If you had to pick a likely description for Marianne Faithfull‘s background, you would hardly choose an illustrious knight in the Austro-Hungarian army, a Jewish grandmother who took part in the Viennese resistance during WWII or a sexually ambiguous mother who lived the roaring 20’s from the glittering stages of Berlin’s most famous -and infamous- theatres. And yet, Marianne Faithfull’s family history is exactly that – and so much more.
The 9th episode of the 10th season of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? delves into the roots of British singer and actress Marianne Faithful, whose highly-acclaimed work during the 1960’s and 70’s has been overshadowed by drug abuse and her tempestuous relationship with Rolling Stone lead singer Mick Jagger.
In this episode, Marianne, 66, attempts to unearth the facts behind her late mother’s life and experiences as a young half-Jewish woman in the Berlin of the 1920’s and 30’s. Unsurprisingly, like in so many other episodes that focus on the Jewish ancestry of celebrities who starred in Who Do You Think You Are? (David Baddiel, Stephen Fry, Jerry Springer or Natascha Kaplinsky), the Second World War marks a turning point in the protagonist’s family history.
However, Marianne’s background offers the viewer a detailed insight into what life was like in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic. What is more, it also shows how families of mixed background like Marianne’s, who were half Austrian Catholics and half Hungarian Jews, were treated by the Third Reich. Labelled a “mischling”, or mongrel, Eva von Sacher-Masoch (Marianne Faithfull’s mother) was kept at arm’s length by the Gestapo after the Anschluss and during the difficult years of WWII. Only her father’s title, conferred on one of his ancestors by an Austrian Emperor, and the family’s connections with Hungarian diplomatic circles, prevented the Nazis from pulling off a fatal check-mate on the Sacher-Masochs.
This episode is interesting because it shows in great detail how people of mixed race lived and were generally treated by the Nazi regime until 1945, and proves that it was not all as black-or-white as we would have thought. Though perhaps not as moving as Stephen Fry’s family, or as heart-breaking as the story of Jerry Springer’s grandparents, it is touching to see someone like Marianne Faithfull’s eyes filling up with tears while she recounts how the occupying (or “liberating”) Soviet army raped over 100,000 women in Vienna at the end of WWII.
I was disappointed, however, by the fact that this particular episode failed to mention Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), who according to Wikipedia was Marianne’s great-great-uncle. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was an Austrian writer and journalist who became well-known in his lifetime for his romantic stories of Galician life but also also for his bizarre sexual practices, which included role-play, cruelty and humiliation. The term masochism, used today to describe someone who gets sexual pleasure from pain, derives from Leopold’s own surname.
Perhaps the BBC thought having Hitler in the episode was quite enough for the public to digest…