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Memoriam Hildegard Knef
She was not the naive blonde Fräulein so often portrayed in German postwar cinema. Hildegard Knef (right, in a movie ad for "The Sinner," 1950), 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, 2002, 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 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.