Born Kurt Gerson into a well-off merchant family in Berlin, he studied medicine before being called up for military service in World War I. After being seriously wounded he was qualified as a military doctor in the German Army (despite having been only in his second year at university). After the war Gerron turned to a stage career, becoming a theatre actor under director Max Reinhardt in 1920. He appeared in secondary roles in several silent films and began directing film shorts in 1926.
Gerron's popular cinema breakthrough came with The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1930) opposite Marlene Dietrich. Two years before, Gerron originated the role of "Tiger" Brown in the 1928 premiere production of The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) at the Berlin Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, in which he also performed "Mack the Knife". With the show's international success, Gerron's name and recorded voice became well known across Europe.
After the 1933 seizure of power by the Nazis (known today as the Machtergreifung), Gerron left Nazi Germany with his wife and parents, traveling first to Paris and later to Amsterdam. He continued work there as an actor at the Stadsschouwburg and directed several movies. Several times he was offered employment in Hollywood through the agency of Peter Lorre and Josef von Sternberg, but refused to leave Europe.
After the Wehrmacht occupied the Netherlands, Gerron was first interned in the transit camp at Westerbork before being sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. There he was forced by the SS to stage the cabaret review, Karussell, in which he reprised Mack the Knife, as well as compositions by Martin Roman and other imprisoned musicians and artists.
In 1944, Gerron was coerced into directing a Nazi propaganda film intended to be viewed in "neutral" nations (in Switzerland, Sweden, and Ireland, for example) showing how "humane" conditions were at Theresienstadt. Once filming was finished, Gerron and members of the Jazz pianist Martin Roman's Ghetto Swingers were deported on the camp's final train transport to Auschwitz. Gerron and his wife were gassed immediately upon arrival, along with the film's entire performing entourage (except for Roman and guitarist Coco Schumann).The next day, Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler ordered the closure of the gas chambers.
All known complete prints of Gerron's final film, which was to have been called Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (Terezin: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement), and which is also referred to as Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City), were destroyed in 1945. Twenty minutes of footage were discovered in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, and today the film exists only in fragmentary form.
Gerron is the subject of three documentary films, Prisoner of Paradise (PBS), Kurt Gerrons Karussell, and Tracks to Terezín, which features Holocaust survivor Herbert Thomas Mandl talking about Kurt Gerron as the director of the film Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet. The narrator in Kurt Gerrons Karussell, which stars Ute Lemper, is Roy Kift, who has also written a play on Gerron's time in Theresienstadt entitled Camp Comedy. The play is published in The Theatre of the Holocaust, edited by Professor Robert Skloot and published by the University of Wisconsin Press.