Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Heroe’s Role of a Life Passed-By or Passed-Up

The Heroe’s Role of a Life Passed-By or Passed-Up

By Kevin Stoda

I came across a fascinating article, “Die Heldenrolle un das verpasste Leben”, by Simone Schmollack. The article contrasts the fiction and reality by viewing the life and drama of the life of an East German-born actor, Peter Koehncke.

This article was in the Rhein-Main Press Journal this weekend and began with a visit to the filming of the Tom Cruise film, OPERATION WALKUERE.

On that evening, a friend of the family von Stauffenberg had asked Peter Koehnke to tag along to the shooting at the place in Berlin where von Stauffenberg had actually been shot by the Nazis.

Peter Koehncke is the only living German actor to have ever played the German General Claus von Stauffenberg in a German movie. Koehnke played the main role in an East Germany in a film in 1964. That film had made Koehnke famous in both West and East Germany.

Alas, that very year that East German film came out, i.e. in 1964, Peter Koehncke got himself on the bad side of the Stasi and East German cinema and theatre.
This is because the theater piece, DIE STELLVERTRETER, was being performed in Berlin, Koehnke found himself playing the Jesuit Priest Father Riccardo Fontana.

The then-popular and religious East German actor had been told explicitly to perform the role in a certain unsympathetic manner, but when he got on stage, Koehncke turned to the audience and with cry of unfairness in his voice and asked, “Look at me! Am I such an ‘Untermensch’??”

Interestingly, the play, DIE STELLVERTRETER, is the dramatic portrayal of an imaginary trial of the Pope Pius XII, who is now again at the center of controversy in Germany, Europe and the catholic church.

The intention of the playwright was to discuss the guilt of Pius XII during the Nazi Dictatorship, i.e. in not helping more the Jews and other victims of Fascist crimes.

By the way, the subtitle for this play in English is “A Christian Tragedy.”

It was written by Rolf Hochhuth had been performed in Berlin since 1963.


Although his acting career was not over by any means after 1964, both the Stasi and East German State Theater and cinema made it next-to-impossible for Peter Koehnke to get parts aboad after that date. Meanwhile, in his own country he was seldom given star billing in theatre projects, which were often to a great degree.controlled via internal censorship.

Although the christian actor, Koehnke, was never officially gagged as an actor—banned from performing in public--during the next three decades, he was often harassed. For example, money was secretly taken from his bank account, i.e. it was overdrawn, and he was then publically charged with fraud and for other crimes.

Besides being financially broke, Peter Koehncke had other troubles which kept him from fleeing to the West over the decades—if he’d had ever taken the chance. The greatest problem through 1988 was that Peter Koehnke’s wife had died when his own child was quite young. So, he stayed on to raise his son as a single parent.

In short, from the mid-1970s on Koehncke had refused to flee the East German land even after his wife passed away because he really feared for what might become of his son after he would escape.

Explicitly, Koehncke had feared that his boy would be taken by the state and be put in a state-run home for troubled youths.. Finally, in January 1989, as his son was then of legal age, the aging actor finally fled to the West.

For one full year Koehncke lived out his dream to act in freedom and to live in freedom in Hamburg, Germany. However, soon after the Wall came down in late 1989, rumors began to arise in East Germany that Koehnke had, in fact, been a Stasi (State-Security) agent.

Soon, in 1990, Koehncke discovered it hard to find work as the rumors continued spread across both East and West Germany.


Nearly 20 years after he fled East Germany, Koehncke lives again in Berlin—in a united Germany.

However, in the last 18 to 19 years, no theatre nor movie studio has asked Koehnke to perform for them.

What is more?

Well, despite all the rumors that had caused him suddenly to become blackballed in theatres in both Germanies--and then in united Germany in 1990--, no evidence has been found that the aging Koehncke ever served for the Stasi.

In publishing her article over Peter Koehnke, published this 20th anniversary year of the FALL of the BERLIN WALL, the journalist Simone Schmollack has performed a great justice in shedding a light on the bad treatment in both Germanies over the past 5 decades.

Hidden in the Schmollack article, “Die Heldenrolle un das verpasste Leben”, is a hidden glimpse into why the actor, Peter Koehncke, had felt it appropriate and important to defend the Catholics on trial in Rolf Hochhuth’s play so many decades ago.


Koehnke, in his interviews with Schmollack, shared that during the Nazi-era, he had seen his wearing his religion on his sleeve, i.e. in the 1930s and 1940s, as a sign of opposition.

Koehncke explained that back between 1935 and 1945, he was a reserved and quiet youth who opposed the Nazi totalitarian state, but he did so as quietly as he could, apparently in order to survive.

Koehncke shared further that he had never been a friend of the East German government, either, even though he had played in its theaters and in its films for so many decades.

In short, Koehncke had often continued to quietly oppose the regime. He refused, for example, to join the SED or Communist Party

However, in 1964, when the formerly reserved Koehncke did finally speak out and oppose what the party’s theater leadership was dictating to him concerning how to play a catholic priest on stage, Koehncke found himself hammered down like a nail to the floor.

Then 25 years later, when Koehncke had finally flown to the West, the haunting of the East Germany government continued—i.e. rumors from East Germans-left-unnamed ruined his acting career permanently by implying and claiming that he had been a Stasi Agent, when apparently he actually never been one at .

I think it is about time that theaters and movie directors across Germany apologize to such a man—and refuse to blackball people like him ever again.

Don’t you?

That would be a good 20th anniversary memory for 2009, wouldn’t it?


Schmollack, Simone, “Die Heldenrolle un das verpasste Leben”, Das Wochenende Magazin der Rhein Main Presse: Journal , 7. Februar, 2009, p. 3



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