Curd Jürgens in the 1960s and 1970s

Curd Jürgens in the 1960s and 1970s

By Rudolf Worschech

The Media phenomenon

There is a famous photograph of Curd Jürgens from 1971 in which he is shown with the then West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in the garden of the Chancellor’s Office in Bonn. To the left of Brandt is Romy Schneider, visibly ill at ease; to the right is Simone Jürgens, and then Curd. The two men are roughly the same age – Jürgens was born in 1915, Brandt in 1912 – and both men are keeping their distance. Jürgens seems to be chatting, Brandt is listening. The statesman and the artist – at first sight, it is impossible to tell them apart.

An artist? At this point, Curd Jürgens was more like a public institution. A person in whom both society and the press showed an intense interest: in his wives (Simone was the fourth); in his physical ailments (he had been suffering from heart problems since 1967); in his stays in France, Austria, Switzerland and the Bahamas; and in his fleet of cars, topped off by a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley. On the occasion of his 55th birthday on 13 December 1970, Stern magazine published a multi-part biography of the actor entitled “I, Curd Jürgens”. Film was something rather on the margins.

Jürgens was an event, a media phenomenon. Just as he dominated the screen with his physical presence, over 1.92 meters tall and with an expanding waistline, so he filled the gossip columns too. In the 1970s, when flying was still expensive, his lifestyle was called “jet set”, and he claimed on multiple occasions that he had accepted many roles because he had the chance of earning a lot of money. He participated in all of the St. Pauli-Films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, beginning with DER ARZT VON ST. PAULI (The Doctor of St. Pauli, 1968, dir. Rolf Olsen), considered by Jürgens to be genuine popular theatre, because he thought they would make money and because foreign producers scrutinized their box-office results. There were very few bright spots in his later films, and Robert Mitchum’s famous quip “No acting required” applied to most of them. Curd Jürgens was just Curd Jürgens in these films, and his contribution often had the character of a cameo-appearance. In the 1969 film BATTLE OF BRITAIN (dir. Guy Hamilton), a mega production for the period, he is an ambassador of the Third Reich sounding out a special peace with England in Switzerland. Although he is the third name on the credits, his presence on screen is under three minutes and does not amount to any lines more profound than: “We can invade England, whenever we want.”

The Screen persona

His craft, acting, had always had a somewhat dubious aura and many of his late films cloud the issue. Curd Jürgens was a living legend and part of this legend-building is the dictum, credited to Brigitte Bardot, of the “Norman wardrobe”, which she is supposed to have said about her colleague during the production of ET DIEU… CRÉA LA FEMME (… And God Created Woman, 1956, dir. Roger Vardim). Later the director François Truffaut said mockingly in a critique of DES TEUFELS GENERAL (The Devil’s General, 1955, dir. Helmut Käutner), which appeared in the magazine Arts on 15 February 1956, in reference to the actor playing the part of Harras:

“Curd Jürgens is the prime example of a professional actor who is not hindered by the least talent, and where any sort of natural aptitude is replaced by the perfect mastery of the crudest and subtlest devices, who is impressive provided one only wishes to be entertained, but whose acting is immediately seen as mechanical by anyone making the effort to analyse it.”

Nonetheless, this film was for Jürgens the most important of his entire career.

It is one of the fascinating traits of Curd Jürgens’ screen personality that it is also mixed with an appropriate amount of self-irony. In Käutners’ 1958 DER SCHINDERHANNES (Duel in the Forest) he would appear to have been miscast, were you to take the film at face value as a sober approximation of the life and death of a social rabble-rouser, for instance. But the film is too colourful, too theatrical, and Curd Jürgens always a bit too loud, too brash, too heroic.

With fans at the premiere of DER SCHINDERHANNES on December 17, 1958 in Frankfurt am Main (Turmpalast)

DER SCHINDERHANNES (1958, dir. Helmut Käutner)

DVD: Studiocanal

Curd Jürgens as Schinderhannes Johannes Bückler

Käutner wanted a fairy tale, a stylised adventure film, in the mould of Wolfgang Staudte’s 1962 attempt to make DIE DREIGROSCHENOPER (The Beggar’s Opera) into a pop musical. As Mackie Messer, Jürgens does not attempt to revive the edgy coldness of Rudolf Forster as filmed by G.W. Pabst; he is the parody of demoniacal possession; a phlegmatic man, not an ice-cold killer.

With Marlene Warrlich and June Ritchie in DIE DREIGROSCHENOPER (1963, dir. Staudte)

Curd Jürgens was not a man of big words and gestures on the screen. He achieved his effects by his appearance, his massive body, his bearing. He did not seek to monopolise the limelight, or to use the German term, a “limelight hog” (Rampensau), as they used to call actors in the theatre who used to play to the back row. Wherever he was, that was the foreground.

This presence predestined him for the cinema even though there was not a great deal in the 1960s for an actor of his generation to do. Curd Jürgens in the 1960s and 1970s: the relict of a society where he stood for its solidity, but also its depths. He had now to relinquish the field to the young. He could not slip into a father’s role like Hans Albers or Carl Raddatz in post-war cinema and he was not suited to the cult of strong man like Stresemann or Sauerbruch. But in DES TEUFELS GENERAL he gained fatherly traits with his encouragement of Lieutenant Hartmann (Harry Meyen) in the garden, and at the same time gives a lesson in things pertaining to a multicultural Rhineland.

SCHACHNOVELLE (Brainwashed) by Gerd Oswald from 1960 is likewise predicated on generational conflict: between the Austrian Werner von Basil (Jürgens), who has rescued church art treasures from the Nazis, and the blond, young and success-orientated SS-Mann (Hansjörg Felmy), bent on using a special method of torture, sensory deprivation, to hammer away at him.

With Harry Meyen in DES TEUFELS GENERAL (1955; D: Helmut Käutner)

DVD: Studiocanal

Exploitation Movies

So much is certain: Curd Jürgens failed to stop at the right time. It is astonishing how many stars of the post-war period disappeared from view by the end of the 1950s and with the political turmoil of filmmaking and artistic upheavals of the 1960s, or only made sporadic appearances on screen or television. O.W. Fischer, for example, almost completely withdrew from public life; Marianne Koch became a doctor; Ruth Leuwerik and Sonja Ziemann rarely made an appearance; the fans of Karlheinz Böhm were unable to cope with the experience of PEEPING TOM (1960, dir. Michael Powell). Curd Jürgens, with his increasingly greying and thinning hair, his bulking body and his permanently stiff bearing, had become a fossil of the virility of his early years.

An actor like him barely enjoyed any employment opportunities in a cinema for young people or in the films of auteurs. Roles for old people were rare, if to be had at all, in the 1960s and 1970s. LINA BRAAKE ODER DIE INTERESSEN DER BANK KÖNNEN NICHT DIE INTERESSEN SEIN, DIE LINA BRAAKE HAT (1975) was made by two outsiders of the New German Film, Bernhard Sinkel and Alf Brustellin. Jürgens was a prisoner in the “old firm”. In later appearances, he often appeared as an icon and those aspects of his screen personality which were already previously his trademark are extended and exploited. In the cryptic horror film THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1970) by Paul Wendkos, he played the part of a possessed piano virtuoso who enters into the body of a journalist.

Curd Jürgens in THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1970)

In the Federal Republic Rolf Olsen, a specialist in naked bosoms, became something like a in-house director for him. Their collaboration began in 1968 with the detective film DER ARZT VON ST. PAULI in which Jürgens plays the role of doctor of the poor in the sailors’ district (with Dieter Borsche as the pastor) who lays bare his own brother’s blackmailing schemes. Today Jürgens’ St. Pauli-films would be characterised as exploitation movies. Not real sex films, not real doctor films, not real comedies – but a bit of everything.

DER ZWEITE FRÜHLING (1975) Advertisement in German, Englisch and French

He appeared with verve as Fox in DER ZWEITE FRÜHLING (Second Spring, 1975) by Ulli Lommel which might have been his great aging role, at least in German film. At the very least, Jürgens was game. DER ZWEITE FRÜHLING is also an exploitation movie and brings together everything that was strongly taboo in 1970s cinema: a great deal of nudity, all sorts of sex (“Say, do you sometimes do it on your own?”), the world-weariness of ULTIMO TANGO À PARIGI (Last Tango in Paris, 1972, D: Bernardo Bertolucci), verbal provocation (Jürgens talks of “fucking”), the mature actor’s gift to his public of his naked body, with only his genitals covered, and a tense rape sequence. And yet: into the role of Fox, the ageing gossip columnist living in Rome, aged about 60, and marrying a woman of about 20, Jürgens brings a melancholy and embitterment that would no longer have been expected from him at this time. In post-war cinema there were always the young girls who have to awaken, indeed redeem, the old men and in LAMBERT FÜHLT SICH BEDROHT (Lambert Is Threatened, 1949, D: Géza von Cziffra) Jürgens had his awakening with Hannelore Schroth. But this time the young wife effects his ruin and there is the feeling throughout the film that Fox knows this. DER ZWEITE FRÜHLING is the direst cheap sensationalism, a Quick Magazine article made visual – and romance? great love? – what Fox really wants is not in the script. But there are a number of takes in the film where there is space for Jürgens’ face to be inscribed with a punctilious disgust.

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

In 1977, the degree to which Curd Jürgens’ screen imago and personal image were fused was again shown in the James Bond film THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (dir. Lewis Gilbert). In this work, not much loved by 007 aficionados, he plays the part of the obligatory villain and the role works as if the script had been tailor-written for him. How the antagonist is structured is equally important in James Bond films as the gadgets and the choice of girls, and Jürgens had to line up against such great villains as Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) or Blofeld (Charles Gray). In the times of international stock market fever when, in the newer Bonds, it is increasingly a question of money, huge sums of money indeed, the earlier Bond villains were different: like all the mythical criminal figures of film history, they had a vision – which was world domination.

Curd Jürgens plays Stromberg, a shipping magnate and marine biologist, who has commandeered a British and a Soviet atomic submarine. In his first scene he is shown at the end of a long table, eating, dressed head to toe in black, his sparse hair a little longer than it should be, with bags under his eyes and a face that is motionless – the epitome of what was then called a bon vivant. All that was lacking was the cross which Jürgens generally wore around his neck on his polo-neck pullover, in his private life, for you to imagine that this Stromberg was in Jürgens’ property in St. Paul-de-Vence. Stromberg is an old “hippy” – the aura Jürgens used to drape round himself in interviews at this time. The contrast with Roger Moore, the ultra-smooth and technocratic Bond of this film, could not have been greater.

This Stromberg is intent on using the missiles from the atomic submarines to attack New York and Moscow so that both superpowers will destroy themselves in a Third World War. “I’m not interested in money”, he tells Her Majesty’s captured agent and his detained Russian colleague (Barbara Bach). Rather, he believes in a “new age”, he wants to change the “face of the world” and create a “wonderful world in the oceans’ womb”. A few years previously, the musical Hair had seen the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The spry elderly gentleman stands in front of the globe of the world he wishes to control. This negative utopia might have been a thorn in the eye of every “green” activist at the time and later, not only in the United States of America: Stromberg is setting himself up as the head of a global terrorist citizen’s action group. Yet this is the role which closes a circle for Curd Jürgens, it completes his sequence of driven characters that so often embodied his better performances. And it marked his arrival among a younger generation.