By Marina Brafa
Mia May’s life is a perfect example how the early cinema system worked and developed. Born Hermine Pfleger on June 2, 1886 in Vienna, Austria, she began her stage acting career at the early age of five. At the dawn of the moving images, she and her husband Julius Otto Mandl (whom she had married in 1902) made the transition from theater to film - although they did not abandon theater completely. Joe May and Mia May, as they now called themselves, worked together on many projects making their first steps into the emerging film business. Their first 27-minute long film was directed by Joe and starred Mia and was meant to be the introduction to the theater piece Rund um die Alster/Along the Alster. In 1911 the couple moved to Berlin where Joe became a director at Continental-Kunstfilm GmbH whilst Mia continued her acting career on stage. Only their second film In der Tiefe des Schachtes/In the Depths of the Pit (1912) would push them to abandon the realms of theater: the couple wrote the script for this film about a woman who commits suicide because of an unrequited love. Again, the two of them divided work with Joe as director and Mia as lead actress.
Mia kept on working as an actress both in Germany and back in Vienna, e.g. in the 1915 film Charly, der Wunderaffe/Charly, the Wondrous Ape. The same year the Mays founded a production company in Berlin called the May-Film GmbH where Mia took over the management for a time whilst still developing her acting career. She was playing along with Max Landa (The Suffragette; Flight Around the World) in the Joe-Deebs-crime films (produced by Joe May) which became widely popular in German-speaking countries. Spurred by its success, Joe decided to produce a spin-off show featuring his wife Mia. The movies had dramatic titles such as Die Sünde der Helga Arndt/The Sin of Helga Arndt (1916) and Nebel und Sonne/Mist and Sun (1916) and made Mia May famous. Along with Asta Nielsen and Henny Porten, Mia became one of the divas of Weimar cinema. She worked with important contemporary filmmakers like Fritz Lang (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler; Metropolis) who also scripted one of her most popular films Hilde Warren und der Tod/Hilde Warren and Death (1917) and was director and writer of the film Das wandernde Bild/The Wandering Image (1920) where Mia played a pregnant woman – again – struggling for love.
In those days, the celebrity couple was at its height: successful as director and actress, owning a flourishing production company, living a life between Germany and Austria and working with the most elaborate filmmakers of their times. However, this story came to an abrupt ending in 1933.
Joe May was a Jew and with the Nazis taking over power, the Mays left Germany and emigrated to the U.S. They settled in Los Angeles but were not able to continue their successful film careers there. Joe May shot his last movie in 1944. The Mays founded an Austrian restaurant that failed after a couple of months and only survived with the help of friends and the “European Film Fund.” Little is known about their further lives. Joe May died in 1954 at the age of 74; Mia died on November 28 , 1980 in Hollywood at the age of 96.
It just so happens that the 2018 Hamburg Cinefest, which takes place from November 17-25, 2018, is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Weimar Republic. The festival program is dedicated to Joe, Mia and their daughter Eva May, showcasing a selection of their movies: “Director and producer Joe May discovered and worked with many talented people (Harry Piel, Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbour, E.A. Dupont, Paul Leni and many others) and pioneered film genres such as the detective film, melodrama, and filmic puzzles.” Not to forget the fair (and big) share that his wife Mia holds in this!
Find further information on Mia May in her Filmportal profile (German).