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April 2002 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 4)
Hildegard Knef: Postwar
World Press Review associate editor
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 mans Marlene Dietrich.
Her outspokenness often caused unease in a country eager to
please. She was Germanys 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,
authorKnef 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, andwithout her
gender being revealedbecame 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 Berlins
voicelearning 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 Dietrichperhaps 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 Berlins 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
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.