Nothing can stop him, no barbed wire, no solitary confinement, no search party. Time and time again he risks his life for freedom, even if they keep bringing him back to the prisoner of war camp. “Every soldier must try to flee if the opportunity arises,” he says.
In the British war film “One came through” Hardy Krüger plays a German fighter pilot who was shot down with his plane over England in 1940 and does everything possible to return to his homeland and continue fighting. In the end, he manages to escape from the prisoner transport that is supposed to take him to a Canadian camp and make his way to the USA, which was still neutral at the time. He sends his most obstinate pursuer – all officer and gentleman – a postcard.
When The One That Got Away, as it was originally titled, was released in British cinemas in 1957, the film became a political issue. Because twelve years after the end of the war he showed a German as a hero, and one who, with his blond hair and blue eyes, corresponded to the cliché of an “Aryan”.
A reporter asks: “Were you a Nazi?”
The first question Hardy Krüger heard from a journalist at a press conference in London was: “Were you a Nazi?” An affront. “I took the leap forward by saying ‘yes,'” the actor later recalled. “Then there was speechlessness in the hall. So far the English journalists had only met Germans who claimed not to have been Nazis. And I added, ‘That’s the dumbest question I’ve ever heard’ and asked the reporter, ‘What makes you think I was a Nazi?’ He said, ‘Look in the mirror, you look like this.’
I then replied that I could understand that as a Jew he had something against Germans. He asked, ‘How do you know I’m a Jew?’ And I: ‘Look in the mirror.’ Then all hell broke loose. We had all the English newspapers against us.”
Nonetheless, “One came through” became a global hit and helped Krüger achieve an international breakthrough. After that he couldn’t escape the role of the daredevil, and he had to put on the uniform with the swastika several times. However, in films like “Taxi to Tobruk” or “The Bridge from Arnhem” he did not embody fanatical ideologues, but fighters on the wrong side who had remained morally upright.
He became the “Ambassador of Germany”
Krüger made people out of caricatures and wanted to show the world that there had been other good Germans. The magazine “Quick” named the film star “Ambassador of Germany” in 1960, who acted “more successfully abroad than some diplomats”. He became friends with the reporter who attacked him at the press conference. His name was Thomas Wiseman and he fled from Vienna to England as a Jewish child.
For Hardy Krüger, who was born in Wedding in Berlin in 1928 and grew up in Biesdorf, a different path in life was originally envisaged than that of a reconciler. His father, an engineer and party member, sent him to the Ordensburg Sonthofen, an elite school where children were to be raised to become warlike masters.
In 1943 he got a role in the propaganda film “Junge Adler” about a group of Hitler Youth who build bomber towers in an armaments factory and dream of heroic deeds. The screenplay came from the later “Derrick” creator Herbert Reinecker, directed by Alfred Weidenmann. Krüger should still work with the duo even after the missed final victory, for more harmless films like “The sky is never sold out” and “Alibi”.
Doubts as to whether the “Führer” was chosen came to the Adolf Hitler student during the filming of “Young Eagles”. In the Ufa film town of Babelsberg he met the actor Hans Söhnker, who reported on the crimes of the regime and showed him films by Ernst Lubitsch and Reinhold Schünzel. “In Sonthofen I was drummed into the words that the Jews were ‘our misfortune’ and now I saw what great films had been made by Jews.” Söhnker had set up a small resistance group that hid Jews and smuggled them into Switzerland. The young actor helped them as a courier.
Krüger narrowly escaped a “hero’s death” when he was drafted into the SS Division “Nibelungen” at the beginning of 1945 and got involved in heavy fighting on the bend in the Danube. He escaped from American captivity and – as later in the film – survived. From Tyrol he walked to his parents’ house in Biesdorf, for 34 days. “What I saw in the last two years of the war,” he stated, “triggered an unquenchable thirst for life in me.” The urge for freedom became the fuel of his life.
He quickly became a star in the cinema
He shortened his birth name Eberhard to Hardy on the advice of an editor when he began his career as a radio announcer in Hamburg. Hardy is a surname in England and America, the translation is: the fearless. He quickly became a star in the cinema, but in West German films of the Adenauer era, he was mostly left with the role of the impetuous young lover or hormonally confused teenager, in comedy and frustration plays, the “I can’t marry everyone” or “You have to get divorced right away?” were called. The low point was reached when he had to follow the half-naked leading actress Marion Michael through the jungle in the Tarzan knockoff “Liane, the girl from the jungle”.
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More demanding films such as the German-German love drama “Two under Millions” and Helmut Käutner’s Hamlet update “The Rest is Silence” flopped. Krüger’s favorite film, the French Serge Bourguignon-directed silent drama Sundays with Sybill about a war-traumatized man who befriends an orphan girl, is all but forgotten today. It received the foreign Oscar in 1963, but disappeared from German cinemas after just two weeks.
He has been writing books since the 1980s
But Hardy Krüger was a free man, and from the early 1960s he worked almost exclusively abroad. Predestined for the really big adventure films, he played alongside James Stewart (“Flight of the Phoenix”), John Wayne (“Hatari”), and Richard Burton (“The Wild Geese Are Coming”). He went down in film history at the latest with his portrayal of the Prussian captain von Potzdorf in Stanley Kubrick’s costume film “Barry Lyndon”, legendary not only the candle-lit banquet scenes.
In the 1980s, Krüger slowly withdrew from the film business, wrote short stories and travel books, and gave lectures against the rise of right-wing radicalism. He compared aging to an hourglass. “In the beginning it takes forever before you even notice that the sand is trickling down. But at the end, there he rushes – whoosh! – through very quickly.” Hardy Krüger died in Palm Springs in his adopted hometown of California on Wednesday. He was 93 years old.