Hildegard Knef, icon of post-war cinema, Broadway star, chanson poet, book author, died 20 years ago. Still much can be learned from her songs. How to live, love, fail. We have picked out ten examples.
"It should rain red roses for me"
She wrote the lyrics in a moment of absolute megalomania, Hildegard Knef later confessed. And if she hadn’t asked her composer Hans Hammerschmid to set her "highly aggressive" lines to a swaying three-four time, others might have noticed too. But Angela Merkel was surely aware of the cheerfully presumptuous nature of the lyrics – "I can’t submit/ Can’t be content/ Still want to win/ Want everything, or nothing" – when she let "For me it’s supposed to rain red roses" blow for the Great Taps.
"From now on it was downhill"
For Knef, Red Roses became a lasting triumph in 1968; it is the piece that will forever be associated with her. Even though it’s a very untypical Knef song, when she was usually more the poet of failure. On the B-side of the Rosen single, she sings "Von nun an ging’s bergab," a whimsical summary of her career as a series of errors, confusions and misunderstandings: "Now I was famous, Hilde was in luck/ came back home excited/ got a prize and was spoiled/ but after a bankruptcy I was frowned upon/ from now on, it was downhill."
Hildegard Knef in 1995
"My concept of time"
On 1. February marks the 20th anniversary of her death. The younger generations can hardly understand what attracted the Germans to her, sometimes to the point of bloodshed. "You marvel at me and live only in comparisons/ and want to see yourselves in me again," sings Hilde Knef at the beginning of "Mein Zeitbegriff" from the point of view of a newborn child. She was the incomparable one, she did not fit into the narrow patterns of the post-war period, where people preferred to keep quiet about the murderers among us. "Why is nothing ever eternal?" she asks in "Do clouds grow old??", "except the lie/ the lie of knowing the answer/ to call things by their name?"
"He who does not go crazy is not normal"
Of course, truth was no longer to be trusted either, especially not when everyone thought they owned their own: "Truth is an eel/ and has always served/ to twist and bend/ as the mother of intrigue" sings Knef in "Wer nicht verruckt wird, der ist nicht normal" – and at least that is a truth that remains unbendable.
"The old woman"
Who remains normal, has nothing from life. He could end up like the old woman in the song of the same name: "Whether she was once beautiful, she doesn’t know/ he never mentioned it/ she cried when he died suddenly/ she was used to him". Oh, if only she had said more often: "I want to!"Who knows from which direction it would have rained red roses?.
Hildegard Knef 1976 in the studio
"I only remember his name"
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees of happiness. A large number of the songs Hildegard Knef herself wrote are about the all-too-brief intoxication of devotion and the long hangover afterwards. Her best lyrics are not about love, but about the loss of it. This can happen quite suddenly, it needs, just like the confession of love, only three words: "For everything he did/ was for me/ he said/ I thought/ I believed/ then no more."The end is completely unsentimental: "A farewell can also be without tears/ a man like you is mostly alone later/ so what??"
"Happiness only knows minutes"
Her balance turns out to be as bitter as a Beckett play: "Happiness only knows minutes/ the rest is waiting room". And then you don’t even recognize it, happiness, when it stands before you so abruptly: "That it was good the way it was, you know afterwards," sings Knef in "17 Millimeter fehlten mir zum Gluck," "that it’s bad the way it is, you know right away."
"The day catches its breath"
This waiting room, which is called life, she could describe like no other: "The day catches its breath and cracks its joints/ the forest of antennas sticks to the horizon/ the crows speak without consonants/ and above the coffee filter the young morning grows old": that makes you want to shout "Bonjour" to the dreariness. But it’s much darker than that: "With my despondency mountains can break/ With my despondency the sun can die/ But I will die of courage".
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"No, I never give up"
Isn’t there a glimmer of hope there? But, you can still find it in her saddest songs, the initial "I will", that remains with her until the end, against all odds: "No, as long as no "eye for eye"/ can cloud my view/ as long as tenderness holds me/ it is and remains my world" it says in "No, I never give up".
It is much easier to live, we can learn from Hildegard Knef, if a person does not bother with the question of the deeper meaning, because "so he asks in vain/ for the rest of his life/ gets nothing said/ because he asks the wrong thing". At the same time, the right question, the one you should ask yourself three times a day after meals, is so close: "How many people were happy that you lived?"