Gilda was born Hermengild Langer on 16 May, 1896 in Oderfurt (now Prívoz), a section of the city of Ostrava in the now Czech Republic. Like many girls who grew up in the suburbs, Gilda dreamt of one day moving to the big city and becoming an actress. So, at the age of 18, she set out for Vienna. It was there that she met Carl Mayer, an aspiring writer with a gift for telling wild tales. Carl was enchanted by Gilda and took her to Berlin with him. Berlin was the theater and film center of Germany. Much like Hollywood, girls came from far and wide hoping to be discovered and become the next Pola Negri.
In 1917, Carl and Gilda set up shop at the Residence Theater in Berlin, he as a cashier, extra and assistant director and she as a supporting actress. They slowly started to make contacts in the theatrical and motion picture scene, then Carl had a great idea. He figured that publicity was what really made you a movie star. Talent took a backseat to truly good PR. In 1917, Carl published photos in the trade press called, “The Gilda Langer Series”. It wasn’t long before she was noticed and landed a role opposite Harry Liedtke and Conrad Veidt in the exotic adventure movie, Das Rätsel von Bangalor (1918).
The beginning of 1919 started out with a role working alongside action star Carl de Vogt and dancer Sadjah Gezza in the erotic thriller, Der Herr der Liebe, the second film directed by 28-year-old screenwriter Fritz Lang. The film was banned due to the erotic nature of the material, including a very sheer robe worn by Gilda. It was however shown to the press and Gilda became the new sensation. She appeared in two other Fritz Lang films, Halbblut and Die Spinnen – Teil 2 aka The Spiders – Part 2.
It was around this time that Carl was introduced to a young man named Hans Janowitz. Hans too was an aspiring writer and it was at Gilda’s behest that the two of them collaborate on a story. In the winter of 1919, they wrote The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. They envisioned a film version with Gilda in the part that Lil Dagover eventually played.
Gilda never lived to see the premiere. On January 31, 1920, she succumbed to the Spanish flu. As with many actors and actresses who die young, rumors surrounded her death. Some thought she had had a nervous breakdown, still others speculated that she’d overdosed on drugs. None of this seems to be founded in any reality. Just a few weeks before her death she had accepted a marriage proposal from director Paul Czinner.
Like most of Gilda’s films, her grave marker too was long lost and thought to be destroyed. Carl had paid to inscribe notes from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” on the stone. It wasn’t until 1995 when a local film historian discovered her gravesite in a neglected section of Stahnsdorf’s Südwestfriedhof in Brandenburg, Germany.