Leo Birinski

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Leo Birinski
Leo Birinski (approx. 1923)
BornJune 8, 1884
DiedOctober 23, 1951(1951-10-23) (aged 67)
Resting placePotter's Field, Hart Island, New York City
Other namesLeo Gottesmann
Occupation(s)Screenwriter, Film director Playwright
SpouseFelicia Aschkenas
Parent(s)Hersch (Hermann) Gottesmann (father), Carna Birinska (mother)

Leo Birinski (June 8, 1884 – October 23, 1951) was a playwright, screenwriter and director. He worked in Austria-Hungary, Germany and in the United States. As a playwright in Europe, he gained his biggest popularity from 1910 to 1917 but was ultimately forgotten. From the 1920s to 1940s he worked mainly as a screenwriter, first in Germany, later in the United States, to which he emigrated in September 1927. In the United States, he also returned to writing stage plays. He wrote in German and English. Until recently, only a minimal amount of information about his life has been available. Complicating matters, there have been many legends and rumours concerning Birinski's person, including the false report of his "suicide" in 1920 that found its way from newspaper obituaries into encyclopedias.

Variations in his name[edit]

Born Leo Gottesmann, he was most commonly known as Leo Birinski, the name he began to use after approximately 1908. “Birinski” was his mother’s surname, and “Gottesmann,” his birth name, was his father’s surname.

Other recorded variations in spelling and form: Leo G. Birinski, Leo Birinsky, Lev G. Birinski, Lev Birinskij, Lav Birinski, Leó Birinszki, Lev Birinszki, and Leon Birinski.


The circumstances of Birinski's early life are unclear, as; different sources offer a variety of possibilities for his place and date of birth.

He was probably born on June 8, 1884, in Lysianka, Kiev Governorate, Russian Empire (in present-day Ukraine). He occasionally presented this information in official documents, though it is impossible to confirm because the local birth records for Lysianka were not preserved.

His father, Hersch Gottesmann, was born in Borschiv in eastern Galicia and was a salesman (he indicated "Agent" as his employment in registration forms). His mother, Carna, born Berinska or Birinska, was a tenant's daughter from Lysianka. Birinski spent his childhood in Ukraine and Czernowitz, the capital city of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bukovina.

At the beginning of the 20th century (either in 1901 or 1904, according to varying sources), he moved to Vienna. He worked in a bookshop, turned to translating, and started to write by himself. During his time in Vienna, he wrote three plays, the tragedies, Der Moloch (The Moloch) and Raskolnikoff (after the novel Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky), and his most successful comedy or tragicomedy, Narrentanz (Dance of Fools), written in 1912. In March 1920, a rumor of suicide, caused by a case of mistaken identity with a man named Leon Gottesmann, was spread in the local newspapers. Although repeatedly discredited, the report was included in several contemporary encyclopedias. In April 1921, Birinski left Vienna and moved to Berlin.

One of the few known images of Birinski. Break during the shooting of the motion picture Das Wachsfigurenkabinett; Leo Birinski is on the right, sitting on the white horse (c. 1923).

In Germany, Birinski appears to have married Jewish pianist Felicia Aschkenas, who born around 1902 in Warsaw. At this time, he worked primarily for the film industry, wrote many screenplays, and together with Paul Leni, directed the motion picture Das Wachsfigurenkabinett. During his time in Germany, he contributed to the screenplays of thirteen films, including Tragedy of Love with Marlene Dietrich, Varieté by Ewald André Dupont, and several pictures by Gennaro Righelli. Birinski also wrote the stage play, Der heilige Teufel (Rasputin). Its original German text was lost, but a later English version still exists. Around September 1927, Birinski left for the USA; two years later, his wife followed him. They both identified themselves to the immigration officers by Nicaraguan passports. Birinski even listed the city of Bluefields in Nicaragua as his birthplace. He had no known ties to Nicaragua.

In the United States, he continued his work as a screenwriter and director and worked on ten documented films. His first American work was probably as the director of Das große Glück – the German version of A Ship Comes In from 1928. His other notable films of the period include Mata Hari with Greta Garbo, Mamoulian’s movie, The Song of Songs, with Marlene Dietrich, and The Gay Desperado. He again took on the role of film director with Flirtation in 1934. The last known picture by Birinski was the spy comedy, The Lady Has Plans, in 1942. An adaptation of this film for the radio series, Lux Radio Theater, was also created and broadcast in April 1943 on the CBS radio network with Rita Hayworth and William Powell in the leads.

Birinski also wrote several stage plays in the United States. His play, Nowhere Bound, was presented on Broadway in January 1935 at the Imperial Theatre, and The Day Will Come in September 1944 at the National Theatre. In addition to these works, a manuscript of a stage play, The Holy Devil (Rasputin), by Birinski was found among the papers left by Herman Bernstein, a journalist and writer who died in August 1935. This play was likely never performed or published.

The events of the last seven years of Birinski's life are largely unknown. According to his death certificate, Leo Birinski died on October 23, 1951, at Lincoln Hospital in The Bronx, New York City. The certificate includes almost no information about the deceased. It appears that Birinski died in poverty and alone. He was buried at the Potter's Field at Hart Island in a mass-grave ("plot 45, section 2, no. 14"). In 2009, Birinski's relatives living in Israel and the United States were found.





This article is partially based on a translation from the article in Czech Wikipedia.

  1. ^ "The Fool´s Game Acted" (PDF). The New York Times. 14 November 1912. p. 11. Retrieved 2011-08-01.



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