German-Speaking Actresses in English-Speaking Roles, Part 2

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A Brief History

On August 2nd, 1991, actress Hedi Lamarr was arrested for shoplifting.  Hedi’s life and accomplishments were presented in Part 1 of our series on German-speaking women in English-speaking roles. In this article, we present the next group of German actresses.

Digging Deeper

Part 2: The Post-War Years

1) Hildegard Knef (1925-2002)

During World War II, Hildegard Knef, a young aspiring actress, had an affair with Ewald von Demandowsky who was the head of a film production company responsible for making many Nazi propaganda movies. In the final year of the war and to be able to stay with her lover during the Battle of Berlin, Knef dressed as a soldier. Both of them were captured by the Soviets; She was sent to a prison camp, and he was executed. Knef managed to escape and returned to Berlin. There she returned to acting and in 1946 starred in The Murderers are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns), the first movie released in East Germany after the Second World War. She then appeared in her most notorious role as Marina in The Sinner (Die Sünderin) in which she briefly appeared nude, a first in German film history. The movie created a scandal, and there were many protests. The Catholic Church in particular took issue with the movie because it addressed such taboo topics as prostitution and suicide. With her new-found fame, Knef was invited to Hollywood by David O. Selznick, but she refused to agree to the conditions of the contract which included her changing her name and pretending she was Austrian instead of German. Selznick’s fears were justified, and Knef did not achieve popularity as American audiences associated her with her nude scene and with having an affair with a Nazi. Knef did, however, achieve some degree of success on the American stage when she starred in the role of Ninotchka, an unemotional Soviet commissar, in the musical Silk Stockings by Cole Porter. She played the role from 1954-1956 and sang Cole Porter tunes during the performances. Having success as a singer, she returned to Europe and became a chanteuse during the 1960s and 1970s. With her deep, husky voice, she was able to sell 3 million records covering songs such as Mack the Knife (Mackie Messer) as well as her own songs for which she wrote the lyrics. In Germany her most famous song is Für mich soll’s rote Rosen regnen (Red Roses Shall Rain for Me).

2) Maria Schell (1926-2005)

In the mid 1950s, Maria Schell, older sister to famed, Academy-Award-winning actor and director, Maximilian Schell, won her own film awards at Cannes and Venice. The movie Gervaise, for which she was awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actress, was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. While in Hollywood for the Academy Award ceremony, she was discovered in a hotel lobby by Yul Brynner who asked her to star alongside him in his upcoming movie The Brothers Karamazov. Other famous actors she worked with included Gary Cooper and Glenn Ford. In the 1960s and 70s she withdrew from making films to concentrate more on stage and television work. She did have a role, however, in 1978’s Superman in which she appears in the opening scene as a scientist who is not convinced by Jor-El’s (Marlon Brando) theory that their planet will explode.

3) Marianne Koch (1931- )

A retired actress of the 1950s and 1960s, Koch is primarily known for her appearances in Spaghetti Westerns and adventure films. For those of you who do not know what Spaghetti Westerns are, these were American cowboy-themed movies that were filmed by Italian movie studios in the style of Italian director Sergio Leone and that often had international crews and stars. In order to pursue acting, Koch had broken off her medical studies. In 1954 she starred alongside Gregory Peck in the espionage thriller Night People, and in 1964 she starred in the Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood. This latter role, however, cannot be considered an English-speaking role as the movie was filmed silent and then dubbed over in the respective languages, as was common practice with Spaghetti Westerns. In 1971 Koch resumed her medical studies, got her MD three years later and then opened her medical practice in Munich where she worked until 1997. She currently offers medical advice on the radio.

4) Ursula Andress (1936- )

Ursula Andress, the sexiest thing to come out of Switzerland after chocolate, was in fact also half German, her father being a German diplomat who disappeared during the Second World War. Known today mostly for the iconic scene in Ian Fleming’s Dr. No in which her character Honey Rider emerges from the ocean in a bikini, she starred in many other movies that capitalized on her good looks. These included What’s New Pussycat, She, and The Clash of the Titans (1981) in which she played no one less than Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, herself. For her stint as a Bond girl, she won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer.

5) Romy Schneider (1938-1982)

The absolute darling of the German movie screen of the 1950s, Rosemarie (Romy) Schneider, who was also half-Austrian, rose to fame portraying teenaged girls and romantic and idealized versions of Queen Victoria of Great Britain and the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the latter role forever tying her to title character of Sissi. At one point during this time, she was the highest paid German actress. She was also everything post-WW2 Germany wanted in a film star, sweet, innocent and virginal. This image was shattered when she met and fell in love with French actor, Alain Delon, and moved to Paris to be with him. In France she concentrated on French-speaking roles, and the German movie world was angered that she had turned her back on them. In the mid 1960s, Schneider also dabbled in English-speaking roles and starred with Jack Lemmon in Good Neighbor Sam and with Peter O’Toole in What’s New Pussycat? This experiment was short-lived, however, and she returned to the French film industry. Following the accidental death of her teenage son, she turned to alcohol and pills and died of cardiac arrest at the age of 43. Despite the fact that most of her movies are French productions, she still remains one of the best-loved German actresses.

6) Karin Dor (1938- )

A German actress of the 1960s, Karin Dor achieved some international success starring in the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice and in Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz. In both movies, she had very spectacular death scenes. In the Bond movie, her character was eaten alive by piranhas, and in the Hitchcock movie her character was shot to death by her jealous lover.

7) Elke Sommer (1940- )

Discovered while on vacation in Italy in the 1950s, Elke Sommer, daughter of a Lutheran minister, soon began starring in Italian productions and became somewhat of a sex symbol. This exposure helped her roles in German movies and from there she made the transition to Hollywood. In 1964, she, alongside fellow German-speaker Ursula Andress, won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer. Sommer became one of the most active actresses of the 1960s and starred as the leading lady in films with the likes of Peter Sellers, James Garner, Dick Van Dyke, Stephen Boyd, Bob Hope and Dean Martin. Though she has made over 100 film and television appearances, she never obtained superstar status.

8) Senta Berger (1941- )

One of the most highly-decorated actresses of the post-war period, Berger is considered one of the leading top German-speaking actresses. Born in Vienna, Austria, she was encouraged by her parents early on to pursue her acting dreams and was even accepted into the Max Reinhardt Seminar, the most famous acting school in Vienna. She had to drop out, however, after she had accepted an offer to appear in a minor role in The Journey with Yul Brynner without having asked the school’s director for permission first. She then became the youngest member of the Josefstadt Theater in 1958. A few years later she moved to Hollywood and starred alongside movie legends such as Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Richard Harris, Kirk Douglas and John Wayne. After she and her husband started their own film production company in 1965, Berger focused more on establishing herself in Europe, especially in France and Italy. In the 1980s she finally made her big comeback with German-speaking audiences. All but two of her many film awards have been awarded to her between 1983 and 2014. In her autobiography which was published in 2006, she talks about her time in Hollywood and about all the shallow people she met there and how Darryl Zanuck had attempted to get her on his “casting couch”.

9) Heidi Brühl (1942-1991)

A popular child/teenaged actress of the 1950s, she was also a singer and represented Germany at the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest. Three years earlier, her hit single Wir wollen niemals auseinander gehen (We Never Want to Part) sold over one million copies and was number 1 in the German music charts. She then starred with Guy Williams who was Disney’s Zorro and future star of Lost in Space in the 1963 film Captain Sinbad which was filmed in Bavaria. Brühl married an American and later moved to the United States with him. There she appeared in shows in Las Vegas and played in television series such as Columbo. Her most significant role in an English-speaking production was as Anna Montaigne, the seductive wife of a French climber in 1975’s The Eiger Sanction starring Clint Eastwood. Following her divorce, Brühl returned to Germany, where she died of breast cancer aged 49.

10) Christine Kaufmann (1945- )

Born in Austria to a German father and a French mother, Christine Kaufmann was a child actress and ballerina. Her role in Rosen-Resli at the age of 9, in which she brought tears to the eyes of millions of movie-goers, made her a star.  As a teenager she gained international recognition co-starring in The Last Days of Pompeii with Steve Reeves and in Town Without Pity with Kirk Douglas. In 1961 she won the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer, the first German to be so honored. She then starred in Taras Bulba alongside Tony Curtis whom she married in 1962. As a married woman, she chose to focus on her growing family instead of on garnering movie roles. Following her divorce from Curtis in 1968, Kaufmann returned to Germany and resumed her acting career. In 1999 she appeared in the German Playboy as the “Sexiest Grandmother in Germany”. She has written several books dealing with beauty and health and has her own successful cosmetics line.

Please stay tuned for our next article on German-speaking actresses in English-speaking roles. The next group will be comprised of the youngest and most mainstream generation.

Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite actress from this list?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please read, watch or listen to…

Farina, William.  The German Cabaret Legacy in American Popular Music.  McFarland, 2013.

Knef, Hildegard.  Grosse Erfolge.  Universal Import, 2009.  Audio CD.


About Author

Beth Michaels attended a private college in Northeast Ohio from which she earned a Bachelor’s degree in German with a minor in French. From there she moved to Germany where she attended the University of Heidelberg for two years. Additional schooling earned her certifications as a foreign language correspondent and state-certified translator. In her professional career, Beth worked for a leading German manufacturer of ophthalmological medical instruments and devices as a quality representative, regulatory affairs manager and internal auditor.