Film pioneer Fern Andra

black and white portrait photograph of Fern Andra.

From tightrope to silver screen

Kerstin Herlt (DFF - Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum)

Since the earliest days of film, women have been writing, producing, and directing films. Exceptional talents such as Alice Guy-Blaché and Germaine Dulac in France, Elvira Notari in Italy, Lois Weber in the US and Esfir Shub in the USSR were pioneers in film-making.

Despite their significance during the era of silent films, their names have been inexplicably omitted from film history for decades. Thanks to the efforts of feminist film scholars and curators, these remarkable filmmakers and their works have been rediscovered.

black and white portrait photograph of Fern Andra.

Who was Fern Andra?

Fern Andra was one of these film pioneers.

Born Fern Edna Andrews or Vernal Andrews in Illinois in 1893, her career was as spectacular as her life.

At just four years old, Fern performed in a tightrope act in a vaudeville show. In 1899, she made her film debut in Uncle Tom's Cabin. She played the role of Little Eva, making her one of the first child actors in cinema.

Later, she joined the Millman sisters, a well-known group of acrobats, as a tightrope walker, and toured the US, Canada, and Europe. Bird Millman, the troupe's head, was one of the most celebrated female high-wire performers and a star of the Ziegfeld Follies at that time.

colour poster for Bird Millmann & Co, with text and illustration of a dancer atop a globe. The dancer wears a large black hat and a pink, black and white dress.

What work did Fern Andra do in Europe?

After her time with the Millmans, Fern Andra continued her career in Europe.

She produced and starred in Ragtime Revue in London before settling in Vienna. In 1913, she joined forces with Leo Gaumont, a French pioneer of the motion picture industry. She became part of the German branch of his film production company in Berlin. During this period, she also attended acting lessons at Max Reinhardt's drama school.

The beginning of World War I led to the closure of Gaumont's German branch, prompting Fern Andra to establish her own production company.

In 1915, she was credited as producer and writer for the first time for her film, Geheimnisvolle Gewalten. The same year, she directed her debut film, Eine Motte flog zum Licht.

The film was the first to be set in the circus milieu, a setting also favoured by Andra's later works. In 1916, she opened the Fern-Andra-Filmatelier (Fern Andra Film Studio) in Berlin and also owned movie theatres in Munich and Düsseldorf. Georg Bluen, a former colleague from Gaumont, became her business partner and directed some of her films.

What were Fern Andra's films?

As a producer, director, screenwriter and actress, Fern Andra made more than 40 films in Germany alone.

Her roles varied widely, portraying characters such as a millionaire's daughter, a burgher's wife, a circus performer, a ballet dancer, a florist, a snake dancer, a queen, and an enslaved person. Many of her films were set in the circus, allowing her to showcase her artistic talent in roles like trapeze artists, tightrope performers, or animal tamers.

black and white still from a film, a woman lies on a u-shaped trapeze.
black and white still from a film, a woman sits on a horse in a circus ring, a man stands nearby and the audience watches.

While some critics debate the quality of her melodramatic films, Fern Andra, like Asta Nielsen and Henny Porten, was a massive star and audience favourite in Germany during the 1910s and early 1920s.

She was a 'self-made woman' with a lifelong background in show business. Her two autobiographies recounted sensational adventures, attracting ironic comments from the contemporary press.

Fern Andra's private life was equally spectacular. As an American, she faced suspicion of espionage during World War I and was considered an 'enemy foreigner'. Her marriage to a German baron allegedly saved her from death.

In 1919, Fern Andra left her production company and began working with Robert Wiene, the director of the Weimar silent film classic Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). In Wiene's Genuine (1920), a expressionist horror film sequel to Caligari, Andra received wide recognition in the title role, with some critics hailing the collaboration as ideal.

black and white still from a film, a man lies in the lap of a woman.
black and white scene from a film, two actors stand while one lies asleep beside a skeleton with a clock for a face.

Fern Andra's later life

In 1922, the American magazine Variety declared that Fern Andra had died after a plane crash. She had, in fact, survived. However, during the early 1920s, her fame began to decline in Germany, as her movie subjects and acting style did not align with the changing landscape of modern film performance.

In 1928, she left Germany for the UK and then returned to the USA two years later, unable to recapture her earlier success.

In 1943, she played her final role in the American drama Lotus Lady. Afterwards, she pursued a career directing plays, working in radio, and serving as a manager and costume consultant in Hollywood.

Married to a US military officer, she returned to Germany in the early 1950s and appeared in the stage play Tragödie einer Diva (Tragedy of a Diva) in 1966. She lived in Wiesbaden, Germany until 1973, dedicating much of her time to tracking down her films, many of which are now considered lost. A copy of her film Um Krone und Peitsche has survived at the Netherlands EYE Film Institute, though it is no longer available due to copyright reasons.

Fern Andra passed away in 1974 in Aiken, South Carolina, leaving behind a legacy of pioneering contributions to the early film industry.