Oscar-winning actor with mastery of Nazi-era subjects

Maximilian Schell: December 8th, 1930-February 1st, 2014


Maximilian Schell, the ruggedly handsome Austrian-born actor who won an Academy Award for his role in Judgment at Nuremberg, died early last Saturday at a hospital in Innsbruck, Austria. He was 83.

Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), a courtroom drama recounting the Nazi war-crime trials in Germany in 1945-1946, had an all-star cast, including Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift. But Schell’s performance as the passionate, eloquent and ultimately furious German defence lawyer was the only one honoured by the academy with an award. The film had begun as a television play, a 1959 episode of the anthology series Playhouse 90, in which Schell also starred.

He went on to earn two more Oscar nominations, for the title role in The Man in the Glass Booth (1975), a drama inspired by the trial in Israel of the Holocaust criminal Adolf Eichmann; and Julia (1977), based on a Lillian Hellman story about the underground in Nazi Germany.

In the late 1960s, Schell became a director, and two of his films – The Pedestrian (1973), about a German businessman’s wartime past, and Marlene (1984), a documentary about his Nuremberg co-star Marlene Dietrich – received Oscar nominations.

A concert pianist in private life, he also went on to direct opera, including Der Rosenkavalier for the Los Angeles Opera in 2005.

Schell acknowledged that his career had perhaps been dominated by Nazi-era subjects and characters, and that he had been typecast in terms of acting roles.

He was also an SS captain in The Odessa File (1974); a Nazi officer in two 1977 films, A Bridge Too Far and Cross of Iron; and a Nazi captain, alongside Marlon Brando, in The Young Lions (1958), his American film debut.

“There does seem to be a pattern” in his films, Schell said in a 1975 interview with Chicago film critic Roger Ebert.

He added later: “I think there’s an area of subject matter here that has to be faced and seriously dealt with.” And the advent of the Third Reich was part of his own experience.

Maximilian Schell was born in Vienna on December 8th, 1930, one of four children of Hermann Ferdinand Schell, a Swiss-born playwright and pharmacy owner, and the former Margarethe Noé von Nordberg, an Austrian actress. The family, which was Roman Catholic, moved to Zurich after the Anschluss, the occupation and annexation of Austria, in 1938.

Schell made his film debut in Kinder, Mütter und ein General (Children, Mother and a General, 1955) and appeared in several other West German films before leaving in 1958 for the United States, where his sister Maria Schell was building a Hollywood movie career, starring that year in The Brothers Karamazov.

Schell’s acting roles went well beyond the second World War and Germany. He played Vladimir Lenin in Stalin, a 1992 television film; the title character in Peter the Great, a 1986 miniseries; and an aging cardinal in the 1996 sequel to The Thorn Birds.

He appeared in Topkapi (1964), about a jewel theft in Turkey; Krakatoa, East of Java, set in the 19th century; The Freshman, a 1990 Mafia comedy; and Deep Impact (1998), a comet-disaster movie.

Schell made his stage debut in Germany in 1952. He did three plays on Broadway, beginning with Interlock (1958), starring Rosemary Harris; followed by A Patriot for Me (1969), in which Tommy Lee Jones made his Broadway debut; and ending with a stage version of Judgment at Nuremberg (2001).

His last film, Les Brigands, a multinational production filmed in French, is in postproduction. His last English-language acting role was in The Shell Seekers, a 2006 television movie that also starred Vanessa Redgrave.

Schell was in his 50s when he married Natalya Andreychenko, a Russian actress, in 1985; they divorced in 2005. His survivors include Iva Mihanovic, a German-Croatian operatic soprano, whom he married in August; and a daughter, Nastassja Schell, from his first marriage. Maria Schell died in 2005.

After decades of stardom and interviews, Schell evolved into an international character actor – distinguished, grey- bearded and perhaps a bit world-weary.

“The world doesn’t change. The balance of evil will always be the same,” he said in an interview with the New York Times in 2001, when he was preparing to appear on Broadway in Judgment of Nuremberg, this time as one of the accused Nazi judges (played by Burt Lancaster in the film).

“I think all the poets and artists have always written for peace and love, and it hasn’t changed much in the last two or three thousand years. But we hope.”