In Nazi Germany, Drag Queens Loved Actress Zarah Leander

In Nazi Germany, Drag Queens Loved Actress Zarah Leander

Shannon Quinn - June 21, 2018

Not many people realize that Adolf Hitler was a painter, and he loved to watch Hollywood musicals, too. He wanted his own version of Hollywood so badly, he appointed Joseph Goebbels as the Minister of Propaganda, and it was up to him to find up-and-coming stars to be in Nazi films. The Nazi government took over one of the only movie studios in Berlin, The Universum Film-Aktiengesellschaft, better known as the “UFA”

In Nazi Germany, Drag Queens Loved Actress Zarah Leander
Zarah Leander was a true beauty. Credit: Pinterest

During World War II, all foreign movies were banned from entering the Third Reich. They produced a series of propaganda films that were all geared towards making people hate Jews, love the Nazi party, and reject the ideas of Communism that had once existed in the country following World War I. Musicals were far less political, but they still always portrayed women and dutiful mothers and wives. So, while Hitler got to enjoy watching The Wizard of Oz and Shall We Dance from the comfort of his home, the rest of Germany was forced to watch whatever productions the UFA happened to come up with. In the United States, actresses Judy Garland and Bette Davis starred in Hollywood films and became icons for the gay community. In Nazi Germany, there was Zarah Leander.

In Nazi Germany, Drag Queens Loved Actress Zarah Leander
A portrait of Zarah Leander that was used on one of her album covers. Credit: UFA_Diva on Twitter

A Nazi Star is Born

A young girl named Sara Stina Hedberg grew up in Sweden taking dance classes, singing, and piano lessons. While she may have performed in Stockholm’s cabarets, plays, and operas, she yearned to have her name in lights around the world. She married a man named Nils Leander, and they had two children together. When she started to take her dreams of movie stardom more seriously, she gave herself the stage name “Zarah” Leander. She eventually decided to send out head shots and a resume to various film companies around Europe and the United States so she could to audition to be in musicals.

At first, Joseph Goebbels did not want to hire Zarah Leander to work at the UFA. He had a tendency to hire women who were his “type”, and Zarah Leander was too tall and broad-shouldered for his liking. Her hair and eyes were also too dark for the Aryan ideal. He did not want to give her the time of day…That is, until word got back to him that she had flown to Hollywood to do a screen test in English. Once they heard this news, Goebbels sent Leander an offer for a contract to work with the UFA, because Hitler was eager to snatch up an up-and-coming star from under Hollywood’s nose. One of Goebbels’ strategies was to always offer starlets a huge amount of money, houses, cars, and everything they could possibly want above and beyond whatever the competition was offering.

In Nazi Germany, Drag Queens Loved Actress Zarah Leander
Joseph Goebbels (left) recruited movie stars for the Third Reich. Credit:

In the early 1930’s, Zarah Leander had actually performed songs that were condemning the Nazi party for their treatment of the Jews. It is possible that she had no idea that the government had taken over the UFA studio, since they were producing world-famous silent films like Metropolis decades before the Nazis came into power.

In examining her English screen tests that have been posted to YouTube, it is questionable whether Zarah Leander could have really captured the hearts of American audiences, anyway. She sang with an accent that sounded suspiciously German to the untrained ear. Since Germany was their enemy at that time, this may have limited the roles she was given in American movies.

In interviews after the war, when she was asked why she chose to move to Berlin over Hollywood, she claimed that she made the decision for her kids. She felt that Hollywood was simply too far away from her family in Sweden, and she was afraid that her children would grow up to find it difficult to go to school and get a job, since they could not speak English. Her entire family was also fluent in German, which made it a much easier transition for them.

It turns out that Zarah Leander was a perfect fit for German audiences, and her talent was a welcome change from all of the doll-faced blondes that the UFA was casting. She was usually cast in historic dramas, or played moody divas or seductresses. The public absolutely adored her. As a non-Aryan-looking “outcast”, the gay community began to identify with her, as well, and she became a go-to actress to impersonate at underground drag shows.

In Nazi Germany, Drag Queens Loved Actress Zarah Leander
It’s easy to see just how tall Zarah Leander was in photos like these, standing next to one of her directors. Credit: Getty Images

Transgender Speculation

Zarah Leander was very beautiful and feminine, but she was also very tall, and she had broad shoulders and a deep voice. This made some people speculate whether she truly was born a female, or if she had a sex change before becoming a film star. While this may seem like it would have been years before this was possible, the first attempt at performing a sexual reassignment surgery took place in Germany in 1930 with the Danish painter Lili Elbe. While the Nazi party looked down on homosexuality, they were also extremely interested in conducting experiments on the human body. So it is not totally out of the realm of possibility.

However, this rumor is just that- a rumor. While she may not have been born with gender-normative traits, Zarah Leander is an example that masculine traits in a woman can still be beautiful, and this was all the more reason for homosexual men to identify with her. One prevalent theory is that with her deep voice, it was easier for gay men to imagine that there were two men singing a love song to one another, and that helped them to identify with her so strongly.

One of the best examples of her voice is with songs like “Ave Maria”, which is a song that typically has so many high notes, it’s normally sung by a soprano. Zarah Leander always sang between baritone and bass, which is so deep, it is normally not possible for female vocal cords to sing that low. Because of his, Leander’s arrangement of “Ave Maria” is a go-to song for men to sing at drag shows.

In Nazi Germany, Drag Queens Loved Actress Zarah Leander
Drag star Carl Ewerth has a video on YouTube performing Zarah Leander’s version of “Ave Maria”. Credit: YouTube

Even though Zarah Leander was not actually transgender, she surrounded herself with the LGBTQ community, even in the midst of Nazi Germany. Homosexuality was forbidden, but there was an underground group of gay men that were still able to pass as straight, and she welcomed them into her inner circle with open arms. After growing up in the theater community in Sweden, the community was a comfortable space for her in an unfamiliar country. After the war was over, and she escaped the Nazis, she was far more outspoken with her gay rights activism. Even to this day, German drag performers still dress like her and sing her songs on stage.

In Nazi Germany, Drag Queens Loved Actress Zarah Leander
Even as she grew older, Zarah Leander continued to sing for her fans in Germany and Sweden. Credit:

The Escape, and Her Legacy

Goebbels had been attempting to trap Zarah Leander in Germany. The UFA knew that she was not a Nazi supporter, and they were afraid she would eventually try to escape when things got bad during the war. The UFA could not afford to lose one of their biggest stars, so they tried to woo her with money and free stuff. At one point, Goebbels even offered to buy her a huge mansion in Berlin in exchange for giving up her Swedish passport and becoming a full-fledged German citizen. She refused, saying that she would never reject her roots.

They tried to prevent her from leaving by only paying her in German Reichsmarks, even though she specifically asked to be paid in Swedish Krona. She still managed to exchange the currency, and secretly sent her money over to Sweden, where she was able to purchase a house for her family. Most of the UFA stars were followed by the secret police, which made it impossible for her to escape unnoticed.

In 1943, there was an air raid in Berlin, and her German home was blown up. She used that as an opportunity to escape from Germany, and went to Sweden. Once she was safely back in her home country with her family, she never went back…at least, not until the war was over.

One of the last movies she starred in for the UFA was called Die Grosse Liebe, or “The Great Love”. It is considered to be one of her greatest performances. The story is about a famous singer who falls in love with a German soldier, but he has to leave her to go off to war. This paralleled what nearly every German woman was experiencing at that time, and it struck a chord in the hearts of people everywhere. It is so good, in fact, that it is still replayed on TV in Germany every year.

In Nazi Germany, Drag Queens Loved Actress Zarah Leander
Zarah Leander gave one of her best performances singing “Ich weiss es wird einmal ein wunder geschehn” in the movie Die Grosse Liebe. Credit: YouTube.

While most other movies made by the Nazi-occupied UFA have been banned from ever being shown on TV or in public theaters again, they make an exception for Die Grosse Liebe. There was only one scene showing Swastikas that had to be removed, and the rest of the movie was perfectly fine on its own, because it was a love story that just so happened to take place during World War II.

After she was a free woman, she continued to sing and perform in front of live audiences, even into her old age. She was thrilled by the fact that drag queens dressed like she did in her prime. Even now, years after her death, her memory lives on in the gay community in Germany, as they sing in baritone voices about love and war.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

FILM: ‘MY LIFE,’ TRIBUTE TO ZARAH LEANDER. By Janet Maslin. New York Times. 1987

The Ufa Story: A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945. Klaus Kreimeier. University of California Press. 1999.

Zarah Leander The Diva of the Third Reich. Brittney Smith. UC Santa Barbara. 2003.

A Magnificent Distraction? The Drag Cult for Nazi-Era Film Diva Zarah Leander. Andres Mario Zervigon. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art. 2015.

Zarah Leander and Transgender Specularity. Alice Kuzniar. Film Criticism. 1999.

How the S.S. Joined The Chorus Line. John Hooper. The Guardian. 2001.

Hitler’s Heroines: Stardom & Womanhood In Nazi Cinema. Antje Ascheid. Temple University Press. 2010.