World's First Television Star: Ilse Werner
So, who's the most famous whistler in music history? How about the first television star? I bet your answer isn't someone named Ilse Werner, who you likely have never heard of. However, there is a good possibility that you, sitting there reading this, have heard and enjoyed Ilse's whistling - and never knew it. And, when you did, you unknowingly showed your appreciation for the talents of one of the Third Reich's top stars.
If you haven't heard of Ilse Werner, that's perfectly normal: unless you're German or a big fan of German pop culture, there's no reason that you should. Werner is virtually unknown outside Germany. In brief, Ilse Werner was a stunning multi-talented entertainment star who excelled at just about everything that she tried. She reached her peak during the Nazi years. To fully understand the reality of Germany during the war and after, Ilse Werner and her career are worth knowing about.
But, first things first: let's find out who Ilse Werner was; we'll get to your possible connection to her toward the end.
Ilse Werner was born Ilse Charlotte Still to O.E.G. Still, a Dutch trader/plantation owner, and German mother Lilly Werner on 11 July 1921, in Batavia, Dutch East Indies. She lived there until 1931, when her family moved to Germany. Ilse attended school in Frankfurt, then a few years later moved again to Vienna. She evidently had developed an interest in acting by this time, for instead of enrolling again in an ordinary curriculum she joined the Max Reinhardt Seminar (which still operates, incidentally). Reinhardt at this time was one of the world's most prominent directors (his 1935 "A Midsummer Night's Dream" starred James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland). The school itself held classes at the Schönbrunner Schlosstheater, the imperial theatre in the Schönbrunn Palace. Obviously, it was a high honor for Ilse just to gain admittance.
|German postcard by Ross, 1941-1944. Photo: Ufa / Baumann.|
Ilse did well at the school, and in 1937 she appeared in her first public role at the Theater in der Josefstadt in the play "Glück" (Happiness). The following year Hitler invaded Austria, and Reinhardt fled overseas (he was Jewish). Ilse, however, persevered: around this time she simply changed her surname to her mother's maiden name, the very Germanic "Werner," and kept on working. Hungarian director Géza von Bolváry spotted her onstage and gave her a supporting role in his Austrian film "Finale/The Restless Girls" (1938). Somebody at powerhouse filmmaker Universal-Films AG (Ufa) saw Ilse's performance and decided to sign the perky ingenue.
Just to be clear, Ilse was not a Nazi herself, just a performer in the Nazi state. There was a problem with her working in Germany: Ilse was Dutch due to her father's nationality (she did not become German until 1955). To be gainfully employed in the Reich, you needed to be German. However, Ilse projected the right image (a cheerful woman who can overcome anything), so the Nazis granted Ilse a special work permit (they could be very lenient toward actors for some reason). Ilse made a smooth transition to the German film industry, signing with Universal-Films AG (Ufa) and moving to Berlin, where Ufa had its studio.
Ufa knew a star when they found one, and they had a star in Ilse Werner. In her first few films she played a supporting role, but by 1939 she was the headliner. Her breakthrough came the following year, she starred in "Wunschkonzert," a tale surrounding a real German radio show in which Wehrmacht soldiers made song requests. Ilse played the center of a love triangle between two Luftwaffe flyers (naturally flying together in the same bomber) vying for her affections, with everybody putting duty above love and cheering the "beautiful future" in a very disciplined Germanic fashion. Modern viewers may view the film as turgid swill drained from the bottom of the Ministry of Propaganda, but contemporary German audiences loved it: the film became Ufa's highest-grossing film. The film also propelled the radio program to the top of the ratings in an early example of entertainment synergy.
|Ilse Werner whistling in "We Make Music" (1942).|
After that, Ilse was set: in her next role she gave a bravura performance as Swedish actress Jenny Lind (beau of Hans Christian Anderson) in "The Swedish Nightingale." It was another huge success. The fact that she had a slight foreign edge herself hidden behind her German name helped Ilse sell the role. Ilse also appeared regularly on radio, singing songs that included her specialty: whistling. While whistling is kind of an acquired taste, Ilse displayed a real flair for it, and worked her whistling into her songs in such a way that it appeared perfectly natural. Ilse acquired the nickname "Ein Frau mit Pfiff," which roughly translates as "Stylish Woman" but also has a secondary "punny" meaning of "Whistling Woman."
Ufa remained independent under the Nazis, but the war was the dominant topic of the day. Many (but not all) of its films unavoidably had wartime settings. One of Ilse's next films was obvious propaganda bait, "U-boat Westward!"; it actually has some merit as a drama, but there is no escaping that title. Ilse kept moving forward: she followed with another big success, "Wir machen Musik" (We Make Music) (1942), a musical which was good enough to get a US release a decade later.
|French postcard by EPC, no. 190. Photo: ACE / Ufa.|
Ilse had become one of Germany's top film stars - in fact, an international star - and was in demand. She skillfully split her time between radio, films and the stage, but she had talent to spare. In 1941, another venue came along that was perfect for her: television. While in its infancy, German wartime television (Fernsehsender "Paul Nipkow") was quite advanced for its time. There were very few viewing sets in Germany, only about 50, but virtually all were in war hospitals or government buildings with crowds of watchers. At times, the Germans also set up theater-sized viewing parlors and displayed television over cable. Ilse hosted one of the first variety shows, "Wir senden Frohsinn - Wir spenden Freude" (this one is tough, but a very rough translation: We Spread Happiness and Joy). Ilse Werner - not Ed Sullivan, not Jackie Gleason, not Steve Allen - was the world's first television headliner and first true television star.
|German postcard of Ilse Werner by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3732/2, 1941-1944. Photo: Quick / Ufa.|
Her fame soaring, Ilse published an autobiography, "Ich über mich" (Me About Me) in 1941 - when still just a few years out of school. While at first her early roles were perky love interests, as the war ground along Ilse began taking on serious dramatic roles. There was no hiding the grim fact that the war wasn't going well, so heroic tales of U-boats turned into films like "Große Freiheit Nr. 7" (English title "Port of Freedom"), another love-triangle film. This one, however, didn't have brave Luftwaffe pilots sacrificing all for the state, but rather simple people going through serious emotions. Shot in new Agfacolor and containing beautiful songs, and with no references to politics at all, it was a stunning film. Helmut Käutner, Ilse and Hans Albers turned out one of the best films of the era under trying conditions. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, however, wasn't looking for a serious tale about love and loss, but instead for historical tales about defending cities from foreign invaders (such as "Kolberg" (1945)). The Nazis banned Ilse's film within Germany, but allowed it to appear in foreign markets (of which few remained for the Nazis). Ilse's final film released before the war ended in May 1945 was "Das seltsame Fräulein Sylvia" (The Odd Miss Sylvia), while "Sag' die Wahrheit" (Tell the Truth), in which Ilse just sings a song, was still filming as the Soviet tanks ground past the Ufa studios.
Having contrived by hook or by crook to be captured by the Americans (which must have taken some effort) and not the dreaded Soviets, Ilse hooked up with American journalist John de Forest - in that chaotic time, virtually any American was a catch for a refugee German girl - and eventually married him in 1948. They moved to Los Angeles, California, where Reinhardt also had fled, but he had passed away during the war. Temporarily banned from German films due to her films about U-boats and such (though she was never a Nazi per se), and unknown in the US market, Ilse was at loose ends. She turned to dubbing American films for the foreign market. Ilse became the German "voice" for Maureen O'Hara, for instance. Germans, of course, knew who was actually speaking, but to most Americans she was just another émigré voice actress. During this time, Ilse's singing - and whistling - became a major outlet.
After divorcing de Forest in 1953, Ilse released a string of moderately successful albums. She also did some successful stage work, but her films in West Germany were forgettable and could not compete with polished productions from Hollywood. By the mid-fifties, Ilse was appearing on television - again - as her film career dwindled, and during that era television was seen as the graveyard for actresses. Ilse's declining film career probably had mostly to do with her advancing years and her passing from ingenue roles to more mature parts, with which she fewer credentials and perhaps fewer skills. However, her celebrity during the Nazi years probably didn't help. Ilse's biggest post-war hit wasn't a film, but rather the single "Baciare" (Kiss, in Italian), which sold well in Europe during 1960.
|Ilse Werner - Funk und Film Magazine Cover [West Germany] (5 October 1951).|
After that, Ilse became a Grande Dame of German television, taking on character parts here and there while mostly singing as herself. She married a German, Josef Niessen, but that didn't last either. By the mid-60s, Ilse was divorced again and got her own show on German television, titled "Die Bräute meiner Söhne" (The Brides of My Sons). However, it only lasted the minimum 13 episodes. Ilse kept busy, though, because she could charm an audience like nobody else in Germany. She continued appearing as herself in television series, sometimes as a regular, but mostly in one-offs.
|"Wir machen Musik" (1942) (photo: kpa).|
Basically, from 1965 onwards, Ilse was a recurring presence on German television and the stage, with her starring roles mostly concentrated in the latter. Highlights included her lead stage roles in German productions of "The King and I" and Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." She received a special lifetime award from the German Film Festival, the "Filmband in Gold" (Golden Film Reel) in 1986, and an acting award from them in 1991 for her performance in "Die Hallo-Sisters" (The Hello Sisters). It's rare that an artist wins a competitive award after a lifetime achievement one, but Ilse pulled it off. Probably her most poignant lead role after that was in a television film based on herself "Eine Frau mit Pfiff" (1998), in which Ilse amply displayed her whistling talents once again.
Wind of Change
Ilse continued performing, mainly in musical performances as herself, right up until her death from pneumonia at a Lübeck retirement home on 8 August 2005. Along the way, though, there was one curious incident which has passed into legend. A West German rock group, Scorpions, had composed a song which began and ended with whistling segments. Lead singer and composer Klaus Meine was a brilliant rock musician - but whistling was not his thing. As legend has it, the Dutch Wisseloord Studios where they recorded tried everything to find a replacement for the whistling parts - but piano, guitar and many other instruments simply didn't match the whistling vibe. The band itself and everybody associated with it roundly denies it (they claim that the producers assembled the whistling parts from bits and pieces of Meine's numerous awkward attempts, which sounds quite difficult), but the persistent rumor is that the studio secretly got Ilse Werner herself to record the critical whistling segments. Who better?
Even if she didn't actually do the whistling (wait, let me say it for you cynics: "total myth"), whoever did the deed followed in the best traditions of German music - as established by the whistling Fräulein herself, Ilse Werner. Anyone in Germany with ears and a sense of history would recognize the covert allusion to World War II and Ilse's whistling, which also would soar over the head of outsiders. This, whether intentional or not, fit perfectly with the song's underlying theme of moving on from the past. With the whistling parts covered competently one way or another, Scorpions' 1990 "Wind of Change" became the most successful single by a German artist - in history.
Articles like this one about Ilse Werner don't involve great battles and bombing, so if that is how you think about war, apologies for not giving you what you sought. However, individual stories bring a sense of what was going on behind the lines, whether in Germany or elsewhere. They show how the war affected people both during it and long after. While many Americans may never have heard about Ilse Werner, it is a safe bet that most Germans would recognize the name instantly. Put simply, Ilse Werner was a talented performer whose work still enchants regardless of the politics surrounding her. Werner's is a tale that weaves together many unique strands behind the German war effort and shows how talent endures no matter its origination.
Below, Ilse at her adorable best.
Below is a video of Ilse during her Los Angeles period.
Below (in my opinion) is one of Ilse's best performances, contained in a surviving reel from German wartime television. She demonstrates her whistling to perfection. Ilse appears beginning at 2:48. Amazing sound for a tv recording from circa 1943.
Ilse's big 1960 hit, Baciare (Kiss).