Bela, the actress

Iva Jelusic




Miroslav Krleža is widely considered the greatest Croatian writer of the 20th century. However, immediately following the establishment of the Nazi puppet Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH), his works were banned and, after spending a few days in Ustasha prison, the author went into isolation. Sick, anxious, and inclined to the usage of barbiturates, in those years he devotedly nursed his own ego in the pages of his diary. The left-wing writer did not change his position throughout the war, although the Ustasha leadership gradually eased pressure on him. The author even got the opportunity to say no to Ante Pavelić, the head of the NDH, who in the fall of 1943 wanted to hire him as director of the Croatian State Theater in Zagreb.

Miroslav Krleža wallowed in his misfortunes thanks to influential colleagues and friends and his wife, Bela Krleža, who performed in the very theater where he refused to work. Her professional compromise – which, given that she was a Serbian, could have been fatal for her – provided them with insurance against political persecution as well as existential security (for the second time during their marriage).

In his diary, Miroslav mocked the pretentiousness of the life of the Zagreb bourgeoisie as well as their seeming obliviousness to grim wartime reality. And Bela was not spared a little of his pity because, he writes, during the war she became “an actress in the bureaucratical sense, de facto acting in some horrible things.”  Namely, the plays in which his wife performed were by and large lighthearted, escapist comedies with romantic overtones – for instance, she  acted in the adaptation of A Friend of Women (L’Ami des femmes, 1864) and The Lady of the Camellias (La Dame aux Camélias, 1848) written by Alexandre Dumas fils and in the pastoral Plakir (1556) written by one of the most celebrated Croatian Renaissance authors, Marin Držić – intended to amuse and please those people that her husband mocked as well as the members of the leadership of the state, which both had reason to fear.

Since she was one of the most active actresses during the war years, Bela Krleža was exposed to enormous publicity. Moreover, she was loved by both audiences and critics. And when, in the fall of 1945, her colleagues faced the so-called court of honor, she was most probably saved from political persecution by her husband’s war silence and his postwar reconciliation with the leadership of the Yugoslav Communist Party.


Photograph: Scene from the pastoral Plakir, May 1943; Bela Krleža is third from the right

Owner of the photograph: Croatian State Archive (Hrvatski državni arhiv, HDA), Collection of theater photography of Mladen Grčević (HR-HDA-1424)


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Puljizević, Jozo. “Jedna biografija - sto života: Bela Krleža o sebi i Miroslavu Krleži” (“One Biography – A Hundred Lives: Bela Krleža about Herself and Miroslav Krleža”). Vjesnik u srijedu (July 4, 1973): 24-26.