Known to millions of fans as Bond-Girl Helga Brandt in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967), Karin Dor was an icon of German film in the 1960s.
Karin Dor, born as Kätherose Derr on 22 Februar 1938 in Wiesbaden, began her career at the tender age of 15 when she appeared as an extra in the 1953 film version of the Oscar Straus operetta ‘The Last Waltz’, followed by ‘Rosen aus dem Süden’ in 1954. That same year, Dor got her first speaking part in ‘Rose-Girl Resli’ under the direction of Austrian director Harald Reinl who had discovered her. In order to get married to Reinl in 1954 at the age of 16, Dor stated 1936 as her year of birth. At that time, Reinl was 30 years her senior and one of the most productive and mightiest film directors of post-war Germany. The couple divorced in 1968.
Mainly starring in films of her husband or sentimental romantic comedies, there was little room for Dor to unfold her true potential as an actress. Notable appearances in the much praised Edgar Wallace films as well as the Karl May adventure films secured her a place in German cinema history.
Often cast as the innocent beauty, gratuitously accused or damsel in distress, Dor gradually managed to shake off that stereotype in the mid 1960s and utilise her real acting abilites. The 18th Edgar Wallace film production, ‘Zimmer 13’, also under the direction of her husband Harald Reinl, saw her appearing as pathological killer Denise Marney in 1963. Her portrayal of Brunhilde in the epic fantasy film ‘Die Nibelungen’ or appearances in genre productions like ‘The Secret of the Black Widow’ were also a move away from being the typically typecast comedy film actress. However, Dor was actively trying to pursue an international career.
Having appeared in over 40 films, her international breakthrough finally came in 1967 with the James Bond thriller ‘You only Live Twice’ in which she starred as feisty femme fatale Helga Brandt alongside Sean Connery and Donald Pleasence. Generally regarded as one of her most outstanding roles, it was one she almost would have missed out on. When her then agent asked her to fly to London in a two-week break during the filming of ‘Die Nibelungen’, Dor initially replied that she wanted to have some time off from filming and would certainly not want to do a Bond film.
However, her agent inisisted firmly and after hastily buying a pair of high heels for the 1,65m actress at the airport (as the producers were looking for a 1,75m blonde and blue-eyed German actress), both met with Cubby Broccoli just in time for afternoon tea. When asked, which Bond films she had seen, her answer was a straight “None!” Broccoli replied with “Oh, that’s the girl I have to pay a ticket for.”
Waiting for a UK work permit, Dor and her agent were accomodated in the luxurious Dorchester Hotel – in a suite with no television set. As the World Cup game Germany vs. England was about to be transmitted, Sean Connery was the one to pop the question if the two ladies would like to see the game. A few moments later, he brought a portable TV set, connected it and said: “But I tell you one thing: if the Germans win, Karin will never get a work permit!” England won and two days later, the permit was issued. Working on the set of the fifth James Bond film was a joyous experience for Karin Dor who brilliantly got along with director Lewis Gilbert and the cast. However, an international career did not immediately materialise after Bond.
It was in 1968 when Dor was returning to Germany from Mexico with a stopover in Los Angeles to call on her agent Walter Cohner who mentioned, that Alfred Hitchcock was looking for an actress to play Juanita de Cordoba in his espionage thriller ‘Topaz’. As Hitchcock had travelled to Florida to shoot exterior scenes, Dor was told to stay put in Los Angeles to await his return. A couple of days later, the phone rang at 4 in the morning with the message, that Hitchcock wanted to see her at once.
Sitting in the office of Alfred Hitchcock opposite his secretary Peggy, the great director had his own way of telling Karin Dor the big news. Asking wether she knew Miss Edith Head, the dressmaker of his films, was his way of telling her she got the part. At the expense of Universal Studios, Dor was sent shopping for an entirely new wardrobe.
Speaking about the reputation of the great British director of behaving badly towards actresses, Dor once said “I was warned that he didn’t like actresses, but we had a wonderful connection with each other.”
During the 1970s and 80s, the German and European cinema was on a downward spiral after all attempts to breathe new life into it had failed. Subsequently, Karin Dors career suffered and she often took breaks from filming and only appeared occasionally in US TV productions such as ‘It takes a Thief’ or ‘Ironside’ or devoted herself to German theater productions in Cologne or Hamburg. In the 1980s, cancer forced her to take a longer break.
Interviews became rare, especially those in which she had to talk about her time working on ‘You Only Live Twice’, her most prominent film appearance as the only German Bond Girl of the long running franchise. She politely declined invitations to Bond events or any Bond-related publications. ‘Everything has been said about that film and my part in it, I can’t possibly add something new to that,’ she once said.
In her later years, Karin Dor spent much time on the theater stage, starring in classics such as ‘Tartuffe’ or boulevard comedies like ‘Der Neurosenkavalier’. From 2008 onwards, Dor appeared at the Komödie am Bayerischen Hof in Munich in the theatrical comedy ‘Man liebt nur dreimal’ which had been written for her. In an accident on holiday in South Tyrolia in 2016 she suffered a brain concussion and intracranial injury. Despite her doctors advising against appearing on stage, she resumed her part in the play ‘Der dressierte Mann’ in Munich, performing every evening. In January 2017 she relapsed and had to take a break from acting.
Karin Dor passed away on 06 November 2017 in a Munich nursing home. Our thoughts go out to her family and friends. A true legend of German cinema and theatre has left the stage.