Scotsman Obituaries: Hardy Kruger, German screen idol best known for war films

Hardy Kruger, actor. Born: 12 April 1928 in Berlin. Died: 19 January 2022 in Palm Springs, California, aged 93

Hardy Kruger on location in Cambridge for the filming of Bachelor of Hearts in 1958 (Picture: BIPS/Getty Images)
Hardy Kruger on location in Cambridge for the filming of Bachelor of Hearts in 1958 (Picture: BIPS/Getty Images)

With his black leather jacket – collar up, his blond hair swept backwards from handsome features and a total belief in himself, Hardy Kruger might have seemed like the latest in the cinematic fashion of bikers and teddy boys when he appeared as the title character in the 1957 film The One That Got Away.

But while Kruger looked like cinema’s latest rebel without a cause, he was in fact playing a patriotic Luftwaffe pilot in a Second World War true story about the only German serviceman captured on British soil to then escape and return to Germany.

The One That Got Away was part of a spate of POW films made in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s when the war was still a fresh and painful memory. But it was notable for presenting a German as the hero, alongside a supporting cast of bumbling and officious British stereotypes.

And it was particularly ironic as Kruger had served in the SS and seemingly came close to being executed when he refused to obey orders.

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Although he had been appearing in German cinema since the 1940s, The One That Got Away was Kruger’s first English-language starring role. He went on to appear in a string of big international movies, including Hatari!, with John Wayne, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, A Bridge Too Far and The Wild Geese.

Kruger looked the very model of Aryan superiority and often played German officers, though he had become a committed anti-fascist.

Born Eberhard August Franz Ewald Kruger in Berlin in 1928, he was the son of an engineer. Both parents were passionate supporters of Hitler, he was sent to an elite Nazi school and indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth.

He made his film debut in his mid-teens in a film called Young Eagles, playing an apprentice in an aircraft factory, doing his bit for the German war effort.

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As the war entered its closing stages and Germany became ever more desperate Kruger was drafted into the SS, by which time he had become completely disillusioned with Nazism. “I knew the war was lost,” he said in an interview many years later. “I knew that there were concentration camps and that the Nazis were a bunch of criminals.”

Nevertheless he found himself forced into combat. “When brown dots far away shot at me, I shot back,” he said. “When the dots came closer, I couldn’t shoot anymore because I saw the faces of human beings.”

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He was reportedly court martialled and convicted for cowardice and sentenced to death, but the sentence was reviewed by a senior officer and Kruger reckoned his youthful looks saved him. “I was 16 but looked like 12.”

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However, there has been some suggestion that the story was a publicist’s later invention as his career took off, to put some spin on his background in the Hitler Youth and SS, as anti-German feelings were still running high.

With the war lost and Europe in the grip of chaos, Kruger seemingly deserted, hid out in the woods and was captured by the Americans.

“The scars on my soul survive,” Kruger said. Although he often played a German serviceman, he felt conflicted about putting on the uniform of Nazi Germany again – not that it showed in his portrayal of the cocksure Oberleutnant Franz von Werra in The One That Got Away, which followed almost a decade spent in German films.

Von Werra was a real-life German equivalent of Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, forever trying to get away. He finally succeeded after being shipped to Canada. He crossed the St Lawrence River to the then-neutral United States and got back to Germany, via South America.

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Von Werra was awarded the Iron Cross, returned to active duty and was shot down and killed just a few months later, in October 1941, aged just 27. The film was a hit in both the UK and Germany and launched Kruger onto the international stage.

Kruger played a German exchange student in romantic comedy Bachelor of Hearts, a Dutch painter and murder suspect in Joseph Losey’s drama Blind Date and a hunter in Howard Hawks’s Hatari! In the credits he was billed second only to John Wayne, though he liked to relate how he came out on top in a drinking contest with Wayne and had to carry him back to his room.

The film was shot in what is now Tanzania and Kruger acquired land at the location and built a home for himself and a small hotel, accommodating visitors who wanted to see the local wildlife.

He co-starred with James Stewart, Richard Attenborough and Peter Finch in The Flight of the Phoenix, with Sean Connery in The Red Tent and again in A Bridge Too Far, and with David Niven in Paper Tiger. He was one of the four principals, along with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore, in The Wild Geese, in which he played an Afrikaaner mercenary.

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One of his last screen roles was as Field Marshal Rommel in the American mini-series War and Remembrance, after which he concentrated on travel documentaries, writing, conservation work and activism, talking about his life and warning against the evils of the far right and anti-semitism.

He had become a father for the first time at 17, he was married three times and divorced twice. He is survived by his third wife and three children, including the actor Hardy Kruger Jr.

Obituaries

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