czech – the dialogue, it is said, she wrote herself. Eva Urbanová says that this was quite a typical role for Baarová:

“She played young girls especially – but it is true that in her beauty there was a sort of maturity and spirit. So that meant that she often ended up playing educated women, and playing them well, despite the fact that she wasn’t all that educated herself. She really had lashings of charm and received a lot of offers from foreign studios. One that she turned down, which she regretted for the rest of her life, was from MGM. She always said afterwards that if she had taken it, she would have got out of Central Europe before WWII began, and would have got out of the Czech-German surroundings that caused her so much misfortune and unhappiness.”

Baarová turned down MGM, but accepted an offer from Germany’s UFA in 1935. According to her biographer, Stanislav Motl, making it in Germany had long been the dream of most of the Czech acting world. But, as Eva Urbanová says, there were clouds gathering over Europe at the time she chose to go:

“She got an offer to go to Germany. This was before the Second World War, but after the Nazis had come to power. She wasn’t starring in any political films though - she continued to play beautiful young women in what were the blockbuster movies of the time. One of the most famous of her films from the period was ‘Barcarole’, which Germans still watch today. And it was here that she had her first fateful encounter, which was with the actor Gustav Frohlich. He was a massive star in German film at the time and she became his lover.”

Baarová’s beauty attracted the attention of some people in very high places:

Lída Baarová with Joseph Goebbels  (right)
“Hitler became infatuated with her, it is said. But this only lasted for a short while, and their relationship remained platonic. But it was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s second in command, who fell head over heels in love with her and became her lover. He was completely obsessed with her and willing to leave his wife, his family, for her. And as she herself admitted in her memoirs, before she got spooked and started revising them, she herself said that she was enchanted by him. He may have been a bad person, but as a young girl she saw him as a powerful minister in a foreign government, and a charming man.”

Legend surrounds Lída Baarová - perhaps not helped by the fact that she published two contradictory sets of memoirs during her life. She told one biographer that Frolich slapped Goebbels in a fight over her, she told another that Frolich slapped her when he found out about Goebbels. In recent years, a third biography has come out. It was written by her friend Stanislav Motl:

“Until the end of her life - this was her biggest trauma - until the end of her life she was completely unable to say in public how it actually was with Goebbels. She battled with it within herself. She was never able to say that she had loved him in some way or another. And so she had excuses. She said that she was scared of Goebbels, then another time she said that she had been naïve, and then the third thing she said, in one of her memoirs, was that she loved his love for her.”

Someone who didn’t love Goebbels’ love for Baarová was the Nazi commander’s wife. Here is Eva Urbanová:

“Their relationship caused such a scandal that she was banned from starring in any more German films. Her career there was over. She was banned from appearing at the request of Goebbels’ wife, who was a good friend of Hitler. She went to Hitler and told him that her husband had gone half crazy over some Czech actress, and Hitler put a very quick stop to it. Lída Baarová came back to Prague.”

Lída Baarová in 1994  (Foto: ČTK)
Baarova was jailed for a year and a half after the war for having collaborated with the Nazis. Her sister, who was also an actress, was blacklisted because of Lída and subsequently committed suicide. The girls’ mother was also taken in for interrogation, where she suffered a heart attack and died. Upon release from prison, with very few remaining relatives in what was then Czechoslovakia, Baarová emigrated to Austria, where she remained for the rest of her life. She returned to the Czech Republic on several occasions after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and those who met her often talked of her as a chain-smoking, rather sad, very pretty old woman. Stanislav Motl was one of the people she visited:

“There are still a lot of myths about Lída Baarová doing the rounds. When she died in 2000, the Czech Culture Ministry refused to put any flowers on her grave, and I asked why, and one high-ranking official from the ministry said ‘well, she was a collaborator’. And so of course I asked, ‘do you have any proof of this?’, to which he said ‘well that’s what people say’. She will never be as popular as actresses like Adina Mandlová or Nataša Gollová, because she will always have a stain upon her name. But on the other hand, I do a lot of lectures about her, and show a lot of her films to students – and these young people, of about 20, 30 years of age – they are more sympathetic, they understand.”