Borchert, Ernst Wilhelm


Ernst Wilhelm Borchert, sometimes billed as Wilhelm Borchert, was born in Berlin on March 13, 1907. Although he began an apprenticeship as a librarian when he was young, he ended up following his passion for acting. He attended the Berlin Reichersche Hochschule für dramatische Kunst (Reicher Academy for Dramatic Art) from 1926 -27.


Borchert launched his acting career at the Ostpreussisches Landestheater in Königsberg, before performing in theaters in Erfurt, Cologne and Berlin. In 1938, actor and director Eugen Klöpfer invited Borchert to perform at the Volksbühne in Berlin. After WWII, he played at the Hebbel Theater, before joining the Deutsches Theater in Berlin (1947-50). Borchert performed in several of Wolfgang Langhoff productions at this theater. In the fall of 1947, he played the title role in the first post-WWII staging of Woyzeck (dir. Wolfgang Langhoff). One of his most important roles at the Deutsches Theater was the lead in Faust (1949, dir. Wolfgang Langhoff), which he performed over 100 times in one year. Over the course of his career, Borchert played in five different Faust productions and contemporary critics praised him as one of the best Faust actors. In 1951, Borchert, following a request from director Boleslaw Barlog, became a member of the Staatliche Schauspielbühnen in Berlin. He was cast in various classic productions (Hamlet, dir. Fritz Kortner; Minna von Barnhelm, dir. Boreslaw Balog), as well as in contemporary plays by Ernst Barlach and Franz Kafka. In 1956, Borchert played in Der arme Vetter (The Poor Cousin) at the Schiller Theater, one of the first postwar productions of a play from the all but forgotten playwright Ernst Barlach.


As of the mid-1930s, Borchert, who had a particularly recognizable voice, was highly sought after as one of Germany's most popular voice-over artists. He lent his voice to Orson Welles, Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Burt Lancaster and Johnny Weismuller, among many others.


Borchert’s film debut—as an actor and scriptwriter—was in the 1927 docudrama Die von der Sanitätskolonne (dir. Gertrud David), which was commissioned by the Red Cross. Borchert’s father was the director of the Central Committee of the International Red Cross at the time. After a break from film, in the early 1940s he returned to the screen and performed in various movies by director Günther Rittau, who had made his name as a cameraman for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Borchert played First Lieutenant Griesbach in Rittau’s U-Boote westwärts (1941), an UFA WWII propaganda film that glorified the German Navy. Rittau also cast him in several other films: the story of a feud between brothers, Wenn du noch eine Heimat hast (1942); the melodrama Der Sturm (1942); and the entertaining love story Der ewige Klang (1943).


Opposite Hildegard Knef, Borchert played the male lead in the first postwar German film, Die Mörder sind unter uns (dir. Wolfgang Staudte). As Dr. Mertens he portrayed a man haunted by his war experiences and eager to get revenge on his former superior. The film’s premiere was overshadowed by a charge against Borchert, which claimed that he had falsified his denazification paperwork. An article from the Neue Zeit (Sept. 25, 1947) would later report that, on September 24, 1947, the Denazification Commission for Artists exonerated Borchert from the accusation that he had been an active member of the Nazi Party. Die Mörder sind unter uns brought Borchert international recognition and, in a 1977 Deutsche Welle interview, he stated that this DEFA production was “the film of his life.”


Before moving towards work in West German cinema, Borchert played in one more DEFA production, Und wieder 48 (dir. Gustav von Wangenheim), in which he shared the screen with Paul Bildt, Eduard von Winterstein and Harry Hindemith. In the following years he performed in television (Wallenstein, 1971) and cinema. His work reunited him with colleagues from Die Mörder sind unter uns: with director Wolfgang Staudte on Schicksal aus zweiter Hand (1949), and with actress Hildegard Knef in the Hans Fallada adaptation Jeder stirbt für sich allein (1976), Borchert’s last film role.


Borchert was shortlisted for the German Film Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance as Field Marshal General Paulus in Frank Wisbar’s Hunde wollt ihr ewig leben? (1959), a story about a young German Lieutenant who increasingly distrusts the inhumane Nazi ideologies. The film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1959. In 1963, Borchert was awarded the title Staatsschauspieler (State Actor) for his artistic merits; and in 1976, he was honored with the Kunstpreis Berlin (Art Prize of the City of Berlin) for more than four decades of contributions to the Berlin theater scene. Borchert was a member of the West German Academy of Arts from 1976 until 1990 and served as the deputy director of the Department for Performance arts from 1977 until 1980.


Ernst Wilhelm Borchert died in Berlin after a long illness on June 1, 1990. 

Festivals & Awards:

1976 Awarded the Kunstpreis Berlin for service in theater
1963 Awarded Staatsschauspieler (State Actor)
1959 Shortlisted for Best Performance by Actor in Supporting Role, German Film Award, for Hunde wollt ihr ewig leben?


Bibliography & More:

Zemke, Andreas and Klaus Goetze-Claren. Zeitreisen: Schauspieler im Gespräch—Wilhelm Borchert. Deutsche Welle, 1977. iTunes, podcast (2015).


1976 Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Everyone Dies Alone)
1970 Eli (TV)
1969 Michael Kohlhaas
1966 Der Fall Kaspar Hauser (The Kaspar Hauser Case, TV mini-series)
1965 Nun singen sie wieder (Now They Sing Again, TV)
1962 Wallenstein (TV mini-series)
1959 Hunde wollt ihr ewig leben? (Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever?)
1957 Das Geheimnis (The Secret, TV)
1955 Du darfst nicht länger schweigen (You Can No Longer Be Silent)
1954 Sauerbruch – Das war mein Leben (The Life of Surgeon Sauerbruch)
1949 Schicksal aus zweiter Hand (Second Hand Destiny)
1948 Und wieder 48 (It Happened in ‘48)
1946 Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us)
1943 Der ewige Klang (The Eternal Tone)
1942 Wenn du noch eine Heimat hast (If You Still Have a Home)
1942 Der Sturm (The Storm)
1941 Mein Leben für Irland (My Life for Ireland)
1941 U-Boote westwärts (U-Boat, Course West!
1934 Im Frühling des Lebens (In the Prime of Life)
1927 Die von der Sanitätskolonne (The People of the Rescue Corps, docudrama)


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