• “A so-called good-looking man"

    Curd Jürgens in post-war film


By Rudolf Worschech

With Curd Jürgens, born in Munich, holder of an Austrian passport, living mainly in France, post-war West German film became international. Of all the male stars of this period, he is the one least identifiable with the cinema of the Adenauer era. He had nothing to do with the Heimat films which dominated West German cinema and comprised roughly one third of production output. He was never the male part of a “dream couple” which was so typical for the cinema of the 1950s. In 1950, the director Hans Deppe cast Sonja Ziemann and Rudolf Prack in his film Schwarzwaldmädel (1950) – and in doing so reached an audience, in the first evaluation, of 16 million) – O.W. Fischer and Maria Schell, Dieter Borsche and Ruth Leuwerik followed in the wake of the dream couple who fans affectionately dubbed Zieprack. Curd Jürgens acted with Schell twice – but without far-reaching consequences.

Austrian passport, 1954

First half of the 1950s

Curd Jürgens tried to escape the constraints of Austro-German film from early stage. This too set him apart from the actors of his generation. In 1950 he acted in the German version of UN SOURIRE DANS LA TEMPÊTE, EIN LÄCHELN IM STURM (A smile in the Storm); in 1951 he visited the United States upon the invitation of the State Department to make a travel documentary – and took part in a Q&A session with the local press (“In what is by our terms a super-clean railway train …”).

But there seem to have been no concrete offers. In German-language cinema he remained a maverick, took on many roles, first in Austria, then increasingly in the young Federal Republic with its booming film industry. It is difficult to categorize Jürgens in this period. He worked with established directors who were specialists in light entertainment and who had started their careers in the Nazi era, such as Géza von Cziffra, Karl Hartl, Alfred Braun, Paul Verhoeven. At the same frenzied speed that the German entertainment and diversion machinery produced, Jürgens made one film after another. There is always something statutory about his appearances in these films, whether as the ruthless manager of a theatre actress in ORIENT-EXPRESS (1954) by Ludovico Bragaglia, or as Commissioner Roland in Cziffras LAMBERT FÜHLT SICH BEDROHT (Lambert Is Threatened, 1949), solving a murder by himself. In this regard, his role in 1. APRIL 2000 (1952) by Wolfgang Liebeneiner is only consistent: He portrays the chief of the World Police in a fantasy uniform in what for today seems a rather antiquated satire, grumpily and without recourse to long speeches.

Jürgens was 34 years old at the time of LAMBERT FÜHLT SICH BEDROHT and played the part of a young detective. With a moustache and a pipe reminiscent of Maigret, his character Commissioner Roland approached the case with the same prudence.

Curd Jürgens began his rise to fame after 1945 at, by today’s standards, an advanced age. In ET DIEU… CRÉA LA FEMME (… And God Created Woman, 1956, D: Roger Vardim) he was already something of a grand seigneur.


ET DIEU… CRÉA LA FEMME (1956) Lobby cards

ET DIEU… CRÉA LA FEMME (1956) Film and production stills

And in DES TEUFELS GENERAL (The Devil’s General), made in 1955, he plays at the age of 39, a military man aged somewhere between 50 and 60. In this film, the director Helmut Käutner had to impose his choice of Jürgens against the will of the distributors who thought him too old. It is astounding how many old men were bustling around in the early years of postwar West German cinema. The men of the early years of West German cinema were Hans Albers, Hans Söhnker, Gustav Fröhlich, Johannes Heesters, Dieter Borsche, Hans Nielsen. They were all performers in their prime – or beyond. And anyone who hoped to join their ranks had at least to look ageless. There was another reason in the oft-stated continuity in personnel between Ufa and the post-war cinema that carried over into the acting department. It was linked with cinema being a “grown-up” pleasure for the 20 to 40 year olds who at that time made up the bulk of the audience.Another reason was that actors in the post-war cinema were identificatory figures, substitute men with integrity and, above all, fathers for the men and partners who were tarnished by the Third Reich and National Socialism.

The “angry young men”, as embodied in American film by James Dean and Marlon Brando, never existed in West German cinema – at best they existed in a “mild” variant evolving from the mid-1950s with Hansjörg Felmy or Christian Doermer. Horst Buchholz in Georg Tresslers epic film DIE HALBSTARKEN (Teenage Wolfpack, 1956) remained the exception.

But Curd Jürgens was certainly no father figure in post-war film; he did not fit the part. He was frequently the lover, the ruffian, or a noble hero, mainly in one-dimensional roles. Curd Jürgens, the heart-breaker and seducer: In G.W. Pabst’s DAS BEKENNTNIS DER INA KAHR (The Confession of Ina Kahr, 1954) he needed only a few seconds, not just to get into conversation with Elisabeth Müller, but also to get to the first kiss.

Likewise, in the company of women he has a directness which runs through his later roles. He looks deep into their eyes, holds them in his gaze, lifts them out of their surroundings. He often bends down low so that the camera captures him in what is almost a gesture of submission. This concentration on one person contrasts with his often rather formal and expectant manner.


With Romy Schneider in KATIA (1959; D: Robert Siodmak)

DVD: Studiocanal

Second half of the 1950s

This all changes in the second half of the 1950s when Jürgens tried to escape from his stereotypical roles. This period – and the early 1960s – most certainly form the most productive and performance-diverse phase of his career. He sets about the dismantling of his stereotypical roles in so many films. He shows a level of on-screen depth that would have been considered impossible. At that time there was nobody to emulate him with such ease. O.W. Fischer perhaps (even more popular in German-speaking countries than Jürgens) liked to portray the eccentric and inscrutable, but cultivated his youthful charisma at the same time. Dieter Borsche, if you ignore his one-off in FANFAREN DER LIEBE (1951), only lost his screen image as man of integrity with the Edgar Wallace-films.

In MEINES VATERS PFERDE (1. Teil: LENA UND NICOLINE) by Gerhard Lamprecht in 1953, Jürgens played the rebel as an Irish nobleman pitched against a German landowner.



  • MEINES VATERS PFERDE (1954) With Martin Benrath (l.) and Robert Dietl (r.)

  • MEINES VATERS PFERDE (1954) With Martin Benrath

  • MEINES VATERS PFERDE (1954) With Martin Benrath


  • MEINES VATERS PFERDE (1954) With Eva Bartok


  • MEINES VATERS PFERDE (1954) With Martin Benrath



  • MEINES VATERS PFERDE (1954) With Robert Dietl

  • MEINES VATERS PFERDE (1954) With Ernst Ginsberg

  • MEINES VATERS PFERDE (1954) With Robert Dietl

With Eva Bartok and Martin Benrath in MEINES VATERS PFERDE

(1. Teil / D: G. Lamprecht)

DVD: Studiocanal

His crowning performance as a film actor in the 1950s – and one of the best performances of his career – was in the first production of the returned émigré director Robert Siodmak: DIE RATTEN. Siodmak and his screenwriter Jochen Huth transposed Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1910 play to the Berlin of the present. This play of social criticism was transformed into a farce about the economic miracle, and Huth und Siodmak used the backyard tenement building in the deprived district of Wedding to make a film noir. It is the story of a human trafficking told in retrospect: how the abandoned woman Pauline Karka (Maria Schell) from the “Eastern Zone” sells her child to another woman, Anna John (Heidemarie Hatheyer) who runs a laundry and believes that with the child she will be able strengthen the ties with her husband, a removals man. The astonishing thing about the film is the unbiased way in which the characters are observed. Even Anna John’s actions are not held up to judgement; indeed they can be related to by the audience. She is only doing what is best for her. It is about a duel between two women, a lady and a refugee girl, but the film never reveals the bare minimum about its characters.

Least of all about Bruno Mechelke, Anna John’s brother, played by Curd Jürgens. For her, he is something like an extended arm into the criminal world, the factotum she holds a protecting hand over. But Bruno is a thorn in the eye, especially as far as her husband is concerned. He compensates for his social inferiority with coolness; he has a cigarette in his mouth and a careless attitude.

As Bruno Mechelke in DIE RATTEN (1955)

As Bruno Mechelke in DIE RATTEN (1955)

As Bruno Mechelke in DIE RATTEN (1955)

“A so-called good-looking man”, someone says about him on one occasion. Bruno is a scrounger, someone the economic miracle has passed by, who lives amongst the pieces of furniture that other people have deposited with the Johns. And Bruno is a driven man. In this film, this is linked with sex. Jürgens is direct about this and plays it with a complete absence of charm. In his first scene, Gustav Knuth as Anna’s husband, Karl John, is seen driving out on his rounds through West Germany, through the gateway in which Bruno is standing with a young girl. Without it being openly stated, Hatheyer, Knuth und Jürgens make up a triangle; an incestuous undertone is in the air; Bruno is nearer to Anna than her husband.

On one occasion he is lying on the bed in the room he has built out of the deposited furniture and the girl (Barbara Rost) is standing next to him; his right leg is raised and he is moving it in a way that, at a time when Elvis’s hip gyrations caused uproar, could only be describes as obscene.


Barbara Rost, Curd Jürgens

Because Pauline Karka wants the return of her child and Anna John fears that her deceit will be discovered, she sets Bruno on the refugee girl. And that is Curd Jürgens’ real tour de force in this film: the way he strolls with her through the Christmas market, two lost people who could have found each other, how for a time it seems that he really feels for her, the way he cheers her up with little presents – and then nonetheless tries to murder her. “Look into my eyes,” he says to her, “so that you can see what’s coming to you if you don’t do as I say.” It is almost a self-parody of the star whose blue eyes the media of the time never tired of highlighting. This Bruno is the man of that light-dark that the Swedish cameraman Göran Strindberg lit the streets and squares with and the inner rooms too.

With Maria Schell in DIE RATTEN (1955; D: Robert Siodmak)

DVD: Universum

With Maria Schell in DIE RATTEN (1955; D: Robert Siodmak)

DVD: Universum

DIE RATTEN stands out alone in the films of the 1950s. It won the “Golden Bear” at the Berlin Film Festival and the film critics at the time without exception recognised its qualities.

Dark Sides

At the end of the 1950s proof came in writing that Jürgens had not been over-sensitive in his choice of roles hitherto. He took the German film industry to court, so to speak – and drew the short straw. This court case is symptomatic of the power relationships in the film industry at the time. Curd Jürgens brought a case against the producer Artur Brauner, himself incidentally always extremely litigious, but without it affecting their friendship. Jürgens had a contract to make a CCC-Film production with Brauner for a project entitled “Schweigepflicht”. In the film he plays a landowner whose wife conceals from him the fact that their daughter was fathered by someone else. Following pressure from Gloria Distribution the title was changed to Du mein stilles Tal. At that time the distributors were the actual power-brokers in the film industry: their guarantees helped finance the films and they influenced not only the casting but also the script. The magazine Der Spiegel (12.10.1955), thinking the action worthy of a title story, wrote of Gloria’s boss, Ilse Kubaschewski: “She frequently consults Gustel, the cook, and Kernchen, the chauffeur, as lay advisers. They are servants at the Kubaschewski villa in Stamberg. Furthermore the Gloria balance sheets prove that the opinions of the cook and chauffeur harmonise with the tastes of broad swathes of the population.” Kubaschewski had made her money with Heimat films like GRÜN IST DIE HEIDE (The Heath Is Green, 1951). Jürgens’ lawyer, however, saw the change of title as a “derogation of the artistic standing” of his client. The court watched the film: “During the performance the judges had the opportunity to observe that the film and the title were indeed different in theme but not in standard” (Der Spiegel) – and the in first instance they gave judgement in favour of Jürgens. However, the film was released under the altered title, and the court case ended three years later in a compromise.

DIE RATTEN also ends tragically for Bruno Mechelke: Karka kills him in self defence. On the screen, Jürgens had essentially ended up on the losers’ side. There are two films he appears in at this time, two marriage dramas in which he is on the front line of the battle of the sexes between the men who have reconquered their traditional places “by ancestral right” after a lost war and captivity, and women who have been forced back into house and home. Symptomatically, both films end happily – and with the restoration of male supremacy. There are times, however, when the journey is more important than the destination.

  • LIEBE OHNE ILLUSION (1955) With Sonja Ziemann

  • LIEBE OHNE ILLUSION (1955) With Heidemarie Hatheyer

  • LIEBE OHNE ILLUSION (1955) With Heidemarie Hatheyer

  • LIEBE OHNE ILLUSION (1955) With Sonja Ziemann

  • LIEBE OHNE ILLUSION (1955) Film-Echo, Wiesbaden

  • LIEBE OHNE ILLUSION (1955) Movie poster

As so often is the case in Curd Jürgens’ films, LIEBE OHNE ILLUSION (Love Without Illusions, 1955) by Erich Engel, evolves as a love triangle. Here Jürgens plays a former actor who has been “derailed” and, in the period of the economic miracle, has to service slot machines after losing an arm in the war. Only a very select number of few films from this period broach the theme of the consequences of the war directly. Disabled people are very rarely portrayed in 1950s cinema, even though Heimat films are full of refugees and their problems of integration. Jürgens embodies here a national trauma: the social degradation that follows the lost war.The starting point for the erotic triangle is the housing situation. Walter (Jürgens) and his young wife Christa (Heidemarie Hatheyer), a hard working doctor, are joined in their flat by the wife’s younger sister – Ursula (Sonja Ziemann). The three are brought together from the very first sequence when the sister moves in. The man stands in the background between the women as they greet each other. Walter is already being ascribed the “female” sphere here. As the girl is being shown around, he points out the way to the kitchen. He will later explain to his boss, who pays him an unexpected visit, that he is a good cook because he learned how to cook as a prisoner of war. His wife is working without a break, travelling to a conference, when he is told that he has lost his job. Curd Jürgens is very withdrawn in this film, someone resigned to his fate. And so he slides into further difficulties. A bit of flirting with his sister-in-law develops into something greater – and there is a child on the way. Ursula loses the baby when she trips over a water bucket – in a way that is legally irreproachable. This ending, whereby the marriage partners are able to find themselves again, was chalked up by the critics, even at that time, as coming too suddenly and being a concession to the period.

Jürgens’ dependency on the female is even starker in TEUFEL IN SEIDE (1955) directed by Rolf Hansen. Jürgens is a man of advanced age who has not yet found his place in life, a musician who wants to compose and who plays in bars to support himself. He falls in love with a woman – the wrong woman – a rich widow who he marries and who arranges his promotion in her empire. The Femme fatale (Lilli Palmer) dies and it is a strength of the film that for a long time it is left open whether the musician is implicated in this.

He is capable of doing it: he has many faces, he is a man who is inwardly driven and only appears calm and controlled on the outside. “When you know the abyss, you proceed more carefully,” he says at the end of the film, and Winnie Markus takes his arm, not like when two lovers are out together, but in the way someone leads a patient.

With Winnie Markus in TEUFEL IN SEIDE (1956; D: Rolf Hansen)

DVD: Studiocanal

Curd Jürgens and the CCC

DIE RATTEN and LIEBE OHNE ILLUSION were produced by CCC-Film in Berlin, who Jürgens was suing at the time. In the second half of the 1950s he increasingly worked abroad: films produced during this period included MICHEL STROGOFF (1956), THIS HAPPY FEELING (1958), THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS (1958) or FERRY TO HONG KONG (1959). At the end of the 1950s producers had united in implementing a wage limit for their stars whose earnings per film were not to exceed DM 100,000. For Jürgens the most important reason for working primarily in the USA was certainly for the dollars.

However, Jürgens remained interested in German projects, especially if they were unusual. A “Peer Gynt project” was planned with Artur Brauner but it subsequently fell through. Thereupon Brauner sent him, as Jürgens wrote to the producer on 13.1.1960, “just about every manuscript in which there was a male leading role.” He continues:

“You know that there is only one circumstance that would make me forget all the financial constraints and disadvantages: if we were talking about an ambitiously artistic film, perhaps with the chance of opening the international door to German film, presenting modern ways and superseding traditional conservative German film.”

Brauner offered him a project with the title “Dr. Feelgood, and Jürgens dreamt of a “continuation of the Nouvelle Vague which would renew the whole world of film”. Jürgens was certainly not a party to the Oberhausen Manifesto, but his reaction reflects the general sense of discontent with film production at this time.

  • Welt am Sonnabend: “Curd, wer soll dich bezahlen?”, 12.10.1957

  • “Die Helden sind teuer”, 1957

Extract from: “The Man who was never young. A foray through the films of Curd Jürgens post 1945” by Rudolf Worschech. In: Hans-Peter Reichmann (ed.): Curd Jürgens. Frankfurt am Main 2000/2007 (Kinematograph No. 14).

Translation: Elizabeth Ward