Oscar Actors: Jannings, Emil–First (German) Winner for Two Roles

The first Best Actor winner, in 1929, was German thespian Emil Jannings, for two screen roles: The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh.

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Although the first sentence of his 1928 autobiography read “I was born in Brooklyn, America,” Jannings was born Theodor Friedrich Emil Jannenz in Rorschach, Switzerland on July 23, 1884.

Raised in a middle class family in Germany by an American-born father and German-born mother, Jannings ran away from home when he was 16 to become a sailor but settled on acting after he returned home.

By the age of 18, he was a professional actor and was invited to join Max Reinhardt’s theater in Berlin in 1906. He was already an important stage actor when he made his debut in front of the cameras in 1914.

It was not until five years later that Jannings established an international reputation as a leading screen actor with such historical roles as Louis XV, Henry VIII, Danton, and Peter the Great. Ernst Lubitsch, a friend of Jannings from his early days on the stage, directed a few of these productions. After historical adaptations came literary adaptations such as Othello (1922), Quo Vadis (1924), Tartuffe and Faust (both 1926), which solidified his reputation as the most distinguished performer of the German screen.


A powerfully built man with a giant screen presence, Jannings was the ideal tragic figure. After his performances in Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Dupont’s Variety (1925), he was considered as the world’s greatest film actor. This international fame led to a Paramount contract in 1927. In the first ever Academy Awards, he won an Oscar for his performances in the first two of his American films, The Way of All Flesh (1927) and The Last Command (1928) which was directed by von Sternberg.


But when the first talkies began to appear, his thick German accent cut his American career short. He returned to Germany in 1929 and was directed by von Sternberg in Germany’s first sound film, The Blue Angel.


When Hitler and the Nazi party came to power in 1933, Jannings was recruited by Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels for Nazi propaganda films. Although not part of the proper National Socialist party, he was a supporter of Third Reich and acted in many anti-Btitish propaganda roles—the opposite of his Blue Angel co-star Marlene Dietrich, who refused to have anything to do with the Nazis. In 1938, Goebbels awarded him a medal and appointed him the head of Tobis, a large German production company and in 1941 he was named “Artist of the State.”


Jannings last film, Wo ist Herr Belling, was never completed as production was stopped in January 1945 when illness and anguish over the Nazi defeat drove him into retirement.


Blacklisted by the Allies, Jannings was never allowed to make another film.  He died of cancer on January 3, 1950, at the age of 66.

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Arme Eva (1914)

Passionels Tagebuch (1914)

Nacht des Grauens (1916)

Lulu (1917)

Fuhrmann Henschel (1918)

Die Augen der Mumie Ma (1918)

Madame Dubarry (1919)

Kolhiesels Tochter (1920)

Anna Boleyn (Deception) (1920)

Die Bruder Karamasoff (1920)

Danton (1921)

Das Weib des Pharao (1921)

Vendetta (1921)

Die Grafin von Paris (1922)

Othello (1922)

Peter der Grosse (1922)

Tragödie der Liebe (1922)

Alles fur Geld (Fortune’s Fool) (1923)

Quo Vadis (1924)

Nju (1924)

Das Waschsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks)


Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) (1924)

Variété (1925)

Tartüff (1926)

Faust (1926)

The Way of All Flesh (1927)

The Last Command (1928)

The Street of Sin (1928)

The Patriot (1928)

Sins of the Fathers (1928)

Betrayal (1929)

Fighting the White Slave Traffic (1929)

Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) (1930)

Liebling der Gotter

(Darling of the Gods) (1930)

Sturme der Leidenschaft

(Storms of Passion) (1931)

Der alte und der junge Konig (1935)

Traumulus (1936)

Der zerbrochene Krug (1937)

Robert Koch (1939)

Ohm Kruger (1941)

Die Entlassung (1942)

Altes Herz wird wieder jung (1943)

Woist Herr Belling (1945) (unfinished)