Born M’bebe Mpessa in the German colony of Cameroon, Louis Brody (1892–1951) won over audiences during the early twentieth century as a prominent actor and musician. He appeared in over 30 films and eventually became the highest-paid Black actor within the German filmmaking industry.
Brody’s ability to survive during the Nazi era was considered “astonishing.” He was able to escape treatment common to non-Germans at that time: deportation, sterilization, mob lynching, and concentration camps. When the Nazi government denationalized him through the 1935 Reich Citizenship Law, he avoided persecution by acquiring French citizenship.
Throughout his life, Brody fought to improve the social conditions in Germany. He cofound the African Relief Organization (1918) in Hamburg. As spokesman, he decried racial discrimination and the violence and mistreatment of Blacks.
His expressed views and opinions during the fight for racial equality led him to the German Section of the League for Defense of the Negro Race. Brody also protested the propaganda unleashed against French colonial soldiers stationed in the Rhineland after World War I. Still, he needed to support himself.
Brody played parts in several German propaganda films throughout the war period: African chiefs and stereotypical roles such as servants, porters, and sailors. During World War II, he starred in 14 films including two that, according to Brody’s critics, “advanced Nazi propaganda and were inherently anti-Semitic.” Yet Brody was a skilled and versatile actor.
In several films, he impersonated Arabs, Malays, Indians, Moroccans, and Chinese. In fact, his calling card read: “Performer of all exotic roles on the stage and in film.”
While performing as a musician and wrestler, photos of Brody “exuded the energy of exoticism and racism seen in his film career.” According to German publications, Brody “couldn’t simply be an actor, musician, or wrestler; he had to be a Black actor, musician, and wrestler.” His career as an actor therefore faced significant obstacles, specifically with the subsequent rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime.
Little has been recorded about his early life in Cameroon (then Kamerun). He attended the German colonial school in Douala, where he learned to speak German. It is believed that he arrived in Berlin sometime between 1907 and 1914. He reportedly worked at several odd and low-paying jobs before landing an acting role. What motivated him to relocate there remains unknown.
As the German film industry expanded post-war, Brody took on supporting roles, most notably in the 1921 film “The Weary Death.” He also played the villainous Moor in the 1926 colonial film “I Had a Comrade.” By 1930, he had become the most visible Black actor working in German cinema. But the rise of Nazism would curtail his career.
Brody’s career slowed post war. Still, his life of advocacy for Black Germans and fame in cinema paved the way for other Blacks to gather acclaim within German culture.
Read more about Black Germans during the Third Reich in “Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich,” by Tina M. Campt.