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Film

Germany's most relatable detective: Farewell to actor Götz George

He was the tough, blue-collar guy next door. German actor Götz George was best known as the gruff and abrasive police detective Schimanski in the crime series "Tatort." He passed away at age 77.

After a brief illness, Götz George passed away on June 19, his agent announced Sunday evening (26.06.2016) in Berlin.

"Götz George wanted a funeral with those closest to him," according to his agent's statement, which asked the public to respect the privacy of the actor's family and friends. According to German tabloid "Bild," George has already been buried in Hamburg.

Over the course of his career, the popular actor experienced how difficult it is to be a star in Germany. Being famous also meant being scrutinized, and praise didn't protect him from humiliation.

Perhaps that's why George, who was among Germany's most important actors for over five decades, developed such thick skin. It might also explain why he seemed so rough around the edges during his public appearances, and had distinct similarities with his best-known role, that of police detective Schimanski in the popular crime series, "Tatort."

Debut with Romy Schneider

Götz George was born on July 23, 1938 in Berlin. His father was a successful German theater and film actor - Heinrich George, who allegedly named his son after his favorite play by Goethe, "Götz von Berlichingen." In real life, Götz von Berlichingen was a German knight from the Middle Ages.

George was only eight years old when his father Heinrich died, in 1946, as a Soviet prisoner in the aftermath of World War II. The early death of his father was a wound that George rarely talked about, but he threw himself into his work in a way that seemed to pay tribute to him.

Götz George 1981 as Schimanski in Tatort in 1981, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Athenstädt

Götz George as Schimanski in 1981

Götz George debuted on screen in 1953, co-starring with Romy Schneider in the film "When the White Lilacs Bloom Again." From 1955 to 1958, he studied film in Berlin and performed until 1963 at the Göttinger Theater in central Germany, under the direction of Heinz Hilpert, who would become his most important teacher.

In the 1960s, George was a common face on German cinema screens. He often played the angry young man in sophisticated, socially critical productions like "Destination Death" (1964), but also in lighter, entertaining movies like the film productions of Karl May's Wild West books.

Cinema crisis brought George to television

When ticket sales sank dramatically in German cinemas in the 1960s, fewer films were made and George turned to television productions. As the proletarian police detective Schimanski, from Germany's industrial Ruhr region, he drove audience ratings through the roof.

Now, George is inseparable from the role of Schimanski: a direct, hands-on kind of guy who investigates by hanging out in the bar on the corner, and who doesn't have to hide his compassion for the working class because he's one of them.

"Guys or men have to stand out with their attitudes - with honesty and moral courage," George once said. With Schimanski, he created an entirely new kind of hero in the crime genre.

The parka that Schimanski wore all the time has since found a place of honor in Berlin's Museum of Film and Television, where the detective's passport and fan mail sent to "Götz Schimanski" can also be viewed.

Back on the big screen

In the 1990s, George once again made successful feature films, growing more and more adventurous in comedies like "Schtonk!" and "Rossini."

In 1995, he was honored as Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his performance in the film, "Deathmaker," based on the transcripts of the interrogation of the 1920s serial killer Fritz Haarmann.

As Haarmann in "Deathmaker," George demonstrated the breadth of his acting talent. He always emphasized how important it was for him to have a solid technical foundation. "Technique is always your vehicle. It's always about light - now you're out of the light, here you have to turn just a bit. Even when I'm filming a love scene in bed - it's always about serious, professional work."

Götz George in the film 'George,' Copyright: SWR/Thomas Kost

Götz George played his own father, Heinrich George, in 2012

George's ambition was not always his best counselor. In 1999, he attempted to fund his own film about the fictional trial of Nazi concentration camp doctor, but the project was a flop. The film, "After the Truth," heralded as a taboo breaker, pressed Holocaust monstrosities into the conventional form of a Hollywood court film, and George - made up to play the elderly doctor - became a kind of bizarre comical figure.

In the comedy "Zettl" by Helmut Dietl, George co-starred with Michael "Bully" Herbig, who played a Bavarian chauffeur named Zettl trying to make it big in Berlin. Torn apart by critics, the film won't be remembered as one of George's greatest works.

Movie making after age 70

Even in his later years, George continued to work regularly on large television productions. In 2012, author and director Joachim Lang convinced him to do a film titled "George" about his own father, whom he played.

Yet George's most remarkable acting performance will remain his depiction of murderer Haarmann. When he sits in court and calmly explains the challenge of properly dismembering his victims, we see a human beast more clearly than we would in a graphic scene of sheer violence.

Two years ago, George announced that he was retiring from film. That year, he also received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the country's only federal decoration. In addition to his acting career, George was active in recent years for the German Cancer Aid non-profit organization and "White Ring," a group that supports victims of crime.

This July, George would have turned 78. He is survived by his wife Maria Ullrich and one daughter.

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