Hannelore Elsner, a German actress who moved easily between art house cinema and mainstream television without losing her edge, or her army of local fans, has died. She was 76.
Matthias Prinz, a lawyer for the family, confirmed Elsner died peacefully on Sunday after a short and sudden illness.
While not well known outside continental Europe, Elsner was a major star in Germany, one of the country’s most famous actors and a regular in both film and television. She was also one of the last great originals, a larger-than-life personality who seemed fearless in her choice of roles and in her intense acting style.
As Hanna Flanders in Oskar Roehler’s black-and-white drama No Place to Go (2000), Elsner acts with the intensity and authority of a silent film diva, playing a woman on the edge of despair whose life as an East German sympathizer living in West Germany tears apart when the Berlin Fall falls. She goes for laughs in Dany Levy’s Jewish farce Go for Zucker (2004) as the disgusted goy wife of small-time con man Jackie Zucker (Henry Hubchen), who embraces her husband’s sudden re-conversion to Judaism on the promise the new pious image could land him a fat inheritance. And in Doris Dorrie’s melodrama Cherry Blossoms (2008) she plays against type as a meek housewife with an inner passion for Japanese Butoh.
Born July 26, 1942, in Burghausen in Bavaria, Elsner grew up in Munich. She lost her older brother to an Allied bomb attack during World War II. Her father, an engineer, died when she was eight. Classically trained, Elsner started her career on stage.
She quickly moved to film and TV roles, but spent the first two decades of her career playing roles in a series of largely forgettable light comedies and romantic dramas, often as the sexy scarlet alongside 1960s German heartthrobs such as Bubi Scholz and Peter Alexander. It was not until the 1970s and ’80s that she began to earn a reputation as a character actor, thanks to roles from New German Cinema auteur Edgar Reitz (The Trip to Vienna, The Tailor from Ulm) and Hungarian master Istvan Szabo (1980’s The Green Bird).
Her role as police detective Lea Sommer in German series The Commissioner, which ran from 1994 to 2006, made Elsner became a bona fide TV star and broke new ground for the portrayal of women in German television.
But Elsner enjoyed her greatest critical success in her late 50s with her return to the big screen. Her performance in No Place to Go won her the first of two German Film Awards for best actress. From then until her death, she was an omnipresent figure onscreen, playing both in mainstream comedies such as Jesus Loves Me (2012); children’s features, including the Hanni and Nanni franchise; and dramas like Lars Kraume’s Familienfest (2015) and Kirschbluten & Damonen, Dorrie’s sequel to Cherry Blossoms, which bowed in German theaters earlier this month.
International audiences will be able to see her final, English-language performance in Joshua Sinclair’s upcoming period drama A Rose in Winter, where she plays a supporting role alongside Zana Marjanovic as the Jewish-born Catholic saint Edith Stein.