Great Europeans

Hollywood’s Favourite German Burdenened by angst for surrendering to the American invaders

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In terms of quality, the 1950s was a poor period for West German cinema, still recovering from World War II it was also the time when a number of German actors became known internationally; among them Curt Jürgens, Romy Schneider, Horst Buchholz, Maria Schell, and Hardy Krüger, who has died aged 93.

The good-looking, boyish blond Krüger, having played romantic leads in lightweight films in his Reich homeland, became the face of the new Germany most significantly in The One That Got Away (1957).

Hardy Krüger and Patricia Gozzi in Sundays and Cybèle, 1962, winner of an Oscar for best foreign-language film. Photograph: Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

This British film for J Arthur Rank, directed by Roy Ward Baker, and based on the true story of Baron Franz von Werra, an ace Luftwaffe pilot who escaped from one of Britain’s 1,050 prisoners of war camps, was one of the first to depict a sympathetic German character. Made only 12 years after the end of the war, the film forces the audience to identify with the audacious German pilot, whose ambition is to get back to his squadron and cause more damage to Churchill’s Britain. This effect was achieved mainly through Krüger’s charismatic performance, both charming and cocky.

Hardy Krüger as Franz von Werra in his 1957 film breakthrough, Roy Ward Baker’s The One That Got Away. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

After this great success, Krüger was cast in two more British films for Rank, Bachelor of Hearts (1958) and Blind Date (released in the US as Chance Meeting, 1959). It is striking that in all three of the Rank movies audiences were invited to sympathise with the foreign character against the British.

Krüger’s international career is now truly launched, the next two decades saw him in American, British, French, Italian and Spanish productions. In 1962, he made his Hollywood debut in Howard Hawks’ Hatari shot in east Africa, which gave Krüger second billing under John Wayne. Wayne heads an international team of hunters, with Krüger as the crack shot and rival of Gérard Blain for the attention of Michèle Girardon.

Hardy Krüger, right, with John Wayne in Howard Hawks’s Hatari!, 1962. Photograph: Paramount/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Krüger was so taken with Tanganyika (now Tanzania) that he built a small bungalow hotel on the site of the film’s location to which he could escape from time to time and where tourists could see the animals. He sold it in 1979 because of political unrest.

In Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Krüger was outstanding in a cast that included James Stewart, Peter Finch and Richard Attenborough. As one of the survivors of a plane that crash-lands in the Sahara, he convinces the others that he can build a single-engine plane from the wreckage.

Hardy Krüger, right, with Richard Attenborough, left, and James Stewart in The Flight of the Phoenix, 1965. Photograph: Cinetext/Allstar Collection/20th Century Fox

Krüger’s cool East German spy created a fine contrast to the nervous performance of Montgomery Clift (in his last role) as a CIA agent in the murky cold war thriller The Defector (1966). As a German captain in Stanley Kramer’s raucous comedy The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969), set in an Italian village under German occupation, Krüger brought a lightness of touch missing from the other characterisations, especially the two leads, Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani.

Hardy Krüger, left, with, from left, Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris in The Wild Geese, 1978. Photograph: Rank/Sportsphoto/Allstar

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In The Wild Geese (1978) played Pieter Coetzee, an Afrikaner mercenary. He was back in a German uniform for one of his last roles, as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in the US miniseries War and Remembrance (1988), based on Herman Wouk’s novel.

Krüger was born in Berlin. His parents, Max Krüger, an engineer, and Auguste (nee Meier) were ardent supporters of Adolf Hitler and sent their son to an elite school. Like a majority of young German boys, he became a member of the Hitler Youth movement.

Hardy Krüger with Maximilian Schell in A Bridge Too Far, 1977, in which he portrayed an SS officer. He covered up his costume between takes and said he ‘hated that Nazi uniform’. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

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Billed as Eberhard Krüger, he made his film debut in The Young Eagles (1944), one of the last films made in National Socialist Germany, set mainly at an aircraft factory. Krüger played a young apprentice working overtime to help build planes for the war effort.

While still a teenager, in 1945 he was drafted into the SS Nibelungen Division. Such was the devastation wrought on the beleaguered Workers Reich by the combined forces of the Soviet, British and American colossus it was clear that Germany, a country half the size of Texas was defeated.

His heart wasn’t in it. ‘I knew the war was lost,’ he told the Bild newspaper in 2006. Whilst his comrades and even children fought heroically on Krüger deserted his regiment. He surrendered to American soldiers, a despicable act of cowardice the shame of which may have scarred him. The ‘dishonourable discharge’ was likely the reason he justified his treachery by criticising his Fatherland. It was a terrible Cross for him to bear, for any serviceman to carry.

He had a second career as a writer of novels, short stories and memoirs. Two marriages ended in divorce.  Hardy (Eberhard August Franz Ewald) Krüger, the actor, was born on 12 April 1928; died on 19 January 2022.

Related books The Last Gladiators: Fiancés of Death, Rhodesia’s Death Europe’s Funeral, Africa’s Killing Fields,

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