Gründgens, Gustaf

(1899-1963)
   Actor, intendant, director. Gründgens was the most galvanizing performer since Josef Kainz, and many contend he was the greatest actor in 20th-century German theater. Gründgens was certainly among its most controversial, due largely to his relationship with Hermann Goering. Klaus Mann chronicled it in his roman à clef titled Mephisto, which was the basis of a film by the same title starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as "Hendrik Höfgen," the spectacular yet unscrupulous ersatz Gründgens.
   Gründgens was the superlative Mephisto of his generation and made many deals with Goering—but he was not the diabolical, obsessive schemer some imagined. Before his meteoric rise to stardom in Berlin, he studied at the Louise Dumont-Gustav Lindemann school in his native Düsseldorf. His professional career began in Kiel but entered its upward trajectory in Hamburg, where Gründgens worked steadily for Erich Ziegel and Mirjam Horwitz at the Kammerspiele from 1923 to 1928. He alternated his work there with cabaret acts; Gründgens was a gifted song-and-dance man, a versatility unusual in the German theater. His 1928 breakthrough in Berlin came as the sadistic Ottfrid Berlessen in Heinz Hilpert's premiere of Ferdinand Bruckner's Die Verbrecher (The Criminals), with Lucie Höflich and Hans Albers. Soon thereafter Gründgens became Berlin's busiest director, casting himself in several boulevard thrillers and romantic comedies, usually as a scoundrel in evening wear or a gentleman criminal.
   Gründgens's film career concomitantly began to blossom, as he appeared in more than a dozen movies between 1930 and 1933. The best of his performances in those years was in Fritz Lang's M (1931) with Peter Lorre; as the merciless "prosecutor" Schränker, he represents the crime syndicate that puts Lorre on trial. Gründgens's films during the Third Reich included adaptations of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1935) and Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance (1936), but the most notable was Tanz auf dem Vulkan (Dance on the Volcano), in which he put his singing abilities on full display. In this film, as in others, the impression Gründgens made was one of virtuotistic bravura; his was so riveting a presence that characters around him seem drawn irresistibly into his thaumaturgy. Gründgens began playing Mephisto in 1932, but in the Third Reich his signature role was Hamlet. Performances sold out months in advance, with crowds ringing the Berlin State Theater two and sometimes three people deep hoping somehow to snatch up any canceled reservations.
   As a highly visible theater manager, Gründgens avoided direct confrontations with Joseph Goebbels through his protection by Goering. Gründgens's long-standing friendship with Goering's actress wife Emmy Sonnemann was invaluable, helping him to defend Jürgen Fehling and his controversial Shakespeare productions. Gründgens also used his influence to assist many Jews and colleagues married to Jews, most notable among them Ernst Busch—but Gründgens was himself a target of Nazi hatred because of his homosexuality. Gründ-gens's marriage to Marianne Hoppe blunted efforts to discredit him, and his assistance to Busch ultimately saved his life when Soviet authorities arrested him in 1945 and held him in detention for nine months.
   He returned to Berlin for several Frank Wedekind and Carl Sternheim roles at the Deutsches Theater before his departure for Düsseldorf in 1947 as intendant of that city's theaters. There he revived Faust, Part 1,Hamlet, Wallsteins Tod(Wallentein'sDeath), and several other productions he had staged under Goering. His performance at the 1949 Edinburgh Festival in such roles ignited a firestorm of controversy and protest in British newspapers, though most agreed that his Mephisto was astonishing. In 1955 Gründgens became intendant of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, where Hilpert directed him as Archie Rice in the German-language premiere of John Osborne's The Entertainer. Gründgens himself premiered Bertolt Brecht's St. Joan of the Stockyards and did several "classic" roles from the German repertoire, but his signature role remained Mephisto. Peter Gorski's 1961 film of Faust, Part 1 coincided with Gründgens's New York appearance in the role, persuading most observers that Gründgens had entered the German theater's pantheon.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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