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Gotz George, one of Germany’s best known and most beloved actors, whose life and career were a reckoning with his country’s dark past, has died after a brief illness. He was 77.
One of the country’s most versatile performers, George found success on stage, television and film and across all genres. He played an outlaw, a serial killer and Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, but also a camp gay lover in Rossini, a satire on the German film scene. In the Oscar-nominated comedy Schtonk!, he played a sleazy tabloid journalist responsible for passing off as real the forged diaries of Adolf Hitler.
George was nominated seven times for the German Film Awards, Germany’s equivalent of the Oscars, and won four times. In 1995, he won the Volpi Cup for best actor at the Venice Film Festival for The Deathmaker.
But in Germany, George will always be remembered as Horst Schimanski, the cop from Duisburg on the long-running TV crime show Tatort. A rough-hewed, working-class policeman who spoke in the thick local Ruhr dialect, the character was a revelation for German television at the time. George kept returning to the role, playing Schimanski in 48 episodes of Tatort over the course of 32 years.
George died June 19, but his death was kept secret until he was buried in Hamburg over the weekend. His fans took to Twitter on the news of his death, and #goetzgeorge was a trending hashtag throughout the day in Germany.
German justice minister Heiko Maas said that with the passing of George, “our country loses one of our great character actors.”
— Heiko Maas (@HeikoMaas) June 26, 2016
As the son of two of Germany’s best known theater actors, Heinrich George and Berta Drews, Gotz George was literally born to act. He was named Gotz after his father’s favorite role, that of the adventurer-poet Gotz von Berlichingen in the play of the same name by Goethe. But his father’s legacy was a more complicated one.
A star in the 1920s, Heinrich George appeared in films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the 1931 version of Berlin-Alexanderplatz. As a member of the Communist party, he was initially banned from working when the Nazis came to power. But the elder George reached an agreement with the regime: He was allowed to keep working and became a vocal supporter of the Hitler regime. He even starred in several Nazi propaganda films, including the infamous Jud Suss.
After the war, he was arrested by the Soviets and sent to a concentration camp, where he died in 1946.
Though Gotz George was only 8 years old at the time, his career can in part be read as a way of coming to terms with what his father, and his country, did during the Nazi regime. He played Fritz Lang in Death Is My Trade, a disturbing 1977 biopic of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Hoss, and he portrayed Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele in Nothing But the Truth in 1999. One of his last roles was playing his own father in George, a 2013 TV movie that many critics saw as Gotz George’s attempt to rehabilitate his father’s reputation.
“You were always ahead of me, you were always better, most obsessed,” George said, addressing his dead father in a TV documentary.
Few who saw the younger George act would agree.
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