She was a successful German actor, novelist, and filmmaker. She is best known today (if she is known at all) for the screenplays she created with and for the German-American director Fritz Lang between 1920 and 1933, including arguably the first two modern, feature-length science fiction movies ever made: Metropolis (1927) and Woman in the Moon (1929). In addition to working with Lang, she also wrote screenplays for most of the other important German directors of the silent era, and in the sound era, she herself directed two films. Several sources say that at one time, she was one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Germany. IMDB lists more than seventy films which she wrote from her own story, adapted from other sources, or collaborated with other writers on the screenplay.That's more than seventy produced screenplays, by the way. Feature films—not short subjects. For any screenwriter in the history of motion pictures, that level of output is extraordinary. For a female screenwriter, that level of out put is simply unique.
In addition, she published around thirty-five books, including novels, essays, children's books, and collections of short fiction—an exact accounting of her literary output is largely a matter of guesswork because many of her novels were first serialized in newspapers and some may never subsequently have been printed in book form. She wrote what we would all today popular fiction (i.e., Stephen King, Nora Roberts, J. K. Rowling, etc.), not literature. Distinctly not literature. However, she enjoyed a wide readership and earned a sizable income over a thirty-five year career—a career that is virtually unprecedented for its breadth and scale.
From Ervin Malakaj's introduction to the German section of The Feminist Encyclopedia of Women Filmmakers comes this high praise: “Thea von Harbou (1888-1934) remains the most famous screenwriter of German film history. Known for her collaborative work with her husband, Fritz Lang, during the Weimar era, Harbou wrote the screenplay for one of the most important films of the twentieth century, Metropolis (1925-6). She enjoyed a significant career during the Nazi era, writing many films that were successful with the Third Reich audiences.”
As a person, she was not a saint—her affair with Fritz Lang began while they were both married to other people, and that affair produced a tragedy—and she subsequently began an affair with the man who would be her third husband while she was married to Lang. Even so, people who knew her affirm that she was by nature, a gentle, generous, self-sacrificing person who was respected by her peers in the German cinema—who also elected her to be the first head of the German Sound Film Writers Association.
In any other world, a woman with this kind of artistic pedigree would be a feminist icon, celebrated for her achievements and set forward as an inspiration for other women.
But she was also a passionate German Nationalist—as were many other Germans of her generation—and as such, she openly admired the aims of Hitler's National Socialist Party. According to Fritz Lang's biographer McGilligan, Thea von Harbou officially drank the Kool-Aid and joined the Nazi party in the spring of 1940. Other sources claim she joined in 1941. The dearth of formal scholarship on her life makes this and many other details difficult to establish with certainty.
One way or another, the unpleasant truth is that the majority of her screenplays were produced in Germany between the years 1933-45, the years of Hitler's Third Reich. But while she worked for several directors who were known for Nazi-sanctioned films, her work never seemed to have the bitter arrogance that marks so many "official" films from the era. Her scripts almost always were sympathetic to women, and this at a ttime when the perfect Aryan bride was submissive and able to bear many children for the master race. She worked actively in the film business right up to the end of the Second World War—supposedly receiving her last check as a Nazi screenwriter in April, 1945.
Because her of membership in the Nazi party, the British interned her in the Staumuhle prison camp from July 10 through October 10, 1945, where they interrogated her to determine just how Nazi she was. According to McGilligan, “Von Harbou denied any anti-Semitism, denied involvement in any Aryanization of Jewish property, noting instead several instances where she had acted as a good Samaritan—helping people out of Germany or out of trouble with Goebbels (including her Jewish secretary Hilde Guttmann and actor Alfred Abel, who had played the master of Metropolis). 'Although I am unwilling to mention things that I once found a matter of course,' von Harbou told the interrogators, 'I don't think there is anyone who can claim that I hurt or insulted them because of their race.'”