Hildegard Knef: Chronology of her life 1925 – 1949
The author is not responsible for the correctness of the following information.
December 28, 1925:
Hildegard Frieda Albertine Knef is born in the South German city of Ulm, at Turmgasse, at 4:02 a.m.; she is the daughter of 28 year old Hans Theodor Knef, a tobacco merchant of Flemish descent, and of his wife Frieda Auguste, nee Gröhn, a secretary and later owner of a cigar and of a chocolate shop; a few weeks later she is baptized in Ulm’s evangelical (Lutheran) cathedral; Hans Theodor reproaches his wife for not having born a son and heir; Hildegard’s dearly loved grandfather Karl is of Polish and East Prussian descent and lives in an arbour in Zossen, near to Berlin, where she is to spend most of her summers; she also spends a lot of time in his apartment in the Berlin borough of Schöneberg, Frobenstraße 13.
June 6, 1926:
Her father Hans Theodor dies in
Mother and daughter move to Berlin-Schöneberg, Sedanstraße 68, 3rd floor, 2 bedrooms; that street is now named Leberstraße and it’s where her good friend of later days, Marlene Dietrich, was born next door, No. 69, in 1901; during wartime, her grandfather Karl lived with them.
First day at school, in the
• Polio disease and sick with acute articular rheumatism.
Her mother Frieda marries Wilhelm Wulfestieg, a trained shoemaker and owner of a leather goods factory, raised in Hanover; Wulfestieg refuses to adopt Hildegard; due to the fact that Wulfestieg’s business partner was Jewish, he is now only permitted by the new Nazi regime to own a shoemaker’s shop; Hildegard and her mother assisted him in his shop at Bernhardstraße (Berlin-Friedenau); the family moves next door, to Bernhardstraße 5 (then to No. 6); Hildegard lives in an uneasy state of constant fear of her stepfather (“because his hands were so huge”).
• At age 8, Hildegard Knef starts drawing her first portraits, chiefly of elderly people.
August 20, 1935:
Her half-brother Heinz Wulfestieg is born in Berlin; he became a jazz musician, playing the trumpet; the boy suffers from a congenital heart condition. He dies in 1978, at age 43, in Berlin.
• Attends the Rückert Lyzeum in
Berlin-Schöneberg, Mettestraße 8; with her class, she visits the Olympic
Several jaw-bone and nose operations (caused by smacks by her mother).
Shortly after the outbreak of World
War Two, Hildegard and her schoolmates assist in harvest work outside of
Evangelical confirmation at the
main church of the
At age 15, Hildegard Knef finishes school; her mother envisages her to subsequently attend a commercial school.
After successfully applying for a
school grant, she starts her apprenticeship as illustrator at the
Early July 1943:
Acting teacher (and later chief of
August 13, 1943:
In the studio’s staff canteen,
Hildegard Knef draws the attention of
August 14, 1943:
Signs a contract to be trained as an actress at the Staatliche Filmschule Potsdam-Babelsberg; she joins the class of Karl Meixner and receives a monthly grant of 300 Reich marks; her training involves ballet classes, singing and fencing.
Hildegard’s mother and her
half-brother are evacuated to the city of
June 8, 1944:
First small theatre part, in the play Der kleine Herr Niemand (“Little Mister Nobody”) at the Kammerspiele of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin; meanwhile, her relationship with Ewald von Demandowsky begins – 18 years her senior, married, and head of production of Germany’s second largest film company Tobis; he is her first love.
Else Bongers manages to prevent Hildegard from having to attend an invitation by Joseph Goebbels.
Gets her first starring role, in
the film Fahrt ins
Glück (premiered in 1948) which is being shot in the
Late summer 1944:
Together with the girls in her
A bomb destroys the Bernhardstraße
mansions; Hildegard finds accommodation in the
Hildegard Knef dresses up as a male soldier, joins the Volkssturm military unit and, together with her lover Demandowsky, intends to flee hard-fought Berlin to her mother’s temporary home in the Luneburg Heath; SS henchmen stop her at a house off Kurfürstendamm and sentence her to death by hanging, for “army desertion” – she reveals herself as a female and is subsequently released; she dresses up as a boy once again, assumes the name of “Heinz” and tries to continue her flight; at Friesack (shortly before reaching the River Elbe), she and Demandowsky are arrested by Polish partisan fighters; they are transferred to a Soviet camp in Poland, consisting of about 40,000 male prisoners of war; there, Hildegard is informed of the Nazi past of her lover (Demandowsky has gone missing ever since); after the disclosure of her being a woman, she is ordered into solitary confinement; she gets sick with typhus, gets jaw injuries as a result of an accidental machine-gun blow by a Russian soldier (which over the years requires about twenty operations), but after 3 months manages to flee back to Berlin; in early June, Else Bongers secures a room for her in the home of famous actor Victor de Kowa in the capital’s Ruhleben district, at Wacholderweg 27; she then moves to her own new flat in Zehlendorf, at Kleiststraße.
June 16, 1945:
First theatre appearance after the end of the war, in a cabaret program called Heute Abend um sechs at the Tribüne theatre, where she sings her 1963 record release So oder so ist das Lebenfor the first time; on opening night, Hildegard Knef is informed of the suicide of her beloved grandfather Karl, dead at 83; more stage work follows, in Raub der Sabinerinnen (“The Rapine of the Sabinians”) by the Schönthan brothers at the Renaissance Theater, directed by Karl Heinz Martin.
November 3, 1945:
Recites Goethe’s prologue “Der Anfang ist in allen Sachen schwer” on the inauguration night of Berlin’s Schlosspark Theater which re-opens with the play Hokuspokus by Curt Goetz, directed by Boleslaw Barlog (who discovered her, years before, on Berlin’s Wannsee railway station); during its run, she meets Kurt Hirsch, a Jewish émigré from Czechoslovakia to the US, now a soldier and controlling officer for occupied Germany’s film business (later to be assistant of producer Erich Pommer).
December 8, 1945:
Opening of the Romain Rolland play Ein Spiel um Tod und Liebe (“The Game of Love and Death”), once again at Barlog’s Schlosspark Theater; in it, Hildegard Knef co-stars to Winnie Markus and, after Markus fell ill, gets to play her leading role for some time.
January 11, 1946:
Participates in the play Danach by Helmut Weiss at Schlosspark Theater; due to poor reviews and for lack of attendance, the play is cancelled after a run of just 21 performances.
February 20, 1946:
Opening night of Marcel Pagnol’s Zum goldenen Anker (“The Golden Anchor”) at Schlosspark Theater; after leading lady Gerty Soltau falls sick, Hildegard Knef takes over a leading role again; she is being congratulated personally by the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Late February 1946:
After having seen her in that play, film director Wolfgang Staudte signs Hildegard Knef for the leading role in Germany’s first post-war movie Die Mörder sind unter uns, a production of the East German film company DEFA; for three months, the film is being shot amidst the rubble of Berlin.
Moves into her new flat in the
April 30, 1946:
Plays the part of Celia in William Shakespeare’s Wie es euch gefällt (“As You Like It”) at the Schlosspark Theater, again under the direction of Boleslaw Barlog.
August 16, 1946:
Hildegard Knef’s 291 performances as lisping Mabel in the Holm & Abbott play Drei Mann auf einem Pferd (“Three Men On a Horse”) at Barlog’s Schlosspark Theater mean her breakthrough as theatre actress; famous actor and director Gustav Gründgens said afterwards: “I haven’t laughed like that since Chaplin!”
October 15, 1946:
Opening night of Die Mörder sind unter uns at Berlin’s Admiralspalast; the film does not remain undisputed (Hildegard Knef herself didn’t think much of it, either), though gets to been seen by about 4 million people in the Soviet occupied zone (East Germany); it isn’t until 1959, that this movie is being shown on West German screens, succeeding a US release as early as August 1948.
Dubbing work at the DEFA studios in Berlin-Johannisthal. She dubs Soviet films but also lends her voice to Lana Turner in the Hollywood production “Ziegfeld Girl” (German version: “Mädchen im Rampenlicht”).
First visit to
April 16, 1947:
May 10, 1947:
On the cover of German magazine “Der Spiegel” for the first time (again in May 1952).
May 19, 1947:
First report on Hildegard Knef in a
July 4, 1947:
Opening night of Eugene O’Neill’s O Wildnis! (“Ah, Wilderness!”) at Schlosspark Theater (directed by Barlog).
Due to the efforts of her first
manager, Elly Silman, she gets her first movie offer from
• First consultation of an astrologue.
December 15, 1947:
Marries Kurt Hirsch at the Dorfkirche in Berlin-Dahlem; film producer Erich Pommer is one of the witnesses.
January 23, 1948:
The newly-weds move to the US, to the home of Kurt Hirsch’s parents in New York City’s Astoria quarter in the borough of Queens, but after a quarrel with Hirsch’s father they soon move to a boarding house in the Bronx; before arriving in America, Hildegard Knef signed a contract with Selznick’s agent in London that secured her 250 US dollars a week for 6 months.
January 23, 1948:
On the same day of Hildegard Knef’s departure to the US, her Film ohne Titel (“Film Without Title”) premieres in Berlin’s Marmorhaus cinema; the distributor is still trying to find a “proper” name to the film and asks the public in a hand-out for help (reward: 3,000 Reich marks); the movie becomes the most successful film of the year and receives the 1949 “Bambi” award.
January 27, 1948:
First personal meeting with David
O. Selznick in his
April 1, 1948:
After several days on the road, Knef and Hirsch arrive in Hollywood (first apartment at South Doheny Drive in Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills district, later at Benedict Canyon Drive, Beverly Hills); first interviews with the American press – the studio presents her as an Austrian and changes her name to Hildegarde Neff (after her forceful rejection of Selznick’s suggestion “Gilda Christian”); apart from a few screen tests, Selznick puts her on ice; Kurt Frings becomes her Hollywood agent and employs her husband.
• New friendships: to the astrologer Carroll Righter, to exiled Ludwig Marcuse (who for 2 years becomes her teacher in German literature, as she didn’t learn anything about it in Nazi schools) and to Marlene Dietrich.
August 1, 1948:
Adorns the cover of the first edition of German magazine “Stern”, with a photo taken from Film ohne Titel.
Best actress award for her role in Film ohne Titel at the Locarno film festival; the movie receives the Grand Prix of Milan, too; in later years, Knef described this movie as her best ever.
June 16, 1949:
Returns to Berlin for the shooting of “The Big Lift” starring Montgomery Clift; however, she learns that her part has been given to compatriot Cornell Borchers; rumour has it that Borchers got her role after disclosing Knef’s relationship with Nazi Ewald von Demandowsky; three weeks later, Hildegard Knef flies back to the US.