It is with great sadness I must announce that Manfred Krug has died. For any regular reader of this blog or fan of fan of East German films, Krug needs no introduction. It is safe to say that, with the notable exception of Erwin Geschonneck, no actor in East Germany was better known or more admired. He was an exceptionally talented man who had successful careers on both sides of the Berlin Wall, both as an actor and a singer.
Born in Duisburg in 1937, the son of an engineer at a steel factory. After the War, factories in the West were very slow to get up to speed. The Allies, not without reason, were afraid that the Germans would ramp up their war machine again like they did after World War I. The Soviets were less worried about this, they saw German industry as a great source of badly needed materials and supplies, and they did everything they could to get the factories up and running. For this reason, Krug’s father had already been working at the steel mill in Hennigsdorf during the War and returned to it afterward. The young Krug joined his father after his parents divorced. He started his career as a smelter worker, and it was here that he got the distinctive scar on his forehead after being splashed with hot metal.
Krug started in films in 1957, usually playing the heavy. He starred in several TV-movies at the start of his career, playing everything from the reprehensible Locky McCormick in the East German made-for-TV version of Johnny Belinda, to Mephisto in a TV adaptation of Faust. He first started getting some real attention with his role as Oleg in Five Cartridges, but it was the film On the Sunny Side that first showed off Krug’s talent as both a singer and an actor. In it Krug plays an unruly blue-collar worker who discovers a talent for singing and theater. In many respects, the film follows Krug’s own path to acting. Like the character in the film, Krug was worked in a steel mill when he was younger. It was here that he got that distinctive scar on his forehead after being splashed with hot metal. Also like the character, he was kicked out of drama school for being a troublemaker.
On the Sunny Side was a relatively small film with only a few singing numbers, but it was followed by Midnight Revue, in which Krug was able to pull out all the stops and show the East German public what he could do. The film was a hit and led to appearance on television and several LPs of his jazz singing.
In 1966, he turned in a performance as Hannes Balla in The Trace of Stones that would have been a career-defining role for most actors, but the film was quickly pulled from theaters as a result of the 11th Plenum. While the Plenum was a career ender for many people at DEFA, the banning of The Trace of Stones had little effect on Krug’s career. He continued to appear in films and released several albums on the GDR’s Amiga label. He often collaborated with jazz musician and film composer Günther Fischer, with Fischer writing the music and Krug writing the lyrics under the pseudonym, “Clemens Kerber.” After the Wende, Krug wrote a scathing piece for Der Spiegel, attacking Fischer for working as an informer for the Stasi—a charge that Fischer has repeatedly denied.
Then in 1976, he joined the protest against the expatriation of leftist singer, Wolf Biermann. For most of the DEFA actors, directors and writers who signed this protest, the move proved to be the end of their film careers in East Germany, but Krug didn’t stick around to find out. Mr. Krug was a West German by birth and was able to use this fact to leave the GDR as soon as it became apparent that the SED was not going to respond to the protest with anything other than repression and surveillance.
While many other East German actors who immigrated to the West suffered a fallow period without work after the move. Krug hit the ground running. Producer Georg Feil was casting for a new TV series about long-distance truckers called Auf Achse (On the Road). Feil wanted actors who could actually handle a big rig, and Manfred Krug, with his blue-collar background, was custom made for the part. The series was a huge hit and made Krug as familiar in the West as he was in the East. He later made splash as the lawyer Robert Liebling in the TV show Liebling Kreuzberg, and as chief detective Paul Stoever in the ever-popular crime drama Tatort.
In 1996, he published Abgehauen, his account of how the East German government essentially drove him out of the country.1 The book was popular and was soon after adapted into a movie, directed by the former East German director Frank Beyer (who had also signed the Biermann protest letter).
Some reports say that Krug was very much like the characters he played, cocky, obstinate, occasionally mean, but always charismatic. I, for one, will miss him.
1. It’s hard to give a truly accurate meaning of the word abgehauen in English. Like many German words, it contains several nuanced meanings that don’t translate into one handy word in English. At its root it means to flee, but it also indicates being driven off for some reason. It has milder connotation of escape, but mainly means someone left because they felt they had to. If I were to translate the title of Krug’s book into English, I’d probably go with “Get Outta Here!”, although I’m sure that won’t be what it will be called if it ever sees print in English (and it should).