Screenwriting came third on Thea von Harbou's list of successful careers, after actress and bestselling novelist, but it is her film writing for which she is remembered. Indeed, she is one of the most renowned and one of the most reviled figures in the history of German cinema, depending upon which decade of her film career one is talking about. Von Harbou was born in 1888 in Tauperlitz, to an aristocratic family. An avid reader of classics, drama, and philosophy, she wrote and sold her first piece of short fiction before she'd reached her teens. At 13, von Harbou published a volume of deeply philosophical poems and at 18, decided to become an actress.
She made her stage debut in Dusseldorf in 1906, and later worked in Weimar and Aachen. In 1910, at age 22, while still doing theatrical work in Weimar, she published her first book, a romance novel entitled Die Nach uns Kommen, which became a bestseller. She followed this up with short works such as Die Krieg und Die Frauen, which were also successful. She continued acting and, in the early teens at Aachen, crossed paths with the actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who became her mentor and, in 1917, her first husband. She'd followed up her first book with a string of short stories that covered all genres and seemed to possess a strong philosophical bent. Following the outbreak of the First World War, she also wrote works in a strongly nationalistic vein. When producer Joe May bought the film rights to one of her books , she was hired to pen the screenplay - as well as others. She soon met filmmaker Fritz Lang, who she would later marry.
Beginning with Das Wandernde Bild in 1920 and continuing through 1933's Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, von Harbou wrote the screenplays to every one of Lang's movies. She also authored the scripts for other directors, most notably F.W. Murnau's Phantom (1922) and Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs (1924), and Carl Theodor Dreyer's Mikael (1924), but it was Lang with whom she became most closely associated, both professionally and personally. Lang's films were without peer during this period, not just in Germany but internationally, and were also among the most influential in the entire world, not only attracting and delighting audiences on four continents but serving as an inspiration for the next generation of directors.
Von Harbou as a screenwriter displayed an extraordinary talent for storytelling and an ear for compellingly realistic dialogue and finely drawn, complex character relationships. She was also a serious, deeply philosophical writer, her work encompassing conflicts that reflected larger meanings and social themes. Metropolis (1927) was von Harbou's most ambitious work, and she wrote it as both a novel and a screenplay. The novel reveals the seriousness with which von Harbou took the original tale, with all of its sociological, philosophical, and religious overtones -- elements that were recaptured in the late '90s restoration of the retrievable elements of the original film.
By the early '30s, Lang and von Harbou's marriage was in trouble, although they continued working together right up to 1932 and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. There had been personal stresses and infidelities on both sides, but the main breaking point between them was von Harbou's increasingly visible support for the soon-to-be-ascendant Nazi Party. As early as 1931, she was expressing admiration for Hitler and his intended way of reshaping Germany. And though Lang was celebrated by the party over such works as Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge, with their basis in German mythology, he had Jewish ancestry as well as friends. He and von Harbou divorced in 1933 and Lang left the country later that year.
Von Harbou was elected to lead the association of German screenwriters, lending her credibility to the Nazi regime, and she chose to move into the director's chair for two movies, Elisabeth und der Narr and Hanneles Himmelfahrt, which she also wrote. Both movies were held up from release for a time by the government censors, and marked her only efforts as a filmmaker. Over the ensuing 11 years, von Harbou rewrote some of the more ham-fisted propaganda scripts presented for filming, in addition to authoring more than a dozen screenplays for various filmmakers, most of them heavily steeped in pro-Nazi propaganda. In 1938, she also very quietly married Ayi Tendulkar, an Indian-born mathematics and engineering graduate, with whom she'd been having an affair since the early '30s. For all of von Harbou's success in collaboration with Lang, none of her Nazi-era work achieved either popularity or any significant critical acceptance, and in collaborating with Hitler's regime, she sacrificed whatever artistic and moral credibility she had acquired over the preceding 15 years.
Von Harbou's output slackened considerably after 1940 and came to a halt with the Allied victory in 1945. She and her family later claimed that her involvement with the Hitler government and support of the Nazi Party had been patriotic rather than ideological. She didn't resume screenwriting until 1950, with Es Kommt Ein Tag. Another production, Angelika, followed the next year, and she closed out her movie career in 1953 with Dein Herz Ist Meine Heimat. She also wrote a small handful of literary works following World War II, Das Dieb von Bagdad (1949) and Gartenstrasse (1952).
Von Harbou occasionally spoke in public during her final years and wrote articles about her work, but was largely eclipsed professionally, shunned by a German literary community and a reading public that despised her Nazi-era activities, and rejected by a German film industry eager to regain commercial and moral credibility after freeing itself of the Nazi taint. Lang himself denounced her sympathies and reputation in later years, though he also did a new screen adaptation of Das Indische Grabmal in 1959. Despite his dispute of von Harbou's abilities, she and Lang remain joined at the hip -- von Harbou's greatest literary visibility in the years after her death came through the reprinting of her novel Metropolis, while the restoration of various 1920s Lang films inevitably raised her profile among cineastes too young to have known her work in her own lifetime.