History Thread: Gustaf Gründgens, Der Schauspieler

What responsibility do artists have under dictatorships? Nazi Germany, with its obsessive control over entertainment, posed a particularly harsh dilemma to those unable to leave. Those who willingly collaborated, like directors Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will) and Veit Harlan (Jud Süß), saw their reputations forever besmirched, some with more cause than others. Those who defied the regime faced dire consequences: the Gestapo murdered director Herbert Selpin during the production of Titanic (1943), while actor Joachim Gottschalk gassed himself and his family to avoid a similar fate.

Somewhere between falls Gustaf Gründgens. The director of the Prussian State Theater under Hitler, Gründgens retains a dual identity as one of Germany’s greatest actors, and a craven collaborator. Most English-speakers know him as the protagonist of Klaus Mann’s novel Mephisto (1936), much later adapted into an acclaimed film starring Klaus Maria Brandauer. If Mann’s portrait (animated by personal feelings) is unduly harsh, it accurately spotlights the moral dilemmas Gründgens, and all German artists, had to navigate under National Socialism.

Gustaf Gründgens as Mephistopheles

A native of Düsseldorf, Gründgens spent years toiling in regional theater before finally gaining recognition in the mid-’20s performing in the Hamburg Kammerspiele. Under the leadership of Erich Zegel, Hamburg’s theater scene was associated with modern plays by Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera), Frank Wedekind (Spring Awakening) and others. Gründgens found his niche performing in comedies, musicals and classical roles like Hamlet, a part he first portrayed in 1927 and often reprised. Audiences associated him with Schurke roles: charming, aristocratic, often effeminate villains, like the title character in Carl von Sternheim’s The Snob.

Soon Gründgens became a celebrity, first in Hamburg and later throughout Germany. He also became a critical darling: Lucy von Jacob, after seeing him in Hermann Bahr’s The Concert, raved that Gründgens possessed a “mysterious aura that cannot be analyzed. In its glow, everything becomes colorful, bright, iridescent, playful, and the same time meaningful.” He further impressed them by directing many of his own performances: a self-described “fanatic about precision,” Gründgens micromanaged his productions, to the exasperation of colleagues.

Like most actors, Gründgens exuded boundless charm when it suited him, and petty narcissism when it didn’t. He changed the spelling of his name from Gustav to Gustaf, reportedly to spite his mentor Gustav Lindemann. He occasionally referred to himself in the third person during interviews, raged when magazines cropped him out of photos and offered autographs as payment to taxi drivers in lieu of money. Klaus Mann, who met him during this time, found Gründgens “haunted by his vanity and persecution mania, and a frantic desire to please.”

Gründgens, Erika Mann, Pamela Wedekind and Klaus Mann

Klaus, the son of Thomas Mann, nonetheless forged an intimate relationship with Gründgens when they performed together in Hamburg. Both he and Gründgens were homosexual, which even in the tolerant Weimar Republic remained illegal. To avert suspicion, in 1926 Gründgens married Klaus’s sister Erika Mann, herself in love with Pamela Wedekind, daughter of the playwright…who, to complete the charade, married Klaus Mann. “Nobody, even the most clever, can believe our marital status,” Erika scoffed. Not least because Klaus soon wrote a play (in which Gründgens starred), Four in Revue, which fictionalized their tangled arrangement.

Furious about Revue‘s negative reception (one critic dubbed its story “a matter for a psychologist, not a theater”), resentful that the Manns outshone him and fearing that whispers about his private life were too loud, Gründgens “distanced himself immediately” from them. In 1927 he separated from Erika and left Klaus. Gründgens grandiosely talked of creating a “Revolutionary Theater” performing Marxist plays and flirted with the Communist Party, but committed to neither. Erika Mann, assessing her ex-husband’s politics, scorned his momentary leftism as “insincere, snobby, and quasi-opportunistic.”

In 1928, Gründgens received an invitation to Berlin’s Prussian State Theater. There he performed both in light comedies and serious roles on stage, while also appearing in films. Despite his higher profile, Gründgens raged that “people in the public are beginning to identify me with the plays that I am obliged to produce.” Certainly he remained protective of his image: after portraying a gay villain in Ferdinand Bruckner’s Felons, Gründgens insisted that he only took the role “due to sheer financial hardship” and that he regarded such characters “with horror.”

Der Schränker

Modern audiences will most likely recognize Gründgens as Der Schränker (the Safe Cracker) in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). This malevolently stylish villain, sporting a leather coat and derby hat, mobilizes Berlin’s underworld in pursuit of serial killer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). In the film’s climax, Der Schränker presides over the court that “tries” Beckert, assuring him that the assembled gangsters’ expertise in “the law” ensures him a fair trial. Critics insisted that Schränker represented the Nazi Party, wearing as he did the outfit associated with propagandist and Berlin Gauleiter Joseph Goebbels. If so, this retroactively lent Gründgens’ casting an inescapable irony.

Thousands of artists fled Germany upon Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, for political, personal and religious reasons. Among the most prominent exiles were the Manns, who, in Klaus’s words, “could not breathe the air in Nazi Germany” and moved to Paris and New York. Thomas Mann, deeply proud of his heritage, a nationalist who had welcomed the First World War, considered the Nazis a handful of perverted and bloody-minded men” and warned “that nothing good for Germany or the world can come out of the present German regime.” For such heresies (and a Jewish ancestor) the Manns were excommunicated by the Reich, and their work banned.

Not only Gründgens’ in-laws, but several of his collaborators on M fled. Fritz Lang departed the same day (so he claimed) Goebbels offered him a leading role in the German film industry. So, too, did Peter Lorre, who was both Jewish and a socialist. When Goebbels telegraphed Lorre in Paris asking that he return to Berlin, the actor replied that “there is no room for two murderers in Germany like…Hitler and I.” Both found success in America, though not without difficulty; Lorre’s lack of English forced him to perform early roles there phonetically, while Lang’s tyrannical personality wasn’t well-received in Hollywood’s studio system. Neither returned to their homeland for decades.

Peter Lorre

Not everyone involved in M, of course, followed suit. Thea von Harbou, Lang’s wife and screenwriter, remained in Germany and became a fanatical Nazi. As did Otto Wernicke, the portly character actor who portrayed Police Kommissar Lohmann, despite his marriage to a Jewish woman. Wernicke performed in propaganda works like Uncle Kruger, Titanic and Kolberg and remained active until his retirement in the ’50s. But neither obtained the notoriety of Gründgens, who willingly came to symbolize theater under the Third Reich.

In January 1933, Gründgens was preparing a stage production of Goethe’s Faust at the Prussian State Theater when Hitler was appointed Chancellor.1 Gründgens was seriously chagrined to find his Jewish director had been dismissed by the new regime. Nonetheless, Gründgens continued playing Mephistopheles, the crafty devil who tempts Faust into surrendering his soul. This character immediately became his signature role: not least because, in April, he was summoned after one performance to meet Reichsminister Hermann Goering.

Soon after the show wrapped, Gründgens chatted amiably with the Nazi leader, who exuberantly praised his malevolent performance. Then Goering offered him the Directorship of the Prussian State Theater. Goering, resenting Goebbels’ control over most German Art, seized upon the stage as one way to spite his rival. Gründgens was surprised, given his past flirtations with the Left, but career-conscious enough that he held out until Goering assured him a six figure salary. Thus did Gustaf Gründgens become Nazi Germany’s official representative on the stage.

Gründgens and Goering

For the next decade, Gründgens presided over the State Theater with his habitual arrogance, inflated further by state sponsorship. As in Hamburg, he micromanaged productions and strictly controlled media access to his theater; he only allowed himself to be filmed by picked photographers, in stiff poses that conveyed distance and arrogance rather than humanity. “The uncertainty in which we all lived made the stage appear to be the only certain factor,” Gründgens insisted, couching his behavior in the most high-minded terms.

Through his friendship with Goering and his wife, actress Emmy Sonnemann (with whom he occasionally worked), Gründgens catapulted to stratospheric fame. Magazines that barely noticed him before 1933 now featured full-page spreads about his work; such critics as existed under Nazism offered glowing reviews. His performances of Faust and Hamlet, in particular, ensured his place in the pantheon of German theater; he took on grandiose historical roles, including Frederick the Great, which increased his stature and pleased his patrons.

Henry Higgins

He also augmented stage performances with meaty film roles. Gründgens appeared in Curtis Bernhardt’s The Tunnel (1933), a well-regarded science fiction film with Paul Hartmann, Max Schreck and his M costar Otto Wernicke. In Erich Engel’s Pygmalion (1935), his fussy arrogance made for an ideal Henry Higgins; he showed off his singing ability in the musical Dance on the Volcano (1938). Less to his taste, Gründgens played a flamboyant British villain in the propaganda epic Uncle Kruger (1941), opposite his rival Emil Jannings – the definitive screen Mephistopheles.

This was heady stuff for any man, particularly one so vain as Gründgens. It didn’t hurt that his post came with additional perks: an annual salary of 200,000 marks, a cozy estate in Zeesen “Aryanized” from its Jewish owner. If it bothered him that reviews and press coverage came from a state propaganda apparatus, or that he owed his success to the banishment of other actors and the largesse of tyrants, he didn’t show it. Always Gründgens insisted that he was merely an artist, working to maintain integrity under the most trying circumstances.

Klaus and Erika

His former in-laws, now living abroad, didn’t buy it. Erika Mann, who resented the “moral impotence with which…German misdeeds were accepted everywhere in Europe,” also resented Gründgens’ “utterly cynical ambition” and took to baiting him. She telegraphed Gründgens inquiring about his “sticky situation,” using a phrase (Schwulität) that hinted indelicately at his sexuality. Klaus remained obsessed with his ex-lover, worrying over the actor’s “grave situation” while following his career. “If Klaus met someone who irritated him,” biographer Andrea Weiss writes, “the person inevitably reminded him of Gustaf.”

Klaus codified this resentment in his novel Mephisto (1936). Here Gründgens is caricatured as Hendrik Höfgen, a ruthlessly ambitious, marginally talented performer whose main skill is self-advancement. Mann codes Gründgens’ homosexuality as a sadomasochistic affair with a black woman, equally verboten under Nazi race laws. Avoiding the real reason for Gustaf’s marriage to Erika, Mann instead shows that Höfgen marries her surrogate to socially advance. She implores Höfgen to avoid the Nazis, and later urges him to follow her into exile.

Klaus Maria Brandauer in Mephisto (1981, Istvan Szabo)

Instead, Höfgen eagerly courts Goering and becomes the head of German theater. Far more than the real Gründgens, he abuses his position to enrich himself and destroy his enemies; he arranges for the execution of a hated rival, and imprisons his mistress to hide their affair. He considers himself “absolutely indispensable!…No regime can get along without me!” Höfgen might even believe it: he’s dumbfounded as friends and colleagues desert him, and crestfallen when Goering ignores his pleas for a friend’s life. After all, he whines in the final chapter, “All I am is a perfectly ordinary actor.”

The Manns paid a price for Klaus’s Roman a clef. Not only was Mephisto banned in Germany, Austria and other countries; its publication led to Switzerland passing a law which outlawed Erika’s Zurich theater troupe, Lex Pfeffermühle (the Peppermill). When Erika relocated to Amsterdam, protests and threats from Dutch Nazis led producers to demand that her troupe “give up even the most indirect political inclination.” When she refused, the Dutch government withdrew her license to perform, convincing Erika that “we could not stay in Europe any longer.” By the end of 1936, she and Klaus joined their father in America.


Meanwhile Gründgens flourished, maintaining his independence as far as possible. He used his influence to shield several colleagues from arrest. He lobbied directly for Ernst Busch, a Communist actor he’d known before the war; captured in 1943 and sentenced to death, Busch was spared through Gründgens’ intervention. He also clashed with Goering in 1937 over his Richard III, where actor Werner Krauss played the title role with a club foot, evoking thoughts of Joseph Goebbels. When Goering demanded Grundgens shut down the production, the Intendant refused.

Yet Gründgens’ independence remained conditional. In February 1936, Grundgens read an article in the Völkischer Beobachter denouncing his recent Hamlet as “narcissistic rather than Nazistic,” overly “intellectual” and even Jewish. This harsh critique, almost unheard-of in the pet Nazi press, surely unnerved Gründgens, as did fresh rumors about his sexuality. At one point in the play’s run, a “shady youth in a Hamlet costume” was arrested in a gay bar; those in the know immediately drew the connection. It became obvious that Goebbels, never a fan of Gründgens and always Goering’s enemy, spread the rumors to destroy his career.

Understandably, Gründgens panicked. He fled to Switzerland, only for Goering to contact him almost immediately. With his characteristic “mixture of joviality and threat,” the Reichsminister claimed that the article had been a misunderstanding; to prove his faith, he’d arrested the offending journalists until they recanted. Still, Goering warned, any attempt by Gründgens to extend his exile would have dire consequences for his family. Gründgens made the obvious choice, and upon returning to Berlin received appointment to the Prussian State Council (Staatsrat) and a private audience with Hitler.

Gründgens (right) meets Goebbels

So Gründgens continued performing, doing his best to ignore Goebbels’ whisper campaign. In June 1936 he married actress Marianne Hoppe; their relationship was symbolized by Gründgens’ wedding present to her, a script for an upcoming film. Even this didn’t dispel stories (which may have been true) that Gründgens visited Berlin’s gay bars or, more discreetly, solicited prostitutes. He suffered crippling migraines, self-medicating with pain pills and sedatives. When not performing he remained at his estate in Zeesen, distanced from pressures of the limelight.

During the war, Gründgens performed for German troops and even, despite his status as a State Actor (Staatsschauspieler), enlisted in the Wehrmacht. He performed Faust, again, from 1941-1942 and a bowdlerized version of Schiller’s The Robbers in July 1944, while Allied bombs fell outside the theater. He renewed Schiller in spring of 1945, as Soviet troops entered Berlin; one who witnessed the performance recalled that Gründgens played the villain “with a maniacal mien and hairstyle reminiscent of Hitler’s.” Finally, the Red Army arrested Gründgens soon after Berlin’s surrender.

As Gründgens languished in a Bavarian prison camp, the Soviets debated his fate. A number of friends and family members – Marianne Hoppe, Pamela Wedekind, Peter Gorski and others – petitioned Soviet officials about his acts of charity; others noted how Gründgens usually avoided overt propaganda. The decisive push came from Ernst Busch, who recounted for an NKVD investigator Gründgens’ role in averting his execution. In early 1946, Gründgens was declared “de-Nazified”; soon he was performing in Berlin again, reprising his role in The Snob to thunderous applause.

After the war, Gründgens not only performed in West Germany but abroad, though not with controversy; a 1949 appearance in Edinburgh was picketed by British veterans and German emigres. (That same year, Klaus Mann died in France of a drug overdose; Mephisto was not published in West Germany until decades later.) In 1960 he played Mephistopheles once more, in a film directed by his adopted son Peter Gorski. Gründgens’ performance is, by cinematic standards, hopelessly florid and theatrical; but one can, at least, appreciate something of his unique presence. Three years later he died in Manila, an apparent suicide.

Gründgens remained unrepentant about his work with the Nazis; indeed, he couched it as a noble action. Shortly before his death, the actor told an interviewer that “I want to be regarded as someone who preserved and nourished the flame in a dark period” – an artist unsullied, perhaps even elevated by mating art to fascism. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on Gründgens for making the same decision as millions of Germans, not all with ideological fervor. It’s the collaborator proclaiming himself a hero that’s hard to take.

Sources and Further Reading

This article draws from J.C. Green, “The Masks of Mephisto in Twentieth-Century Germany: Gustaf Gründgens, The Actor and the Legend” (2010, Wesleyan Honors Thesis; online here); Jonathan Petropoulos, Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany (2014); and Andrea Weiss, In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story (2010).