Back on the Screen Again

The Newest Star on the Vaudeville – Rosa Porten alias Dr R. Portegg

Film history occasionally mentions Rosa Porten as the elder sister of silent-movie star Henny Porten. That she also managed a varied career in the world of German silent film has, however, only recently become more known. From 1906 until the mid-1920s, she worked as an actress, screenwriter and director. Yet archive research has unearthed over forty silent movies in which she also participated – often in several functions. Thanks to Wanda’s Trick, I was able to track down the true identity of Dr R. Portegg. This eponymous Wanda is represented by Wanda Treumann with such zest and sharp wit that I became curious about who indeed the mysterious director might have been. Even the near-emancipated female narrative perspective of a simple cigarette worker was impressive in itself. The answer was found on the German Film Institute website (now f-film) where Gerlinde Waz and Gabriele Hansch have revealed »Dr R. Portegg« was a pseudonym for Rosa Porten and her husband Dr Franz Eckstein.
Only a few films in Rosa Porten’s extensive filmography have been preserved. One drama and five comedies with Wanda Treumann, Rosa Porten or the Porten sisters as leading ladies, and two sound images with the Porten siblings, which had been put together by their father, Franz Porten. After the first performances in these sound images, Rosa and Henny 1910 would be seen together on the big screen in the comedy of errors, Wem gehört das Kind? (To Whom Does the Child Belong?). In the same year, Rosa sold her script of Das Liebesglück der Blinden (The Love Bliss of the Blind). Success meant not only the establishment of Henny as a film actress but also the recognition of Rosa as one of the first professional screenwriters in Germany.
The first film directed by Dr R. Portegg – Das Geschenk der Norne (The Gift of the Norns) – came to cinemas in July 1916. The following two years were to witness, at breakneck speed,  the production of 21 more Dr R. Portegg movies, comedies and  ramas, five of them with Wanda Treumann in the lead role, all the others with Rosa Porten.
After the final production by Porten and Eckstein in 1919 – Frech gewagt ist halb gewonnen (A Bold Start Is Half the Walk Done) – the two moved to National-Film where Porten focused on screenplays, including work for Erna Morena and Asta Nielsen, while her husband directed, each credited with their own name. This is an extraordinary career in the German silent-film industry, especially for a woman.
Equally extraordinary are the films and their main characters. The female narrative perspective in Wanda’s Trick is no coincidence and The Latest Star from Vaudeville is no mere second – i.e. the stories have a female protagonist and are consistently told from their perspective  while their experiences and views propel the action forward. As for the comedies, the story gets a cheerful-rebellious or serious-comic tone, depending on whether La Porten or La Treumann took the leading actress role.
The targets of the film-maker’s clever and good-natured jokes included traditional role behaviour, class differences and old habits that are resolutely exposed or disdained by a young woman with a pragmatic sense of humour. Of course, love  lays its part, if not conventionally, on the road to sufficiency, but as a means for a young woman to go her own way and make social progress. Also reflected in the mix of themes is the historical period in which the films were made – that of the First World War which although followed by large social  uncertainties also aroused a strong desire in women for more freedom. May the facetious but not quite completely immoral boldness that speaks out from the films of Dr R. Portegg inspire audiences today as they did back then!

_Annette Förster

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