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Elfi von Dassanowsky, 83; opera singer became a film executive in postwar Austria

October 06, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Elfi von Dassanowsky, a classical musician and filmmaker who narrowly avoided a career in Nazi Germany's movie studio system before she co-founded Belvedere Film in Austria after World War II, has died. She was 83.

Von Dassanowsky died of heart failure Tuesday at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, her son Robert said. She had been a resident of Los Angeles since the 1960s.

Born Elfriede Marie Charlotte von Dassanowsky in Vienna on Feb. 2, 1924, she began studying piano and voice as a child. At 15, she entered the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna and was on her way to a prominent career in music when World War II broke out in 1939. She was enlisted into youth service in Austria, working first in a cigarette factory and later at a hospital, but she managed to complete her studies and earned a diploma in 1944.

That year, she received a letter from the office of Germany's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, instructing her to go to Berlin, where she was offered a contract with UFA, the state-controlled movie studio. She was scheduled to make her screen debut acting and singing in a romantic musical titled "The Waltz King." She knew that refusing the offer would end her career, so she accepted but then talked her way into returning home to Vienna until filming began.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 09, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Von Dassanowsky obituary: The obituary of classical musician and filmmaker Elfi von Dassanowsky in Saturday's California section stated that she was born Elfriede Marie Charlotte von Dassanowsky. In fact, her birth name was Elfriede Maria Elisabeth Charlotte von Dassanowsky. The obituary also stated that she married Laszlo de Csonka and that he died in 1978. His name is actually Laszlo (Leslie) Harris de Csonka, and he is alive. The couple divorced in 1978.

She delayed her trip back to Berlin, claiming to be sick with pneumonia and unable to sing. The war ended before "The Waltz King" went into production.

After the war, Von Dassanowsky made her opera debut as Susanna in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" in St. Polten, Austria. She went on to sing in a number of operas and operettas in Austria and Germany over the next seven years.

She met the Austrian actor and director Emmerich Hanus in St. Polten in 1946 and joined him as a founder of Belvedere Film in Vienna.

"Feminists are amazed that she could do it," Robert von Dassanowsky, a film historian, said of his mother's position as a young female studio executive in a male-dominated profession. "She had an answer for them. In postwar Austria, most of the men were dead or in POW camps."

The working conditions were extreme. The glass had been blown out of most of the studio windows. Electricity was unreliable during the day, forcing the crew to do most of its filming at night.

Von Dassanowsky often brought props from home, she recalled in a 1999 interview with The Times.

Belvedere studio made seven films in its five-year history, including musicals and comedies. "They helped to kick-start postwar film in Eastern Europe," Robert von Dassanowsky said of the studio.

Only two of the films are known to exist, Von Dassanowsky said.

He and his mother relaunched Belvedere as a production company in 1999.

Their first film was "Semmelweis," a 2001 short about Ignatz Semmelweis, a 19th century obstetrician.

After she settled in Los Angeles in the 1960s, Von Dassanowsky taught voice and piano lessons, promoted Austrian films and culture in the U.S. and became active with UNESCO, helping to foster education through the arts.

She received a number of awards, including the Decoration of Merit in Gold from the city of Vienna in 1991, the Mozart medal from UNESCO in 1997 and the Austrian Film Archives' Medal of Honor in 1998.

She was married to Laszlo de Csonka, who died in 1978. In addition to her son, Von Dassanowsky is survived by her daughter, Aviva Harris.

A funeral service is planned for 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, 10828 Moorpark St., North Hollywood.


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