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From the April 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 4)

People

Hildegard Knef: Postwar Diva


Tekla Szymanski
World Press Review associate editor

Hildegard Knef
She was not the naive blonde Fräulein so often portrayed in German postwar cinema. Hildegard Knef, a rebellious, gravel-voiced actress, was fondly called “the thinking man’s Marlene Dietrich.”

Her outspokenness often caused unease in a country eager to please. She was Germany’s sole diva, leading a life of successes and sufferings, a life she called her “roller coaster.” She endured more than 50 operations but her cancer-ridden and alcohol-wrecked body always bounced back. Actress, chanteuse, author—Knef never gave in.

Her first major movie role was so powerful it catapulted her to the top. As a Holocaust survivor amid the ruins of postwar Berlin (Murderers Are Among Us, 1946), she defined the part she chose to live: intelligent, independent, cool, and at the same time vulnerable, mysterious, and never afraid to speak her mind. Knef died on Feb. 1 in Berlin, at the age of 76, and received a fond farewell. Forgotten was the scandal when she was condemned during the prudish 1950s for doing a nude scene. As usual, she voiced what many thought but were reluctant to say: “A country that six years ago had Auschwitz and caused so much horror and then behaves in such a manner is utterly absurd,” she remarked.

Born in 1925, Knef acted in minor Nazi productions. In the last days of the war, she fled Berlin disguised as a man to avoid being raped. She was captured, beaten, and—without her gender being revealed—became a Russian prisoner of war. Fellow inmates helped her escape. Knef made her way back to the ruins of Berlin.

She symbolized war-shattered Germany and became “Berlin’s voice”—learning to survive, stubbornly bouncing back and starting anew, without ever losing sight of the past. She appeared in more than 50 films, starred in a Broadway musical, and took minor Hollywood roles, but she never really caught on there as did her friend Marlene Dietrich—perhaps because Knef refused to change her name and disguise her past. In turn, she was called a “Nazi broad.”

“Knef was more than just Hildegard Knef,” wrote Jan Feddersen in Berlin’s left-wing Die Tageszeitung. “She was a postwar work of art. The war had left her deeply suspicious of any kind of authority, ideology, and easily digestible clichés.”

She sought the limelight but always feared failure: “I am thin-skinned and vulnerable,” Knef admitted. “I am standing alone on the stage; and I feel that the person in the fifth row to the left came to see me only in order not to like me. I am that sensitive.”


 
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