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Maximilian Schell: The Actor of the Millenium

By Karen Melissa Graham

The best actors are the ones whose names always seem to escape us. Even when, from character to character, there is little or no variation in make-up or costume we never stop and think "Oh look! It's that actor," or even, "Now what have I seen this person in before?" Instead, you "meet" the character.

Maximilian Schell is such an actor. Only after viewing a few dozen of his films do you finally make the connection that the name "Maximilian Schell" seems to keep showing up in the credits. Even if you have chosen to view a film because it "stars Maximilian Schell," the actor steps aside so that the character may live a life of his own.

A Brief Look at the Ensemble Actor in Two Films

Ensemble Acting: An approach to acting that aims for a unified effect achieved by all members of a cast working together on behalf of the play, rather than emphasizing individual performances (infoplease.com dictionary)

This ability to completely understand the character and work as part of the ensemble is what makes the audience empathize with the character and believe the story.

The crime comedy Topkapi, directed by Jules Dassin in 1964, is a fun example of how an ensemble cast should interact in harmony with each other in even the most unexpected and ridiculous situations. In comedy it is tempting to sit back and let the script do all the work, but the Topkapi cast of misfits each give their character depth and a subconscious view into personal history. This is most important during the long scenes without dialogue. Simple, subtle glances and gestures are all that is needed for the hilarity to flow and keep the audience holding their breath and resisting the urge to blink.

As the charming criminal mastermind Walter Harper, Maximilian Schell shares the screen with legends Peter Ustinov, Robert Morely, and Greek siren Melina Mercouri. Each character has their own individual role to play in the theft at Istanbul's Topkapi Museum. Each character is played with their own distinctive personality, each character played by a brilliant actor, each actor taking their role beyond what is written and humanizing what would otherwise be cartoon characters and thereby reacting naturally with each other as the situations dictate. Maximilian Schell, and Melina Mercouri as Elizabeth Lipp, certainly have the more difficult roles to play. As both actors provide the obvious sex appeal their characters could have easily become shallow and dominate the film. However, both actors have their characters so finely tuned they easily accomplish the more difficult task of applying the method in the madness.

Though the film Judgment at Nuremberg, directed by Stanely Kramer in 1961, is yet another obvious example of an ensemble and even "All Star" cast, Maximilian Schell demonstrates another aspect of an ensemble actor. Even in this earlier stage of Maximilian Schell's film career you see where he has a real sense for the script, the message, the direction, even the lights, and camera. When the ensemble of writer, director, photographer, sound, set, editor, costume, make-up, and actor have such an understanding of not just their jobs, but each other's as well, the results are so seamless and natural you have no idea who to give credit to. Even more, you are no longer an audience member watching a film, but you have become a fly on the wall of an intense drama unfolding before your eyes. Judgment at Nuremberg, written by Abby Mann and based on Mann's original script for television's Playhouse 90, is a serious courtroom drama based on the actual war crime trials in Nuremberg after the fall of the Nazi regime. One of the difficulties of filming such a drama would be the language barrier between the American prosecutors and the German defendants. From the beginning several points are made to establish the role played by the translators. I appreciate the fact that this language barrier was not ignored. Hollywood loves to pretend that everyone speaks English. However, 1960's film audiences would not have had the attention span to sit through a film that is 50% subtitles. Here is where our ensemble first truly begins to shine. As Col. Tad Lawson, Prosecuting Attorney, Richard Widmark gives the prosecutor's opening statements with just the right amount of All American Justice. As the Lead Defense Attorney Hans Rolfe, played by Maximilian Schell, steps up to make his opening statements the initial reaction is "what could this baby faced German lawyer possibly have to say in defense of these four former judges now on trial." Once again Maximilian Schell, before saying a word, uses his own private thoughts to telepathically convey to the audience his character's emotions and intentions. Rather than automatically declare a personal verdict of "guilty," the audience is on the edge of their seats waiting to hear the other side of the story. Now with the actor in place the rest of the ensemble moves in. As Hans Rolfe begins his statements in his native German, the audience's point of view is sitting with the translator in his box as he repeats, in English, line by line the German words spoken by Rolfe. The feeling is very tense as the meaning behind the German words are revealed to the audience just as the words are revealed to the Americans in the courtroom. However, you already know that to continue at this pace is impractical. Your point of view, as Hans Rolfe continues in German, has you slowly rising out of the translator's box with your sight never straying from the young attorney. Suddenly the camera zooms in closely on Maximilian Schell's face as he, without missing a beat, flawlessly switches from speaking German to English. The effect is impressive, yet subtle enough so that you are not distracted from what is being said.

Beyond Nuremberg

Topkapi and Judgment at Nuremberg are only two examples of Maximilian Schell's lifetime of performing on the stage and screen. His amazing talent and range as an actor has led to a spectacular variety of roles in over 80 feature films and television films and countless live theatre performances. Maximilian Schell not only played Hans Rolfe in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg, but also played the same role in Abby Mann's original production for television's Playhouse 90. In 2001, Maximilian Schell once again performed in Abby Mann's Judgment at Nuremberg. This time on Broadway in the role of Ernst Janning. Maximilian Schell was also three times lucky in the title role of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. In 1960, Maximilian Schell played the troubled Dane in Franz Peter Wirth's adaptation of Hamlet for German television. Maximilian Schell would again play the same role in two separate productions for live theatre. It was in one of these productions that Maximilian Schell not only starred as Hamlet, but directed the production as well. He is deservedly considered one of the greatest Hamlets ever.

Film has seen Maximilian Schell in every role imaginable, and his status as an attractive leading man can not be denied. Even in later years, Maximilian Schell still possesses the charming warm smile, dark features and sparkling eyes that have singled him out as one of the sexiest men to ever grace the silver screen. However, it is always the intelligence and dignity that Maximilian Schell brings to every character that has established one of the longest and most successful careers of any other actor. It has also helped that Maximilian Schell realizes the world stretches beyond Hollywood, California. This multi-lingual actor has performed in as many English speaking films as he has performed in his native German language. His German language films include: Ein Mädchen aus Flandern (1956), Die Letzten werden die Ersten sein (1957), Taxichauffer Bänz (1957), Die Bernauerin (1958), Der Seiden Schuh (1965), Justiz (1993), Zwishen Rosen (1997), Fisimatenten (2000), Liebe, Lügen, Leiderschaft (2002). English language films include: The Young Lions (1958), Five Finger Exercise (1962), Return From the Ashes (1965), The Man in the Glass Booth (1975), Julia (1977), The Black Hole (1979), The Chosen (1981), Stalin (1992), Coast to Coast (2003). Other foreign language films include French and Italian. (For more titles featuring Maximilian Schell, see our Amazon.com ads to the left)

Unfortunately, I have never had the honor of seeing Maximilian Schell perform in live theatre. Therefore, I can not offer personal insight into this aspect of the actor's career. Based on reviews I have read, it is clear that Maximilian Schell has mastered the skill required to conquer both stage and screen. A much more difficult task than some would imagine, as there is quite a difference between the two mediums.

Behind the Camera

Perhaps it is only natural that such a multi-talented man would inevitably excel at all aspects of the arts and entertainment. In 1968 Maximilian Schell co-produced and starred in Franz Kafka's Das Schloß. In 1970 he produced, wrote, directed, and starred in the critically acclaimed Erst Liebe. The award winning drama Der Fußgänger, in 1973, would also see Maximilian Schell as actor, writer, director, and producer.

Unlike most actors who attempt technical as well as acting careers, Maximilian Schell has never allowed multi-tasking to stretch his talents too thin. Instead, having more control over projects has allowed him to grow as a performer and artist. After other fictional dramas such as Der Richter und sein Henker (1975), and Geschichter aus dem Wienerwald (1979) Maximilian Schell ventured into documentaries. His award winning and immensely popular Marlene (1984), on the life of Marlene Dietrich, proved his talent as a documentary filmaker, but it is the more recent documentary Meine Schwester Maria (2002) that has earned him the most praise, not just praise as an outstanding filmmaker, but praise from a much more important critic, Maximilian Schell's older sister, Maria Schell. Meine Schwester Maria is the touching and personal tribute to the beautiful Maria Schell, an acting legend in her own right.

Extending himself even farther, Maximilian Schell continued to stay close to his roots in the theatre, not just by continuing to act on stage, but also directing, spending five years with the Salzberg Festival. It would be Maximilian Schell's critically acclaimed musical talents as a pianist that would see him to direct and produce live operas like Lohengrim for the Los Angeles Opera. Most recently, Maximilian Schell worked on the film project Beethovens Fidelio with Placido Domingo and Kent Nagamo.

Whether he is at the piano, in front of or behind the camera, on stage or in the director's chair, or all of the above, Maximilian Schell has never experienced a lull in his career, and fortunately for audiences he has no intentions of slowing down.

Dr. Maximilian Schell

Born in Vienna, Austria to Swiss writer Hermann Ferdinand Schell and the Austrian actress Margarethe Noe von Nordberg, Maximilian Schell began acting at an early age with brother Carl and sisters Immy and Maria. Although the talented siblings were all born in their mother's homeland Austria, their parents hatred for Hitler would force Hermann Ferdinand Schell to escape with his family back to his native Switzerland. Attending three different universities, Maximilian Schell excelled in his studies of art, language and music. These skills would follow him on to the stage, screen and throughout all of his legendary achievements. The multi-talented musician, artist, writer, producer, director, actor received an Honorary Doctorate from Spertus College of Judaica in Chicago, and has been a guest professor at the University of Southern California.

Applauding Maximilian Schell

Even though Maximilian Schell can actually be overshadowed by his own talent, making audiences perhaps take the man himself for granted, his peers have taken notice.

Maximilian Schell has quite possibly won every award created and has had every possible honor bestowed upon him, and deservedly so. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated Maximilian Schell for several awards. In 1961, Maximilian Schell won the Academy's award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his work in Judgment at Nuremberg. For this same role Maximilian Schell would also win the BAFTA film award and the Golden Globe. In 1993 he would again win the Golden Globe, this time for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Vladimir Lenin in the television movie Stalin. Maximilian Schell would also twice win the New York Film Critic's Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Julia (1977), and again for Best Actor in Judgment at Nuremberg. Maximilian Schell's films Der Richter und sein Henker and Erst Liebe would each win the Silver Seashell at the San Sebastian International Film Festival. In 2000, Mikhail Gorbachev awarded Maximilian Schell the Men's World Award for World Achievements. In 2002, at the BAMBI Awards, Maximilian Schell stood on stage next to his lovely sister Maria as they were both honored for lifetime achievements and in recognition for the film Meine Schwester Maria.

The awards mentioned here are just a few of the many honors bestowed upon Maximilian Schell, who somehow manages to stay humble through it all.

At the Baltic Pearl Film Festival in 2000, Maximilian Schell was declared The Actor of the Millennium. No other actor desrves this title more, and with a career that shows no signs of slowing down, and with so many more stories to tell, no doubt at the turn of the next millennia Maximilian Schell will again be so honored.

Copyright © 2003 by Karen Melissa Graham. May not be reproduced or used without permission of the author.
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