Leo Birinski

Leo Birinski (June 8, 1884 – October 23, 1951) was a playwright, screenwriter and director. He worked in Austria-Hungary, Germany and in the United States. As a playwright in Europe he gained his biggest popularity in 1910 1917, then he was forgotten. From the 1920s to 1940s he worked mainly as a screenwriter, first in Germany, later in the United States. In the United States he returned to writing the stage plays. He was writing in German and later on in the United States, in English. Until recently, only a minimal amount of information about his life was available. In addition there were many legends and rumours concerning Birinski's person, some of them even spread by himself. For example, the false report of his "suicide" in 1920 even found its way from the newspaper obituaries into encyclopedias.

Leo Birinski
Leo Birinski (approx. 1923)
BornJune 8, 1884
DiedOctober 23, 1951(1951-10-23) (aged 67)
Resting placePotter's Field, Hart Island, New York City
Other namesLeo Gottesmann
OccupationScreenwriter, Film director Playwright
Spouse(s)Felicia Aschkenas
Parent(s)Hersch (Hermann) Gottesmann (father), Carna Birinska (mother)

Variations in his name

Leo Birinski surname after his mother, approx. from 1908 his civil and stage name.

Other variations in spelling and form: Leo G. Birinski, Leo Birinsky, Lev G. Birinski, Lev Birinskij, Lav Birinski, Birinszki Leó, Lev Birinszkij, Leon Birinski, etc.

Leo Gottesmann surname after his father, used as his civil name until at least 1906.


The circumstances of Birinski's early life are quite indefinite; different sources offer eight possibilities of his place and date of birth.

He was probably born on June 8, 1884, in Lysianka, Kiev Governorate, Russian Empire (in present-day Ukraine). He occasionally presented this information in official documents, and it is supported by some indirect evidence, although it is impossible to prove definitively because the local birth records for Lysianka were not preserved.

His father, Hersch Gottesmann, was born in Borschiv in eastern Galicia and was a salesman (he indicated "Agent" as his employment in registration forms).

His mother, Carna, born Berinska or Birinska, was a tenant's daughter from Lysianka. Birinski spent his childhood in Ukraine and Czernowitz, the capital city of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bukovina.

At the beginning of the 20th century (either in 1901 or 1904, according to the sources consulted), he moved to Vienna. He worked in a bookshop, turned to translating and started to write by himself. From his Viennese era come three of Birinski's plays: the tragedies Der Moloch (The Moloch) and Raskolnikoff (after the novel Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky), and his most successful comedy (or tragicomedy, according to Birinski) Narrentanz (Dance of Fools), written in 1912. In March 1920, the already-mentioned suicide rumour, caused by a mistaken identity with his younger namesake, Leon Gottesmann, was spread in the local newspapers. Although repeatedly denied, the report was included into several contemporary encyclopedias. In fact, in April 1921 Birinski left Vienna and moved to Berlin.

In Germany, Birinski probably married Jewish pianist Felicia Aschkenas, born probably in 1902 in Warsaw. He worked primarily for the movie industry, wrote many screenplays, and together with Paul Leni, directed the motion picture Das Wachsfigurenkabinett. During his German era he demonstrably participated in the screenplays of thirteen films, e.g. Tragedy of Love with Marlene Dietrich, Varieté by Ewald André Dupont, and pictures by Gennaro Righelli. Birinski also wrote stage play Der heilige Teufel (Rasputin). Its German text was not found, just the later English version. Probably in September 1927 Birinski left for the USA; two years later, his wife followed him. They both identified themselves to the immigration officers by Nicaraguan passports. Birinski had even listed the city of Bluefields in Nicaragua as his birthplace. Most probably this was just a false identity.

In the United States, he continued his work as an author of motion picture stories and screenplays (he participated in the ten documented films). The first Birinski's American work was probably direction of Das große Glück – the German version of A Ship Comes In from 1928. Some of his pictures belong among the so-called "major" films of the period: e.g. Mata Hari with Greta Garbo or Mamoulian´s movies The Song of Songs, with Marlene Dietrich, and The Gay Desperado. He once again tried the work of film director with Flirtation in 1934. The last known picture by Birinski was the spy comedy The Lady Has Plans in 1942. An adaptation for the radio series, Lux Radio Theater, was also created, and broadcast in April 1943 on the CBS radio network with Rita Hayworth and William Powell in the leads. Birinski also wrote several stage plays in the USA. On Broadway his play Nowhere Bound was presented in January 1935 at the Imperial Theatre, and The Day Will Come in September 1944 at the National Theatre. In addition to these works, a manuscript of a stage play The Holy Devil (Rasputin) was found among the papers left by Herman Bernstein (a journalist and writer who died in August 1935). This play was probably never performed or published.

The last seven years of Birinski's life are enfolded in mist again. According to the extant death certificate, Leo Birinski died on October 23, 1951 at Lincoln Hospital in The Bronx, New York City. The certificate includes almost no information about the deceased. It appears that Birinski died in poverty and probably entirely alone (without any relatives or heirs). He was buried at Potter's Field at Hart Island in a mass-grave ("plot 45, section 2, no. 14"). In 2009, Birinski's relatives living in Israel and United States were found.





This article is partially based on a translation from the article in Czech Wikipedia.

  1. "The Fool´s Game Acted" (PDF). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 14 November 1912. p. 11. Retrieved 2011-08-01.


  • Bock, Hans-Michael (Ed.): CineGraph – Lexikon zum deutschsprachigen Film, edition text + kritik, Munich, 50. Lieferung (March 2011), ISBN 978-3-86916-130-3.
  • Enciclopedia dello spettacolo, Casa editrice Le Maschere, 2nd volume, Rome 1954.
  • Wininger, Salomon: Große Jüdische National-Biographie, 2nd volume, Cernăuti 1925 1936.
  • Gevinson, Alan (ed.): American Film Institute Catalog – Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960, University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London 1997. ISBN 0-520-20964-8.
  • Doyle, Billy H.: The Ultimate Directory of Film Technicians…, Scarecrow Press: Lanham (Maryland) and Folkestone 1999. ISBN 0-8108-3546-0.
  • Hübl, Dušan: Lev Birinskij – životopisný mumraj, Praha 2004 (1st band), 2008 (2nd band), 2010 (Addenda).


  • Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv, Vienna, Austria (police registrations).
  • Municipal Archives of New York City (resting place).
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