8 famous German actors you need to know
Published on March 22, 2022 / Updated on January 24, 2024
Hollywood may be the movie mecca of the world, but did you know Babelsberg Film Studio outside of Berlin is actually the oldest large-scale film studio?
Plenty of famous names passed through this film studio after it opened its doors in 1912, and some even launched their international careers there, including legends such as Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder.
But Babelsberg is by no means Germany’s only claim to fame in the film industry. Many famous German actors have lit up the silver screen both at home and abroad.
Here are eight of the most famous German actors you should know – from old school stars you’ve never heard of to familiar faces.
Probably the most famous German actor on this list, Marlene Dietrich was well-known for her glamorous, liberated style, husky voice and sensual persona. A native Berliner, Dietrich got her start singing and performing in the wild cabarets of 1920s Berlin.
Her role as the femme fatal showgirl Lola-Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel” brought her international acclaim, and she went on to be one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Heinz Rühmann only made one film in English – the long-forgotten “Ship of Fools” from 1964 – but he is a film legend in Germany and arguably one of the most popular German actors of the 20th century.
Famous for portraying the happy-go-lucky, comedic average Joe, Rühmann appeared in over 100 films from 1926 all the way through to 1993. Perhaps his most famous role was as the “student” Hans Pfeiffer in the classic German film from 1944, “Die Feuerzangenbowle” (The Punch Bowl).
In the film, Rühmann poses as a pupil to regain the school experience and quickly gains the reputation of a prankster. To this day, this film has become a German tradition to watch during the Christmas season and New Year’s.
Although Romy Schneider was not as well-known in Hollywood, she remains a beloved star in Germany. Schneider began her career at 15, when she got a role in a German “Heimatfilm”, a genre of wholesome movies shot in romantic, rural settings, which were popular after the war until the early 1960s.
From 1955 to 1957, she played the part of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the beloved “Sissi” trilogy films. Romy Schneider later emigrated to France where she worked with some of the most notable directors at the time. Sadly, she is as famous for her descent into alcoholism and ill-fated love affairs as she is for her films.
As famous for his eccentric behavior and violent outbursts as his intense acting, Klaus Kinski is a notorious figure in this list of famous German actors.
He made 130 films in a career spanning 40 years, including several Spaghetti Westerns and five films with the respected German film director Werner Herzog.
In 1999, Herzog made a documentary film about their volatile relationship called “My Best Friend”.
Originally from Cologne, Udo Kier is a famous German character actor who has appeared in over 220 films, including many in English. In fact, he moved to London when he was 18 to learn the language.
One of Kier’s earliest roles was in Andy Warhol’s “Frankenstein” from 1973, and he went on to act in a string of low-budget and mainstream vampire movies, such as “Blade” and “Shadow of the Vampire”.
No stranger to arthouse cinema, he has also collaborated with many acclaimed European and American filmmakers such as Gus van Sant, Lars von Trier and Werner Herzog.
The German-Austrian actor Christoph Waltz is another darling of a famous director, in this case, Quentin Tarantino. Waltz had a leading role in Tarantino’s films “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” and won an Academy Award and Golden Globe as best supporting actor for both.
He has since gone on to work with other famous directors, like Woody Allen, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, and even had the honor of playing James Bond’s nemesis in “Spectre”.
Born in Vienna to a German father and Austrian mother of Slovenian descent, Waltz has dual Austrian/German citizenship.
Besides Christoph Waltz, perhaps the most famous modern-day German actor in Hollywood is Diane Kruger.
Originally from near the small town of Hildesheim, this actor first got her start in modeling in 1993. However, in the early 2000s, she decided to focus on acting and her career took off from the start.
Kruger has appeared in blockbusters such as “Troy” and “Inglourious Basterds”. Interestingly, she did not make her German language film debut until 2017, in Faith Akin’s “In the Fade”, which won her an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Kruger is fluent in German, French and English and has dual US/German citizenship.
Last on our list is Tom Wlaschiha, an actor so far more famous for a role on television than in films: He is the famous German actor from the popular TV series, “Game of Thrones”. Wlaschiha played the convict and assassin Jaqen H’ghar in the second, fifth and sixth seasons of the show.
Born in East Germany in 1973, Wlaschiha went to the US as a foreign exchange student shortly after the Wall fell. A true polyglot, he speaks German, English, French, Italian and Russian.
Besides “Game of Thrones”, Wlaschiha has acted in many film and television projects in Germany and elsewhere, such as “Crossing Lines” and “Stranger Things”.
This list of eight famous German actors is by no means exhaustive. Many great actors hailing from the country have made their mark on the film industry and in the theater, and many more will do so in the future.
But don’t just stick to their films in English – watching movies in the original German is also a great way to learn and practice your German! Thanks to streaming services like Netflix, you can watch German movies no matter where you are in the world.
In the meantime, for all aspiring actors, German or otherwise, we say Toi, toi, toi which is the German saying from “break a leg.”