Christened Theodor Friedrich Emil Janenz in Rorschach, Switzerland, of a German mother and an American father. Jannings was a theater actor who had a promising Hollywood career come to an end when talkies made his thick German accent difficult to understand. He returned to Europe, where he starred opposite Marlene Dietrich in the classic 1930 film, The Blue Angel, filmed in English simultaneously with its German version Der blaue Engel.
Emil Jannings was the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor. He won the 1928 Oscar for two films -
During the Third Reich, he starred in several films which were intended to promote Nazism, particularly the Führerprinzip: Der Herrscher ("The Ruler" 1937), The Youth of Frederick the Great (1935) and The Dismissal of Bismarck (1942). Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels named him "Artist of the State" in 1941. His involvement with the Nazis ended any chance he may have had for a comeback in the United States.
When troops of the Allied Powers entered Germany in 1945, Jannings reportedly carried his 1928 Best Actor Oscar with him as proof of his former association with Hollywood. However, Jannings' active role in Nazi propaganda meant he was subject to denazification, and any comeback attempt was doomed. He then retired to his farm in Austria. Very proficient in money matters, Jannings was one of the highest paid actors of his time.
Jannings died in 1950 in Strobl, Austria of cancer at the age of 65. His Best Actor Oscar is now on display at the Filmmuseum in Berlin, Germany.