Gunther Kaufmann: Actor who was a favourite of Fassbinder

David Childs
Sunday 20 May 2012 16:07

The German-American actor Günther Kaufmann was brought to the screen by the director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

He started in Gods of the Plague (1969) in which he played "Günther", known as the "Gorilla", the buddy of a small-time gangster. Fassbinder liked to cast his friend as a working-class type, such as a farmer's leader in Die Niklashauser Fahrt (The Niklashauser Journey, 1970), a medieval, proletarian revolution, fantasy. He appeared as J. Smolik, the chauffeur, in Einem Jahr Mit 13 Monden (In A Year Of 13 Moons, 1979) in which, according to the New York Times, "Scenes of unbearably graphic brutality are mixed with scenes of serene beauty and some of utter nonsense."

Kaufmann went on to play the title role in Whity (1971), set in post-Civil War America. Kaufmann played the title role – butler and illegitimate son of the crazy Nicholson family.

After falling out with Fassbinder, Kaufmann acted in his first non-Fassbinder film, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's Ludwig – Requiem for a Virgin King (1972), about the mad Bavarian monarch, which was, one critic, adjudged, "witty without being funny". In the film, for once, Kaufmann got away from the proletariat and played an aristocrat, Graf Holnstein. He played an American in Lothar Lambert's1-Berlin-Harlem (1974), a controversial film about relations between black US soldiers and West Berlin women.

Kaufmann's next Fassbinder role was in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), while in 1980, he appeared in Berlin Alexanderplatz. He played an American GI in Veronika Voss (1982), and his last role in a Fassbinder film, Querelle, was as Nono, the barman husband of the brothel madame Lysiane (played by Jeanne Moreau). This dark drama was Fassbinder's last work before he died of a drug overdose. Kaufmann had also acted alongside Fassbinder in the popular police drama Kamikaze 89. Under the directors Xaver Schwarzenberger and Otto Waalkes he once again played a minor part as a US soldier, in Otto – Der Film (1982)

Kaufmann's life was as bizarre as the films he acted in. The son of a US serviceman and an unmarried German mother, Günther Kaufmann was born in June 1947 in the Hasenbergl district of Munich. With this background he faced a difficult childhood and youth in postwar West Germany. Although Kaufmann never knew his father or learned English, he was often cast as an American. Fassbinder found him attractive and, although Kaufmann was married with two children, the two had an affair. After stormy times they parted, but came together again as friends.

In November 2002, Kaufmann confessed to causing the death of his accountant, Hartmut Hagen, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He confessed to the deed even though he was not guilty because he wanted to protect his cancer-stricken third wife, Alexandra, who had induced three accomplices to carry out the crime. By deception, she had received a loan of 850,000 marks from the accountant, who later pressed for its return. He was later killed after three men entered his house to destroy incriminatory evidence; Kaufmann wanted to spare his wife the ordeal of dying in prison.

After spending 831 days in prison he was released in 2005 after the real criminals were exposed but the following year he was in court again because his original false statement had resulted in two others being held on remand. He was given a suspended sentence of 22 months. Once free again, Kaufmann acted in a number of films including the German children's film Vicky the Viking as "Sven the Terrible".

Kaufmann published his autobiography, Der Weisse Neger vom Hasenbergl (The White Negro of Hasenbergl)in 2004 with the assistance of Gabriele Droste. In Munich, Bremen and Berlin, he played Friar Tuck in the musical Robin Hood (2006), while in 2009he finished sixth in the Germanversion of I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! One of his last engagements was a small part in Farewell To The Mafia (2011), a German, Italian and Croatian production.

Kaufmann was admitted to hospital in February for treatment of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. He collapsed on a street in Berlin Grunewald and died of heart failure.

Günther Kaufmann, actor: born Munich 16 June 1947; married three times (two children); died Berlin 10 May 2012.

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