First Czech actress to conquer Europe born 120 years ago

Anny Ondra

Anny Ondra, the lively blonde with the big eyes, was loved by audiences all over Europe. She also charmed German boxer Max Schmeling, whom she later married.

Anna Ondráková, later known as Anny Ondra, was born on 15th May 1902 into the family of an Austro-Hungarian army officer. The family travelled a lot, thanks to which Anna learnt several languages – as well as Czech, she spoke German, French, and English.

Anny Ondra | Photo: StudioIntran

She first appeared on stage at the age of 15, and an invitation to appear in film followed soon after. The smiling blonde charmed audiences, not only because of her expressive eyes, but above all thanks to her comedic and physical acting talent. The gifted actress made over 90 films, both silent and sound, two-thirds of which were made in Czechoslovakia and one-third abroad.

Her international career began with the film White Paradise in 1924, by which time she was already performing under the abbreviated name of Anny Ondra. She even appeared in two Hitchcock films. Her last performance was in 1951 in the German film Schön muss man sein (You Have to Be Beautiful), but she also appeared briefly in the 1957 film The Zürich Engagement together with her husband, Max Schmeling, where they played themselves.

Beauty and the Boxer

Wedding of Anny Ondra and Max Schmeling in 1933 | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 102-14813/Wikimedia Commons,  CC-BY-SA 3.0

The famous and successful German boxer Max Schmeling fell in love with Anny Ondra at first sight. After some initial hesitation, she also succumbed to his charms and they married in 1933. They soon became possibly the most popular and famous couple in Germany. They were said to have been the ideal combination of strength and charm.

However, this all took place against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism. The Nazis wanted to make Schmeling the icon of a German superman (from 1930 to 1932 he was the world heavyweight champion), but Schmeling never collaborated, refusing to accept honours and awards and even secretly helping to hide two Jewish children, saving their lives.

Despite this, the couple were investigated for collaboration after the war, and an arrest warrant was issued for them in Czechoslovakia. They denied the accusations, but even so they ended up without any money and had to start over from scratch. They moved to the countryside in Hollenstedt near Hamburg and began a successful business career together. Anny realised that her film career was behind her, and so she devoted herself to caring for her husband and their mink farm. Max Schmeling became a successful manager at the German branch of The Coca-Cola Company.

Anny Ondra never returned to Czechoslovakia. She died in Germany in 1987 at the age of 83. Max Schmeling survived her by 18 long years. He died in 2005 at the age of 99. The final wish of the childless couple was to leave their estate after they died to the Austrian NGO SOS Children's Villages.