Leontine Sagan: From Budapest to Pretoria


Bernard Sachs

I once told Leontine that she looked like Rosa Luxembourg, the leader of the German Communist Party in 1918, and one of the most brilliant women of all time. “But Rosa was so ugly,” Leontine protested. As I know Luxembourg only from photographs, and Leontine had seen her in person, I could not very well argue. But I am convinced that the Hebraic nose, common to both, and similar bone structure, bespeak a certain nobility and high intelligence. Leontine has shown her mental qualities through her accomplishments on the stage, both as an actor and a producer. You had to be good in the European theatre of thirty to forty years ago to emerge from anonymity, for the competition was keen, and the people who entered the race were of substance. Her film Madchen in Uniform, the highlight of her career, gained her a world reputation.

She passed through Berlin at a time when the great producer Reinhardt was coming to the fore, and it proved a turning point in her life. She saw his production of Gorky’s Lower Depths, and it made such an impression on her that, as she put it, “the cell of acting was born in me.” From that moment she felt that the stage was her destiny, and she took all the necessary steps to fulfill herself. Her own ambitions were fanned by her mother’s drive. She studied the art of acting in Johannesburg, and then went to Germany, enrolled in Reinhardt’s studio, and was soon launched on a notable stage career. She did not look back.

“That man was a giant---a god,” she says of Reinhardt, and her face is transformed by the mere recollection of this great artist who brought new conceptions to the stage, and was, more than any other man, responsible for rescuing it from the doldrums into which it had sunk at the turn of the century. She spoke at great length on Reinhardt. He was a man of broad culture, great intellect and a highly talented musician. I was particularly struck by what she said of his attitude to the Jewish actor. According to Leontine, he regarded their main strength their intellect, analytical capacity, and a power to probe a problem through this intellectual force that they possessed. But they lacked that ingenuousness, naivete, which can come only to those who are in complete communion with nature and their surroundings. The rootlessness of the Jew, even where they believed they were rooted, militated against the capture of that spontaneity which is the first essential of the great actor. The greatest of the Jewish actors had everything, but lacked this one quality---and it made all the difference. They were quicker on the uptake, brought more intelligence to their role, but the aura and the overtones were lacking. There were exceptions, she conceded. And what exceptions---Rachel and Bernhardt. But then there is no accounting for genius. Rachel was a waif who as a child did little acts in the streets to earn a few francs, with the gutter as her backdrop. And yet she became the leading classic actor of all time, whose interpretation of Corneille and Racine startled the whole of the literary and theatrical world of one hundred years ago.

Leontine’s first engagement on the stage was at Teiplitz, an Austrian spa. She played there for two seasons, and went on to Dresden, then to Vienna. Came the war of 1914-1918, with all its privation. She spent two of the war years in Frankfurt, and when peace was signed she remained there as a permanent performer for the nest ten years. Towards the end, she did some producing---it gave her the necessary experience to launch Madchen in Uniform, which would have earned her a fortune, but for the fact that the Nazis came into power, and diddled her out of her dues. But it mattered little to her, for it was through Madchen in Uniform that she travelled abroad, and so escaped the fate that overtook a large part of German Jewry.

Leontine is herself a near-assimilated Jewess, but has never attempted to deny her racial origins. “I’m steeped in German culture, and that is where my spiritual roots are.” She holds Jewish culture in the highest regards, and finds the Israel experiment exciting, but they are not part of her spiritual warp and woof, and it would be futile for her to dent y it. She speaks in the highest terms of the Jews of Frankfurt, a thoroughly integrated community that had lived seven hundred years in that part, and was still deeply attached to Judaism, unlike the bulk of German Jewry before Hitler. But there was nothing narrow about these Frankfurt Jews---they stood on a high cultural level all around. Medieval sculptures, paintings and fine libraries were a feature of their homes. Leontine still recalls the splendid atmosphere of these Jewish homes when she visited them on the Holy Festivals during her ten-year stay in Frankfurt.

Leontine’s family has links with South Africa from nearly one hundred years ago. Her father reached South Africa in 1867, and he moved by ox-wagon across some of the richest gold-bearing ground in the world when he headed for Pilgrim’s Rest, the Eldorado of those distant days. But there was money to be made, and when he had had enough of the primitive and the savagery of the interior of South Africa, he returned to Budapest, where Leontine was born. But the brooding African landscape was calling, and her father once again sailed for South Africa, leaving four children behind in Vienna. The Danube may have its charm, but there is also something about the muddy turbulence of the Orange and the Vaal that will not be stilled.

The family joined the father in 1899, six months before the Boer War broke out, and they settled in Klerksdorp. Leontine went to a convent for her education. Everything was primitive---the koppies with their wild growth, the ox-wagons with their with their voorlopers. But it all added up to something. It has fascinated her to this day. And she frankly admits than even when walking down Kudfürstendamm, in West Berlin, her thoughts often turn to the untamed vistas of Africa whose sweep and grandeur take hold of you and you remain captive for all time. This was not just talk. I could see it for myself when we sat and chatted in her Pretoria house, situated on the southern rise. She is living there all by herself, right up against the koppie, but she would not think of leaving it. Apart from domestic memories, there was that stretch of Africa,  before her as she gazed sentimentally out of the window---barely interrupted by Pretoria, with its Union Buildings and the civil servants moving unhurriedly about their business. Whenever Leontine has been away for a number of years from South Africa, and returns---home, as she puts it, she never fails to journey to Klerksdorp, to retrace the steps of childhood---that is, where an austere mine head-gear or a cynide dump does not get in the way. Klerksdorp! Now if it had been Potchefstroom.

Leontine is one of the Pollack clan of Johannesburg, who number among them some of the most enthusiastic patrons of the Arts. She had some of her education in Johannesburg---in the German School situated on the eminence of Hospital Hill. That is where she acquired the rudiments of German culture, which was later nourished by her lengthy stays in Vienna, where in the world famous Burg Theater she had the opportunity to see some of the best drama that was going on in Europe at the time. She immersed herself in it. And some of the finest operas was included in the menu. She married, and stayed in Berlin, where her husband, Dr. Fleischer had a publishing house. She showed me some of the volumes that had been issued by the firm---beautifully bound works of art and literature that recalled Germany’s halcyon days---that is, before Hitler and his minions set about making bonfires of these beautifully bound volumes.

Leontine saw the best that was going in the theatre in Berlin. One of the most unforgettable moments in her life was when she saw The Dybbuk performed there by the Habimah troupe, who had shifted their headquarters from Moscow to Berlin. The great Rovina was in the lead. Although it was done in Hebrew, it was difficult to get seats even when the season was extended. It was a memorable performance, and it is still regarded as one of the high watermarks of European theatre.

Her success with Madchen in Uniform opened new and important avenues for her. She worked for a time with Alexander Korda in films, and then became a producer for Ivor Novello---musical comedy is a favourite medium for Leontine. She produced a number of Novello’s musicals, and can boast of being the only woman to have produced in London’s Drury Lane. She was engaged to do work in Hollywood but, for some reason or other, she did not make a go of it over there---“I got cheques for doing nothing. I found it very boring, so I left for New York, where I put on a play which was a flop.” She went back to London, and produced an Ivor Novello musical with a cast of 250, and which cost £40,000 to mount. But South Africa was calling, and she returned here to do theatrical work. Her production of Gorky’s Lower Depths will be long remembered. And she did a lot else---mostly for the National Theatre.

I asked her about the renaissance in South African theatre in the last year. She found all the indigenous plays an important advance in theatrical development, and she spoke well of King Kong, musicals being her special field, but she was emphatic that Athol Fugard’s No-Good Friday was the most significant of all that had been attempted, and opened new prospects for South African drama, with unlimited possibilities. Of the producers here, Leon Gluckman is her first preference---“His work is good, and not showy, because he has integrity and artistic sincerity. He tries to bring out the most in the actor.” She also spoke well of Cecil Williams’ work. Johannesburg has, in her view, improved culturally and spiritually out of all consideration---but it still lacked continuity and tradition. It would come with the years, for there were many untapped spiritual reservoirs in this multiracial society, with its tensions and clashes, out of which much that is artistic would emerge.

Of the living actors, she regards John Gielgud’s Shakespeare, both as producer and actor, as inimitable. Peggy Ashcroft is her other favourite. But the greatest of all time that she had been, was without doubt the famous Italian actress Duse---Sarah Bernhardt was before her time.

At seventy---I should say---Leontine is well preserved both mentally and physically. And what a crowded life she has to ruminate over in that Pretoria house of hers. “When I think of what I have lived through and experienced, it is like a tidal wave washing over me. There has been so much.” Life is short---live it, someone once said. Leontine has fully understood its meaning.

From: Bernard Sachs, South African Personalities and Places, Kayor Publishers, Johannesburg, 1959.