Geschonneck, Erwin


Erwin Geschonneck was born in Bartenstein (now Bartoszyce, Poland) on December 27, 1906. In 1908, his family moved to Berlin, where they remained until Hitler took power in 1933. Geschonneck, who had joined the communist party, left for political exile in the Soviet Union via Poland. In 1939, after he had relocated to Czechoslovakia due to problems with the Soviet secret police, he was arrested in Prague and turned over to the Gestapo. He described his experiences as a political prisoner in the Sachsenhausen, Dachau, and Neuengamme concentration camps in his autobiography, Meine unruhigen Jahre (1984).


Geschonneck is known to be one of (East) Germany’s greatest actors. His career spanned nearly the entire history of German cinema. In his early years, he performed in lay acting groups, became involved in Agitprop productions, and joined Erwin Piscator’s famous Volksbühne ensemble in Berlin. In 1946, Geschonneck began working at the theater Kammerspiele in Hamburg. Three years later, Bertolt Brecht asked him to join his Berliner Ensemble, where Geschonneck played many leading roles, including parts in Puntila, Mother Courage, and The Broken Jug.


In 1932, Geschonneck made his first film appearance as one of 4,000 athletes in Bertolt Brecht and Slatan Dudow’s Weimar-era film, Kuhle Wampe. He wouldn’t appear before the camera again until after WWII. After a couple of minor roles in the late 1940s, the East German DEFA Studio for Feature Films offered him his first leading part in 1950 as the dark spirit, Holländer-Michel, in the fairy tale film Das kalte Herz. Geschonneck’s lead performances furnished some of DEFA’s most important contributions to German film history, such as Frank Beyer’s Nackt unter Wölfen, Karbid und Sauerampfer, Jakob der Lügner (the only East German film to be nominated for an Oscar), Falk Harnack’s Das Beil von Wandsbek, and Gerhard Klein’s banned film Berlin um die Ecke. By the end of his career, Geschonneck had played in over 100 cinema and television productions. His energetic acting, whimsical expressions, and charming smile are unforgettable and made him a beloved film star. Geschonneck played his very last film role in the tour de force comedy Matulla und Busch (script by Ulrich Plenzdorf and Klaus Schlesinger), directed by his son Matti Geschonneck. Critics praised the film as a special homage to the great actor. He shared the screen with a top cast that included Fred Delmare, Otto Sander and Rolf Hoppe.


Geschonneck won numerous national and international awards, including two notable post-Wende prizes: the 1993 Deutscher Filmpreis for his outstanding contributions to German film, and in 2004, he posthumously became an honorary member of the Deutsche Filmakademie.


Erwin Geschonneck died at the age of 101 in Berlin on March 12, 2008. Geschonneck’s estate is housed at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.


Festivals & Awards:

1993 German Film Prize for Lifetime Achievement
1960 Best Male Actor, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, for Leute mit Flügeln

Bibliography & More:

Geschonneck, Erwin. Meine unruhigen Jahre: Lebenserinnerungen. Berlin: Das Neue Berlin. 1995/2009.


1995 Matulla und Busch (Matulla and Busch, TV)
1988 Mensch, mein Papa… (Oh Well, My Dear Dad…)
1986 Wie die Alten sungen (Like Father, Like Son)
1982 Der Mann der Cap Arcona (The Man from the Cap Arcona Ship, TV)
1980 Levins Mühle (Levin's Mill)
1977 Anton der Zauberer (Anton the Magician)
1976 Das Licht auf dem Galgen (The Light on the Gallows)
1976 Tambari (Tambari)
1975 Ein Feigenblatt für Kuhle Wampe (Kuhle Wampe – Censored!, TV, docudrama)
1975 Bankett für Achilles (Banquet for Achilles)
1974 Jakob der Lügner (Jacob the Liar)
1967 Ein Lord am Alexanderplatz (Lord of Alexander Square)
1967 Geschichten jener Nacht: Der große und der kleine Willi (Stories of that Night: Two Wills)
1966/90 Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin around the Corner)
1965 Die Fahne von Kriwoj Rog (The Banner of Kriwoj Rog)
1963 Karbid und Sauerampfer (Carbide and Sorrel)
1962 Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked Among Wolves)
1962 Ach, du fröhliche... (A Lively Christmas Eve)
1960 Fünf Patronenhülsen (Five Cartridges)
1960 Leute mit Flügeln (People with Wings)
1959 Musterknaben (Poster Boys)
1958/71 Sonnensucher (Sun Seekers)
1958 Die Geschichte vom armen Hassan (The Story of Poor Hassan)
1957 Schlösser und Katen (Castles and Cottages)
1955 Das Stacheltier – Das Haushaltswunder (The Porcupine: The Household Wonder)

Das Stacheltier – Es geht um die Wurst (The Porcupine: News from the West)

1954 Alarm im Zirkus (Alarm in the Circus)
1953 Die Unbesiegbaren (The Invincibles)
1951 Das Beil von Wandsbek (The Axe of Wandsbek)
1950 Das kalte Herz (The Cold Heart)
1949 Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat)
1948 Liebe 47 (Love in ’47)
1932 Kuhle Wampe, oder Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?)

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