Hildegard Frieda Albertine Knef was born on December 28, 1925 in Ulm, Germany. In 1940, she began studying acting. Even before the fall of the Third Reich, she appeared in several films, but most of them were only released after the war. To avoid being raped by Soviet soldiers, she dressed like a young man and was sent to a camp for prisoners of war. She escaped and returned to war-shattered Berlin where she played her first parts on stage. The first German movie after World War II, Die Mörder sind unter uns (1946), made her a star. David O. Selznick invited her to Hollywood and offered her a contract - with two conditions: Hildegard Knef should change her name into Gilda Christian and should pretend to be Austrian instead of German. She refused both and returned to Germany.
In 1951, she provoked one of the greatest scandals in German film history when she appeared naked on the screen in the movie Die Sünderin (1951). The Roman Catholic Church protested vehemently against that film, but Hildegard just commented: "I can't understand all that tumult - five years after Auschwitz!"
With the support of her first husband, the American Kurt Hirsch, she tried a second time to launch a Hollywood career, changed her family name from Knef to Neff (because Americans could not pronounce Knef), but the only worthwhile part she got was a supporting role in the Hemingway adaptation of Schnee am Kilimandscharo (1952). She became a leading lady in German, French and British films. Finally, America offered her another chance, this time on the stage. She achieved a kind of stardom as Ninotchka in the very popular Broadway play, "Silk Stockings". In 1963, she began a new career as a singer and surprised the audience with her typical, deep, smoky voice and the fact that many lyrics of her songs were written by herself. In 1970, she wrote the autobiographical bestseller "Der Geschenkte Gaul". She got sympathy from all over the world for her fight against cancer, which she defeated several times.
After the German reunification, Hildegarde Knef moved back to Berlin and died at age 76 of a lung infection on February 1, 2002.