Ilka Grüning’s first film, at age 43, was a German silent movie called Todesurteil in 1919. Next, she starred with Conrad Veidt in Peer Gynt. Later that year, she and Veidt appeared in Die sich verkaufen. She continued making silent movies in Germany into the 1920s. In 1920, she appeared in the film Die Bestie im Menschen based on a Émile Zola novel. This were two of 11 films she appeared in that year alone. Grüning appeared in a couple of Veidt’s “Christian Wahnschaffe” movies; Weltbrand in 1920 and Die Flucht aus dem goldenen Kerker in 1921. In 1922, she had a small part as a landlady in Lady Hamilton starring Veidt as Lord Horatio Nelson. This was one of four movies that she and Hans Twardowski appeared in together; F.W. Murnau’s drama Phantom, Es leuchtet meine Liebe and Der Falsche Dimitri. In 1923, she portrayed Frau Gött in Max Mack’s Das Schöne Mädel. Later that year, she portrayed the wife of Johann Friedrich Schiller in Friedrich Schiller – Eine Dichterjugend. Next she played Rosalindes’ mother in Max Mack’s Die Fledermaus (this was the 5th film she did with the German director). In 1924, she appeared in F.W. Murnau’s drama Die Finanzen des Großherzogs; (this was the third film she made with Murnau, the legendary German director). In 1925, Ilka Grüning appeared in the silent Die freudlose Gasse, directed by the legendary Georg Wilhelm Pabst, which featured a 20-year-old Greta Garbo. Marlene Dietrich was also in the film, uncredited as “Maria’s friend”, making this the only film featuring both Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. Dietrich is the dark-haired friend of Maria’s who actually catches Garbo when she collapses from hunger in the Vienna butcher shop line. The following year, Grüning appeared in her third Pabst’ movie Geheimnisse einer Seele. In 1927, Grüning appeared in Halloh – Caesar! which S.Z. Sakall helped write. Later that year, she and Sakall appeared together in Familientag im Hause Prellstein.
In 1929, Ilka Grüning appeared in her first ‘talkie’, Melodie des Herzens. It would be three years before she appeared in another film. In 1932, she received a part in Max Neufeld’s Hasenklein kann nichts dafür, which would be her last movie in Germany. Grüning, had played Strindberg and Ibsen for legendary German director Max Reinhardt and had run the second most important drama school in Berlin, left Germany after Hitler and the Nazis came to power. After arriving in America, she received help from the European Film Fund in resettling to America. It would be nine years before she appeared in another movie. With the outbreak of World War II and the need for older German women for war movies, Grüning started receiving parts. Her first Hollywood movie was in 1941 as Erwin Kalser’s husband in Warner Bros.’ war drama Underground starring Philip Dorn and Martin Kosleck (as the evil Nazi Colonel Heller) and Ludwig Stössel (who would play her husband in Casablanca). Ilka Grüning was busy in 1942. First, Grüning (playing Anna) and Stössel appeared in the Oscar-nominated Kings Row starring Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan and Claude Rains. She then played Christian Rub’s wife in the spy thriller Dangerously They Live starring Nancy Coleman and Raymond Massey. This was followed by playing the wife of Karl Pfeiffer, a German millionaire living in America (played by Charles Winninger) in Friendly Enemies. Grüning (playing Aunt Sophie) and Stössel appeared together again in a Sonja Henie film Iceland. Next, playing a Gestapo impostor, she appeared in Desperate Journey with Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn.
Also in 1942, at the age of 66, the oldest actor in the movie, Grüning received the role of Mrs. Leuchtag, who along with her husband (played by Ludwig Stössel) are leaving Europe for America in Casablanca. She has only one scene (a total of 30 words) in the movie when she and her husband are having a drink in Rick’s Cafe with their good friend Carl the waiter (S.Z. Sakall) and struggling a bit with their English. Her husband (Ludwig Stössel) asks her for the time, “Liebchen – sweetnessheart, what watch?” She answers, “Ten watch” and he replies, “Such watch?” Carl assures them they will get along beautifully in America. In 1943, Grüning received a bit part as George Tobias’s mother in This Is the Army. Next she appeared in The Strange Death of Adolph Hitler with Stössel and Twardowski. Grüning received bit parts in Madame Curie starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon (as the Curies). Grünig appeared in only one movie in 1944 as Mrs. Vronsky in the drama An American Romance starring Brian Donlevy, Ann Richards, and John Qualen. Grüning would not get another part until 1946 when she received a bit part in the mystery Murder in the Music Hall. She received a couple of other small parts that year; the first as Herman Bing’s wife in Rendezvous 24. Next Ilka Grüning and Stössel got to play husband and wife again. Instead of being the Leuchtags, they were now the Muellers in Temptation starring Merle Oberon, George Brent and Paul Lukas. The following year, she played Paul E. Burns’s wife in the film-noir Desperate which featured Raymond Burr. Playing Mattie, she appeared next in Repeat Performance. In 1948 appeared in Letter from an Unknown Woman starring Joan Fontaine. Later she played a German woman in Billy Wilder’s comedy romance A Foreign Affair starring Marlene Dietrich. She also had a small part in the M-G-M musical Words and Music.
The following year, she played a grandmother in the film-noir Caught starring James Mason and Barbara Bel Geddes. Later that year, Ilka Grüning and Stössel appeared in their last film together when they received roles in the drama The Great Sinner starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. She played another old women in Mr. Soft Touch with Glenn Ford. In 1950, she received a good part as Edgar Bergen’s wife in the adventure film Captain China starring John Payne and Gail Russell. She had another good role in the film-noir Convicted starring Glenn Ford and Broderick Crawford. The following year, she appeared as Brett King’s mother in Payment on Demand with Bette Davis. Her last Hollywood movie was as Mama Ludwig, Griff Barnett’s wife, in the western Passage West starring John Payne. Like many German and Austrian actors, Grüning went back to Berlin in the 1950s, but found that Germany was not the same country she had left. Many former Nazis returned and it became difficult for Grüning to integrate back into the film industry. She did, at age 76, appear in a small Swiss movie in 1952 called Die Venus vom Tivoli, which was her last movie. After this Grüning returned to America. Ilka Grüning died on November 11, 1964, in Los Angeles, at the age of 88. She was cremated and her ashes rest in Columbarium of Faith in Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica, California. Actors Paul Henreid and George Bancroft are also buried here.
- September, 04, 1876
- Vienna, Austria
- November, 11, 1964
- Los Angeles, California
- Woodlawn Cemetery
- Santa Monica, California