Gustaf Gründgens (22 December 1899 - 7 October 1963), born Gustav Heinrich Arnold Gründgens, was one of Germany's most famous and influential actors of the 20th century, intendant and artistic director of theatres in Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Hamburg. His career continued undisturbed through the years of the Nazi regime; the extent to which this can be considered as deliberate collaboration with the Nazis was hotly disputed.
His single most famous role was that of Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust in 1956/57, which is still considered by many to have been the best interpretation of the role ever given.
Born in Düsseldorf, Gründgens after World War I attended the drama school of the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and started his career at smaller theaters in Halberstadt, Kiel, and Berlin. In 1923 he went to the Kammerspiele in Hamburg, where he also appeared as a director for the first time, co-working with the author Klaus Mann, son of Thomas Mann, and his sister Erika. Gründgens, who meanwhile had changed his first name to "Gustaf", married Erika in 1926. However, they divorced three years later.
In 1928 he moved back to Berlin to join the renowned ensemble of the Deutsches Theater under director Max Reinhardt. Apart from straight theatre, Gründgens also worked with Otto Klemperer at the Kroll Opera, as a Kabarett artist and also as a movie actor, most notably in Fritz Lang's 1931 film M, which decisively added to his popularity. From 1932 he was a member of the Prussian State Theatre ensemble, first scintillating as Mephistopheles.
Gründgens' career proceeded after the Nazi Machtergreifung: in 1934 he became "Intendant" of the Prussian State Theatre and was later appointed a member of the Prussian state council by the Prussian Minister-President Hermann Göring. He also became a member of the Presidential Council of the Reichstheaterkammer (Theatre Chamber of the Reich), which was an institution of the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture). In 1941, Gründgens starred in the propaganda film Ohm Krüger and also in Friedemann Bach, a film he also produced. After Goebbels's total war speech on 18 February 1943, Gründgens volunteered for the Wehrmacht but was again recalled by Göring, who had his name added to the Gottbegnadeten list.
From 1936 till 1946, Gründgens was married to the famous German actress Marianne Hoppe. The wedlock was widely seen as a lavender marriage.
Imprisoned by the Soviet NKVD in 1945, Gründgens was released thanks to the intercession by the Communist actor Ernst Busch, whom Gründgens himself had saved from execution by the Nazis in 1943. During the denazification process his statements helped to exonerate acting colleagues like Göring's widow Emmy and the director Veit Harlan (Jud Süß). Gründgens returned to the Deutsches Theater, later became "Intendant" of the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and from 1955 directed the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. He again performed as Mephistopheles, the 1960 film Faust by Peter Gorski was shot with the Deutsches Schauspielhaus ensemble.
On 7 October 1963, while traveling around the world, Gründgens died in Manila of an internal hemorrhage. It has never been ascertained whether or not he committed suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills. His last words, written on an envelope, were, "I believe I have taken too many sleeping pills; I feel funny, let me sleep it off." He is buried at the Hamburg Ohlsdorf Cemetery.
Posthumously, Gründgens was involved in one of the most famous literary cases in 20th-century Germany, as the subject of a novel entitled Mephisto by his former brother-in-law Klaus Mann, who had died in 1949. The novel, a thinly veiled account of Gründgens's life, portrayed its main character ("Hendrik Höfgen") as having shady connections with the Nazi regime. Gründgens's adopted son and heir Peter Gorski, who had directed Faust, in 1966 successfully sued the publisher on his late father's behalf, confirmed by the Federal Court of Justice in 1968.
In the long-time lawsuit the controversy about libel and the freedom of fiction from censorship was finally decided by the Federal Constitutional Court in 1971. It ruled, that Gründgens's post-mortem personality rights prevailed and the prohibition imposed on the publishing house is valid. However, the novel was again published in 1981 by Rowohlt, which met with no further protests.
In 1981 the novel was made into the film Mephisto, Directed by István Szabó, Klaus Maria Brandauer played the role of Hendrik Höfgen. The film was a huge commercial and critical success winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1981.
Eine Stadt steht Kopf (also actor, 1932),
Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (1933),
Kapriolen (also actor, 1937),
The False Step (1939),
Zwei Welten (1939),
Friedemann Bach (also actor, 1940),
Faust (also actor),
Never Trust a Woman (1930) ... Jean,
Va Banque (1930) ... Private detective John James Brown,
Hokuspokus (1930) ... Public Prosecutor Dr. Wilke,
Danton (1930) ... Robespierre,
Brand in der Oper (1930) ... Otto van Lingen,
Yorck (1931) ... Hardenberg,
M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (1931) ... Schränker,
Louise, Queen of Prussia (1931) ... King Frederick William III,
The Countess of Monte-Christo (1931) ... "The Baron", con artist,
The Theft of the Mona Lisa (1931),
Teilnehmer antwortet nicht (1932) ... Nikolai,
Liebelei (1932) ... Baron von Eggersdorff,
The Tunnel (1933) ... Woolf,
The Tunnel (1933, French version) ... Woolf,
Happy Days in Aranjuez (1933) ... Alexander,
So endete eine Liebe (1934) ... Metternich,
Schwarzer Jäger Johanna (1934) ... Dr. Frost,
The Legacy of Pretoria (1934) ... Eugen Schliebach,
100 Tage (1935) ... Fouché,
Pygmalion (1935) ... Professor Higgins,
Joan of Arc (1935) ... King Charles VII,
Eine Frau ohne Bedeutung (1936) ... Lord Illingworth,
Kapriolen (1937) ... Jack Warren,
Tanz auf dem Vulkan (1938) ... Jean-Gaspard Deburau,
Ohm Krüger (1941) ... Joseph Chamberlain,
Friedemann Bach (1941) ... Wilhelm Friedemann Bach,
Faust (1960) ... Mephistopheles,
Das Glas Wasser (1960) ... Sir Henry St John
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license