Max Nivelli was born to a Jewish family on January 1, 1878 as Menachem (Mendel) Lewin in Kuźnica, a small village in north-east Poland, then part of the Russian Empire.
His parents, Schmuel and Zipa (born Bytker), were candy manufacturers who owned a small business. Around 1880, they had their second child – a girl named Devorah. There are indications that there was a third child, David, but a definite proof is yet to be found.
Looking probably for new opportunities, the family decided to move some 65 kilometers south-east of Kuźnica, to Wolkowisk in Belarus, then also in the Russian Empire. This was an up-and-coming industrial town and an important railway junction. Shmuel and Zipa established their candy manufacturing business there. In later years, their daughter Devorah would take over the business, expand it and become a successful business-woman in her own right.
Max, on the other hand, decided to find his destiny elsewhere. Judging by his future career, it is safe to evaluate that being energetic and creative as he was, he could not fulfill himself in the uninspiring town of Wolkowisk. In any case, by 1898 at age 20, he was already in Berlin, the capital of the German Empire and the new economic and cultural center of Europe.
Max’s first few years in Berlin were marked by a rapid sequence of events. This pattern would actually continue for the rest of his life – he kept moving from one address to the next and would change jobs and business-partners, constantly evolving in his career and looking for new opportunities, initially as a businessman, then as an opera singer and music teacher and finally, as a film producer.
On May 5, 1904, Max Lewin married Helena Kaufmann, a young Jewish woman from Poland. They were both age 26 and at the time of the wedding were living together on Prinzenstrasse no. 97. Helena, who came from an affluent family in Rozdzien (now part of Katowice), was born on Nov 23, 1878. Her parents, Leo Kaufmann and Rosalie (born Gottlieb), lived in a spacious building in the center of town and her father was a manufacturer and merchant of women’s undergarments. Helena was the third child, with two elder brothers – Julius and Moritz, and a younger sister named Laura.
The young couple had their first daughter Dorothea (Thea) in 1904 and about two years later, on February 14, 1906, their second daughter Regina (Gina) was born.
In 1909, following several years as a candy manufacturer, while studying opera singing, Max finally embarked on a full-time artistic path – he enrolled as a student at the prestigious Stern Music Academy. When he graduated, he decided to assume the stage name “Nivelli”, which is almost an anagram of the name “Lewin”. Eventually, he worked as a singing teacher at a conservatory in Berlin and performed in opera houses all over Europe. Meanwhile, a new art-form was creating a buzz all over the world – the art of cinema. Naturally, Max had to get in on the action – by 1918, at the age of 40, his first film was already playing in cinemas all over Germany.
More on his career, in the “CAREER” pages.
Max was a popular figure in the artistic community – energetic and creative. His acquaintances described him as an idealist who believed in fighting for a world free from injustice and violence. In fact, many of his films reflect these beliefs.
Max was also an avid card player and frequented the gambling clubs on the fashionable street of Kurfürstendamm in Berlin city’s center. He was struggling with a heart problem but still, smoked heavily.
Max and Helena kept a busy social life and often held musical soirees at their home. Helena was a gregarious and generous woman, so it seems that as a couple, they formed a good team.
They had many friends from the business, music and film crowd in Berlin, some quite well known, such as:
- Rudolf Dührkoop (1848 – 1918), a professional portrait photographer who became a leader in the development of German art photography. Dührkoop was the family’s private photographer;
- Willy Engel-Berger (1890-1946) and Bertrand Sänger (1861-1925) – both composers, conductors and writers of film music; Sänger wrote the music score to at least five of Nivelli’s films;
- Wenzel Goldbaum (1881-1960), an expert lawyer on theatre copyright and author of the book “Theatre Law” (Theaterrecht) published in 1914. He was also Nivelli’s lawyer;
- Mikhail Salkind (1890 – 1974), a Russian lawyer who fled the Bolshevik revolution in 1922 and became a film producer in Berlin. His first film was “The Joyless Street” (Die freudlose Gasse 1925), which was directed by the famous G.W. Pabst and featured the relatively-unknown actress at that time, Greta Garbo, in her first major role. Salkind and Nivelli grew up in neighboring towns in Russia and shared the same occupation. They became friends and after Max died, Salkind continued to be a financial adviser to the family until he left Germany.
The couple’s daughters, Thea and Gina, although being born in Berlin, were not considered German citizens but “children of Russian parentage”. As such, they were not permitted to attend the German schools and instead, were enrolled in private lyceums.
As Max was a music teacher and opera singer himself, music played an important role in the Nivelli household and the girls studied piano from an early age. Thea was an accomplished pianist and had special private lessons with well-known masters. Gina developed other interests and when she grew up, she started working with her father in his film production company. There she met her future husband, Friedrich Wolfgang Schwarz – a Viennese musician who was making his first steps in Berlin as a pianist, accompanying the screening of silent films, including Nivelli’s.
Around 1920, life was good for the Nivelli family – they lived in a spacious apartment in the center of town and Max was investing his profits in patents, valuable furniture and jewelry. Film making was a most lucrative business and some of Max’s friends in the movie business were urging him to join the trend and leave for Hollywood with them. But, following the “Titanic” disaster of 1921, he became afraid of sailing and the family stayed in Berlin.
By 1923, the Weimar Republic’s economy deteriorated – the country was in a state of hyperinflation and strikes were rampant. Nivelli, like many others, failed to recognize the economic crisis in time and lost most of his money. Looking for other sources of income, Max switched from film production, which was a costly business, to renting and distributing films.
This venture sustained him until 1925 when the economy was starting to stabilize – civil unrest decreased and growth was in the air. Max resumed his film production business by forming a new company. He decided to start small by producing a remake of an earlier successful film which did not require a large investment. The project looked promising and shooting of the new scenes was already underway.
But unfortunately, in other matters, he was less cautious. For a while now, he has been suffering from heart problems and the financial stress of the past few years must have taken its toll. What follows was reported in the press – One evening on February 27, 1926, in one of his usual clubs on Kurfürstendamm street, Max was playing the Écarté game of cards with a partner. The game was full of suspense and at a crucial point just past 11 PM, when Max was a step away from winning, he suddenly collapsed. Two doctors who were at the club came to his aid but he soon lost consciousness. His death was pronounced shortly after. He was 48 years old at the time.
This obituary was published in one of the film magazines:
“It is our sad duty to announce the death caused by heart disease of Max Nivelli. For 12 years he belonged to the trade and was consecutively manufacturer, importer and renter. His exceptional faculties and his continual flow of new ideas and possibilities made him a general favorite. We deplore his death sincerely”. The Film Magazine (No. 10), March 7, 1926
Max Nivelli was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Wisensse in Berlin, on March 3, 1926.
Shortly after Max’s death, the shooting of his last film “Unity, Law and Freedom” (Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit 1926) ended. His partner, Dr. Sander Kaisermann, began proceedings to dissolve the Nivelli production company. This was concluded in 1927 and later on, Helena Nivelli-Kaufmann was declared heir to her husband’s estate.
The family remained in Berlin and Helena reassumed the name Lewin. Thea got married in 1928 to Karl Giesen and they both had a son, Max. In January 1939, when conditions for Jews had deteriorated further, they left Germany for Buenos Aires, Argentina. Gina, as mentioned earlier, married Friedrich Schwarz in 1932. By then, he was already a successful songwriter, whose music could be heard in all the major clubs in Berlin. Barely a year had passed, when he unexpectedly died in Paris in mysterious circumstances. In 1935, Gina settled in London and embarked on a long and frustrating battle to obtain the copyrights to her husband’s music, a battle which was largely unsuccessful. Under her father’s stage name, as Gina Nivelli, she composed music and her name is credited on numerous songs and music scores. In 1938 she also published a book, “The Primrose Path”. She never remarried. Her mother, Helena, joined her in London just before the outbreak of WWII where she passed away in 1944.