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Nazi-era film diva dies at 90

17 May 2004

HAMBURG – Marika Roekk, a fiery Hungarian-born dancer-singer who hoofed her way through Nazi-era film musical extravaganzas, died of heart failure Sunday at her home outside Vienna. She was 90.

In the dark 1930s when Jewish film producers and stars were fleeing Germany, Roekk literally bounded to stardom with her acrobatic-expressionist style of dancing.

German filmgoers had seen nothing like Roekk, whose strawberry blonde locks, flashing green eyes and infectious smile along with her sultry Hungarian accent made her an instant hit in romantic musical comedies which the Nazi propaganda machine churned out for the masses.

As Allied bombs rained down on German cities, Roekk sang and danced her way through movie after movie, her last being a splashy colour comedy romance entitled “Die Frau Meiner Traeume” (Woman Of My Dreams) released in November 1944.

She was so beloved with German audiences that, unlike other Nazi-era celebrities, she was able to re-launch her career after the war in stage revues and later in a series of screen musical comedies in the 1950s.

She easily made the transition to television, appearing regularly in Saturday evening musical variety spectaculars, tap-dancing down spiral staircases when she was well into her fifties.

On stage, she was a natural for German-language productions of “Hello Dolly” and other musicals, drawing huge audiences.

Seemingly ageless, she had a lucrative sideline in commercials for an array of facial cosmetics and skin lotions.

A popular talk-show guest who regaled audiences with her often ribald tales of showbiz insiders, she became popular with a whole new generation of Germans who had not been born when she was a top Nazi-era celebrity.

After the fall of Communism, she made a triumphal return to Budapest, starring in a light operetta in which she did her trademark cartwheels and high kicks – at age 80.

Her last appearance was at age 85 on a German musical variety show in 1998 during which she danced and also sang.

Amazingly, considering she was a major star whose hand Adolf Hitler once kissed, she was never tainted by her proximity to the Nazi leadership.

“I just had these two legs that insisted on dancing,” she once told an interviewer. “I was intent on dancing and being the best dancer I could and having my name up in lights. I would have done that in China or in America or anywhere else, if I’d been born in those places. I happened to have been born over here.”

In fact, she was born in Cairo on 3 November 1913, the daughter of a Hungarian diplomat. Growing up in privileged circumstances in Budapest, she early on showed a talent for dancing. At age 10, she was featured on stage.

When her father was posted to Paris, 14-year-old Marika auditioned at the Moulin Rouge.

“I came out and did a sequence of fast turns and pirouettes and wild jumps and more pirouettes and basically looked like a Dervish,” she recalled years later. “And when I stopped I thought to myself, well, they either loved it or hated it. But one thing’s for sure, they’ve never seen an audition like that.”

She was hired as a featured dancer and, during a Moulin Rouge trip to New York; she was hailed in the American press as the “Little Queen of Pirouettes”.

“In New York I realised for the first time how much hard work and skill and luck it takes to make the big time,” she said years later. “And I decided I wanted to make it.”

Back in Europe, she got solo dance billings at music halls in Budapest, Vienna and finally in Berlin, making a name for herself with her robustly acrobatic style of dancing which incongruously incorporated cartwheels and somersaults into ballroom dance sequences – all done in high-heels.

She had appeared in a couple of only modestly successful films in her native Hungary when, in 1935, she landed a contract with the legendary UFA Babelsberg film studios.

Under the tutelage of director Georg Jacoby, 30 years her senior and whom she later married, Roekk was an immediate hit with German audiences.

Encouraged by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to outdo Hollywood musicals, the studio featured Roekk in musical spectaculars which featured her tap-dancing and doing cartwheels upstairs and down through elaborate sets with hundreds of backup dancers and singers.

Soon one of the biggest and highest-paid stars in Nazi Germany, she later claimed she always considered herself an outsider due to Nazi disdain for “untermensch” races – which included Hungarians.

Encountering Hitler at a reception, she said she did not know how to address him. “Me being practically an untermensch, I couldn’t really raise a stiff right arm and besides he wasn’t MY fuehrer.”

So she curtsied.

“I did a fancy old-fashioned sort of Hungarian imperial court curtsey with a flourish of the arms and all,” she said. “And then Hitler caught on and got into the act and kissed my hand and said, ‘So, you’re the saucy Hungarian girl who everyone says can dance and sing and make people laugh or cry. Is there anything you can’t do?’

“Well, I thought for a second then put on my thickest Hungarian accent and slowly said, “I can’t, er, speak so good the German … HERR Hitler. As if I didn’t know you were supposed to say ‘mein fuehrer’,” she remembered.

“There was a silence for a second,” Roekk said, “and then Hitler laughed. And that was the cue for everyone else to laugh. And then he said, ‘My dear, if only you knew how many Germans can’t speak so good the German either’.”


Subject: German news