Hildegard Knef’s acting career was as checkered as the era in which she rose to prominence. The German actress, who died Feb. 1 of a lung infection in a Berlin hospital at age 76, began her career in propaganda films during the Third Reich’s waning days, starred in Germany’s first post-World War II film, appeared nude in a 1951 pic and was featured in U.S. movies after refusing studio entreaties to deny her German heritage.
Because of poor health, she did not appear at publisher Burda’s annual gala in November to receive a Bambi award for lifetime achievement.
The Berlin Film Festival, which bows Feb. 6, reacted quickly upon news of Knef’s death, announcing it will insert a special section with films starring the actress. The section will include the recent documentary “That’s a Woman and a Half — Hildegard Knef,” which premiered at last year’s Berlinale.
“Hildegard Knef was one of the greatest international stars ever produced by Germany: a willful artist –versatile, provocative, unmistakable over generations,” said Berlinale topper Dieter Kosslick. “She was a true star and a real Berliner. … She was the voice of Berlin.” Knef, born in Ulm, studied at the Babelsberg Film Institute and began her career at UFA appearing in government propaganda films. She fell in love with a film official, a protege of Joseph Goebbels, and when he was sent to the Russian front, she accompanied him dressed as a man. When they were both captured by the Soviets, she escaped and never saw him again. Following the war, she acted onstage in war-shattered Berlin.
She became a postwar film star for her role as a former concentration camp inmate returning home, in Wolfgang Staudte’s “Morder Sind Unter Uns, Die” (Murderers Are Among Us), released in 1946.
Knef, who sometimes went by the name Hildegard Neff in the U.S., appeared in more than 50 films, most made in Europe. She turned down a Hollywood studio contract offered by David O. Selznick after being told she would have to change her name to Gilda Christian and say she was Austrian, not German.
She scandalized Roman Catholic authorities with a brief nude scene in 1951 German film “The Story of a Sinner.” Knef commented at the time, “I can’t understand all that tumult –five years after Auschwitz!” Among her other film credits, she played Pirate Jenny in “The Threepenny Opera” and Catherine the Great in “Catherine of Russia,” both in 1962.
Her work in America ranged from a supporting role in 1952’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, to the Broadway production “Silk Stockings” in 1955.
In 1963, the smoky-voiced Knef launched a career as a singer-songwriter and wrote a bestselling 1970 autobiography, “Der Geschenkte Gaul” (The Gift Horse), in which she candidly discussed her films and events she experienced during and after WWII.
She continued to act and sing almost until the end of her life, appearing as herself in the 2000 documentary “Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song” and in the 1999 German comedy “An Almost Perfect Wedding.”
She was later stricken with cancer and endured 56 operations. She chronicled the years of her illness in her second book, “The Verdict” (1975).
Marriages to American Kurt Hirsch and British actor David Cameron ended in divorce.
She is survived by her husband, Paul von Schell, and a daughter.