ALTHOUGH a comic institution in his native Germany on a par with Fernandel in France (with whom he co-starred in La Bourse et la Vie, 1965) and star of over 100 films, Heinz Ruhmann will be familiar to most English-speaking audiences largely through his appearance in Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools (1965), from Katherine Anne Porter's best-seller of life aboard a Germany-bound ocean liner in 1933. Ruhmann plays the lovable Jewish passenger: 'There are a million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do - kill all of us?' In 1938 Ruhmann had himself been at the sharp end of the Nazi regime when he yielded to pressure from the authorities to separate from his half-Jewish wife of 14 years, who emigrated to
The son of a hotelier who committed suicide when he was 14, he made his stage debut in Breslau in 1920, later acting in Hanover, Bremen and Munich before in 1926 arriving at the Deutsches Theater Berlin under Max Reinhardt. It was here that he was first spotted for films, making his debut in Das deutsche Mutterherz ('The German Mother Heart', 1926) and it was his first talkie, Die Drei von der Tankstelle ('Three from the Gas Station', 1930), that made him a star. A romp about three jaunty young bachelors evicted from their home who open a petrol station and naturally end up as millionaires, it inaugurated a whole genre of escapist light musicals about singing your way through the Depression. Its director, Wilhelm Thiele, was one of several from Ruhmann's early films who fled to Hollywood after the Nazis' coming to power in 1933, including Curtis Bernhardt, Max Ophuls and Robert Siodmak, the last having made Der Mann, der seinen Morder sucht ('Looking for his Murderer', 1931), an early manifestation (co-scripted by Billy Wilder) of the old chestnut about a loser (Ruhmann) who decides to end it all by employing someone else to kill him and then has second thoughts . . .
Ruhmann scored one of his biggest successes with Karl Hartl's Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war ('The man who was Sherlock Holmes', 1937), playing Watson to Hans Albers' Holmes in this shaggy-dog tale about a pair of unsuccessful private detectives who drum up trade by assuming the identities of Holmes and Watson, much to the amusement of a mysterious Englishman they keep running into, ultimately revealed to be Conan Doyle himself. Ruhmann's most successful wartime films were Quax, der Bruchpilot ('Quax, the Crashing Pilot ', 1941) and a nostalgic comedy-drama about student life, Die Feuerzangenbowle (1944). Starting with Lauter Lugen (1938), he also directed a handful of films, in most of which he did not appear (the exception being Brieftrager Muller, 1953, which he completed after the original director, John Reinhardt, died during production).
Eternally optimistic and eager to please, Ruhmann enjoyed continued popularity during the Adenauer years in the title-roles of Charley's Tante (1956), Der Hauptmann von Kopenik (1956) and Der Brave Soldat Schweik (1960), while he also took the opportunity to prove himself a straight actor of authority as the trench-coated inspector in Es geschah am hellichten Tag ('It happened in Broad Daylight', 1958), a sombre crime film in a rural setting in which he proves that the murder of a local girl was committed not by the village character, Michel Simon, but by the wealthy mother's boy Gert Frobe. His Sixties films included more detectives, Father Brown in Das schwarze schaf (1960) and the title role in Maigret und sein grosster Fall (1966), plus a clutch of adaptations of plays by Curt Goetz, most notably as in the title-role of Dr. med. Hiob Pratorius (1965), which had previously been played on screen by the author himself in 1950 and by Cary Grant in the Hollywood remake, People Will Talk. His stage roles included parts in Death of a Salesman, Waiting for Godot and The Caretaker, while his television appearances included Harvey.
In his nineties, Heinz Ruhmann remained a dapper figure, and only last year he put in an appearance in Wim Wenders's In weiter Ferne, so nah] ('Far Away, So Close', 1993), making him a rare instance (Sir John Gielgud is another) of a performer still active in the 1990s who had been in silent films.
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