Kulturblogging: Hildegard Knef

When you spend more than a couple of years in another country, you may begin to realize how much the people around you, while possibly being very much like you, grew up on different pop culture. The American entertainment industry being what it is, they are sure to know many of our well-known pop singers, film actors, athletes and the like, but underneath that they have a whole trove of memories of other famous and successful figures, may of which we Americans have either never heard of, or have forgotten, or whom we did not notice because they worked on the peripheries in the international scene (such as Susanne Lothar). We may not call them minor, because they were not. They just didn’t have a large American following. (Many might leap to the conclusion that, if you’re not big in the USA, you haven’t “made it”, to which I say, open your eyes.)


So it is with Hildegard Knef. I knew that she had done some work in Hollywood (as “Hildegard Neff”) but did not know that her handprints are there in the concrete, with those of many other stars, in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

She started out by being discovered at 18, while training to be an animation artist for the UFA film studio in Berlin, by the head of that studio. A year later she was having an affair with the Reich’s Chief Dramaturg, Ewald von Demandowsky (this would be 1944). She was gorgeous, extremely photogenic, highly intelligent, and one assumes that powerful men were falling over themselves to advance her career.

In a nutshell, her career was tempestuous. In 1948 she signed a 7-year contract with David O. Selznick, wherein she was paid lucratively for English lessons and screen tests, but was cast in no roles. In 1950 (now with American citizenship), she returned to Germany to appear in the film Die Sünderin. With its taboo themes of prostitution and suicide, not to mention a brief nude scene, the film scandalized the country: protests, counter-protests, banning in many cinemas. The Roman Catholic Church in Germany protested primarily that the gist of the film resembled the infamous Nazi euthanasia propaganda film Ich klage an. Twenty five years later in America, a mercy killing could be shown in a film like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but coming right out of the Nazi years in Germany, it was apparently  too soon.

She began a genuine singing career with the release of her first album in 1951. Her voice is clear (if unusually low, probably from all the cigarettes) and her singing style is confident and breezy, in that speaking/singing mix that was so popular in the day, but lets out a sort of dignified containment of emotion, a way of revealing pain without the least bit wallowing in it. Ella Fitzgerald later called her “the best singer without a voice”.

Here a song in English, “Too Bad” from 1969. The person who uploaded this put together an amusing collage of internet images to accompany the song.

Ostracized in Germany from the fallout from Die Sünderin, Knef returned to Hollywood and finally got to appear in a row of films, some good, some forgettable. She was the first (perhaps still the only) German to appear in a leading role on Broadway, in Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings. On the success of her international singing career, she returned to Berlin, enjoyed the spotlight on German television appearances, had a child, battled breast cancer, wrote a few memoirs, and generally made for constant headlines in the tabloids.

Here Knef singing “Aber schön war es doch”, from a television broadcast in 1963. The song lyrics tell of bittersweet memories of a last meeting, (“but it was beautiful”), and every detail — with bench, the trees in bloom, the words he’d spoken — is lovingly remembered.


“Written off” in Germany, she fled back to Hollywood where she did some film work but never really got her foot back in the door. In the 80s she played Fräulein Schneider in the musical Cabaret at the Theater des Westens in Berlin, and in 1989 moved back to German for good, heavily in debt. In her 60s, she began to be seen as one of those living legends (as so often happens to people who manage to still be around after the dust has settled), was awarded lifetime achievement prizes, appeared on talk shows, put out a (very successful) album of songs. In 2001 she got her German citizenship back. In 2003, she died of pneumonia, at the age of 76, just two weeks after her last televised interview. Working — and being in demand — until the end.

Image found here.

A Belated Memorial Day Posting

I realized too late that I had this photograph in my computer, and that it would fit nicely for Memorial Day.


This plaque is recessed into the wall between Franziskanerplatz and the courtyard behind the Hofkirche. In my 13 years’ residence in Innsbruck, I had never noticed it, until one day I did. If you’re having trouble reading the text, it says:

Zum Gedenken an die in den letzten Tagen des 2. Weltkrieges bei der Befreiung Tirols gefallenen Soldaten der U.S.-Armee.

In memory of the soldiers of the U.S. Army killed in action for the liberation of the Tyrol during the last days of World War II.

(I don’t know what the symbols represent, I assume the service organizations who sponsored the plaque. The cactus is particularly charming.)

UPDATE: I found them! The symbols are division insignia of the US Army. Top left, 44th Infantry (a mirrored “four”). Bottom left, 36th Infantry “Arrowhead”. Bottom right, 42nd Infantry, “Rainbow”. Top right, 103rd Infantry, “Cactus”.

Susanne Lothar


Have you seen the 2006 German film “The Lives of Others”? (Original title: Das Leben der Anderen) You may recall the wonderful actor Ulrich Mühe, who played the conflicted Stasi agent, and who died of cancer in 2007, just after the film’s release.

I tell you this as background to a rather sad but touching story. Last night I finally watched the whole of Michael Hanecke’s Das weisse Band (English title: “The White Ribbon”). It’s a difficult film to sit through, I found, but worth the discomfort. It’s beautifully made, and the performances are incredibly riveting.


I found myself looking up the cast list the next morning, as I had recognized only two or three of the actors. One whom I hadn’t known (or at least hadn’t recognized) but who had made a considerable impression on me was Susanne Lothar, who played the midwife. A little online research brought her more clearly into focus, and brought back something I had half-heard mentioned last summer. Susanne Lothar was married to Ulrich Mühe. They had met in 1990 as Mühe’s second marriage was ending (he had just come out of East Germany, and after the Wall fell all sorts of unpleasant things started coming to light, such as the fact that Mühe’s second wife had supplied information about her husband — unwittingly, she claimed — to the Stasi. When later asked how he had prepared for his role as a Stasi agent in “The Lives of Others”, he answered, “I remembered.”)

Mühe did a lot of film and TV work, but Lothar was a stage actress, the unsettling kind which one finds in the best German theaters. She had a special talent for portraying the fragile, the damaged, the soul in pain.
When Mühe became ill, they kept it to themselves. Shortly after his appearance at the 2007 Academy Awards, he underwent surgery for stomach cancer. He died on July 22 of that year.


On July 21 2012, just one day short of the fifth anniversary of Mühe’s passing, Lothar died. The cause of her death, to my knowledge, has never been made public. It is assumed that she took her own life. She was 51. One can imagine that she believed that five years without him had been enough.

Images found here, here, and here.

The Viereckschanze in Utting


I previously blogged about the village of Utting am Ammersee in connection with the small, hidden cemetery for nearby concentration camp victims there. Today I have another unusual place to show you — the rectangular earthwork (Viereckschanze) in the fields just west of the village.


This earthwork was built around 200-100 B.C., in the late Iron Age, by the people we call Celts. According to local sources the Roman Via Raetia (laid down after 15 A.D.) passed right by here, possibly within a few meters of the earthwork.


There are approximately 150 such earthworks of this kind (not including grave mounds and other types) surviving in whole or in part today in Bavaria alone. The one in Utting is one of five in the county, and an unusually large one with an inside area of 12,000 square meters.


According to information given on-site, research of some kind (a divining rod is mentioned) has revealed evidence inside the enclosure of the existence of A) small buildings, B) a sacrificial site, C) a hole with wooden support walls.

I have to add here that the western side of the Ammersee, we are learning, is some kind of hotspot for the esoterically-minded, and evidently has been for quite some time, as least as early as the 1920s. The sign at this earthwork clearly reflects this, with breezy assertations that the small buildings were temples, the hole was for divining energies, that the whole thing was primarily used for “cult-religious purposes and activities, teaching and passing on of traditions, adjudication, observance of nature and the heavens.” It goes on to say that

the Celts lived in close harmony with the laws of nature. They sensed unseen active entities, forces and energies. They built their ritual sites on places with particular characteristics. These phenomena can evoke internal visions, colors, sounds or moods even today in people who are especially attuned to listening to them.

(translation mine)

Now, there may be something to the idea that people of all eras feel a certain affinity to certain places. I have come across some theories that medieval churches were built on pagan sites not just to wipe out the old gods but to capitalize on the good vibes attributed to the particular place. That’s plausible. Certainly the Celts were more in tune with the laws of nature, as were all people living at the time. But the idea that these earlier people had time to spend tuning into the universe, observing nature and digging the force fields is, to me, a bunch of hooey. Sure, this Schanze may well have included some religious purpose, in the sense that one might feel the need to pray to one’s gods while barricaded inside. These earthworks offered protection, possibly against invaders, or animals (bears, wolves, wild boars). They offered a good surveillance view of the surrounding lands. They offered safe places to keep foodstuffs and materials (leather, bone, wood) awaiting processing. Sure, the Mayans and the Egyptians built pyramids (or, better said, their kings and pharoahs made them do it.) I cannot believe  that the Celts were not too busy, just from trying to get through the winter, to expend time and energy on this sort of thing for the express purpose of being One With The Universe. Perhaps they had one Shaman who did that, and it was built for him (or her.) But then, we are back to today’s system, with a village of farmers and one parish priest. Perhaps the most powerful families maintained these enclosures, like an Iron-Age version of the Kennedy Compound. Many large farms around here have their own little chapels on their grounds (in fact you can have one built these days — we watched one go up in Eching, passing that farm regularly.) Since we are walking around today with basically the same faculties as our ancestors had 50,000 years ago, I see no reason to believe that the people who built the Schanzen were any more enlightened than today’s modern Bauer.

Still, it’s quite something to be on an earthen structure which has survived over 2000 years.

If you go: you can find the earthwork very easily on Google Maps (WNW of Utting, no coordinates needed:just  look for the word “Keltenschanze”). There is parking just off the ST2347 (Landsberger Strasse) and then it’s a few minutes walk on well-maintained gravel roads.