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.