German film star Erwin Geschonneck dies

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BERLIN -- His life read like a history of Germany itself.

Erwin Geschonneck, a working-class boy who survived six years in the Nazi concentration camps and went on to become one of the biggest film stars in communist East Germany, died this week at the age of 101.

Geschonneck was best known internationally for his role as Kowalski in Frank Beyer's Oscar-nominated "Jakob the Liar" (1975), the only film ever produced by the German Democratic Republic's DEFA film studios to get an Academy Award nomination.

But in East Germany he was a star, playing in more than 100 films and TV series, several times as a concentration camp inmate. It was a case of art imitating life. Convicted in 1938 by the Nazis for his membership in the Communist Party, Geschonneck survived three camps: Sachsen Hausen, Dachau and Neuengamme. In 1945, he was on board the prison ship Cap Arcona, when it was accidentally bombed by the British air force. Of the 4,000 inmates aboard, only 350 survived, Geschonneck among them.

After World War II, Geschonneck joined Berthold Brecht's legendary theater company, the Berlin Ensemble. He also signed on with DEFA, East Germany's only film production company.

Geschonneck was hugely popular with directors and audiences and become one of the GDR's biggest stars. He won every film prize going, including East Germany's highest honor, the Karl Marx Prize. After German reunification he was honored by the German Film Academy with a lifetime achievement award.

Geschonneck was a devoted communist and remained so until his death. But in his work and in public statements he was often critical of the GDR regime, something that made him a target of state censorship.

He is survived by his two sons -- television director Matti Geschonneck and computer researcher and author Alexander Geschonneck as well as his daughter, the journalist Fina Geschonneck.
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