The curious career of Maximilian Schell ended last month when he died at the age of 83. Maximilian Schell was most famous for playing Nazis. But he spent the other half of his career playing Jews. After the Second World War, there was no shortage of film and television roles for German-speaking actors. An actor could play, for instance, the classic psychopathic wartime Nazi; the quiet concealed postwar Nazi; the subversive Nazi; the sympathetic confused Nazi; the hilarious bumbling Nazi. The world could not satisfy its hunger for watching Nazis onscreen. We wanted to see them cross-examined, punished, caught in the act. We wanted to bear witness to them, see them doing anything at all — shine their shoes, perform the most unexceptional tasks. We wanted to see the Jews too — brave, downtrodden and then, in later years, compromised, lost. Maximilian Schell had everything the roles required — he was dashing, intense, German-speaking, with a talent for portraying seductive emotional violence.
Maximilian Schell’s acting obsession began with his first film Children, Mothers, and a General (1955), in which Schell played a Nazi deserter fleeing from the Russian front.
Schell made a second film in 1955 called The Plot to Assassinate Hitler, with a small role as a co-conspirator in the plot. Schell would debut in Hollywood as a Nazi soldier in the 1958 film The Young Lions (which starred a platinum-blonde Marlon Brando, also a Nazi). He would go on to perfect his Nazi personas in The Condemned of Altona (1962) — as a disturbed Nazi war criminal living in the basement of his family’s mansion — and in Counterpoint (1968), as a music-loving Nazi general who forces an imprisoned conductor to create a symphony for his captors. In 1974’s The Odessa File, Schell played Nazi SS Captain Eduard Roschmann, the infamous “Butcher of Riga.” The year 1977 brought Schell yet two more Nazi performances, in A Bridge Too Far and in Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron.
Then there were the Jewish roles — the tragic Otto Frank, for instance, whom Schell played in the 1980 television version of “Diary of Anne Frank.” In 1989, Schell played an old concentration camp survivor who attacks the camp’s former commander in an airport (The Rose Garden), and another camp survivor in the made-for-TV movie Miss Rose White (1992). In the 1980s and 90s, Schell transformed himself into an array of Jewish fathers in films like The Chosen, Little Odessa, and Left Luggage. Once, he even played Albert Einstein in the German TV series “Giants.”
The role that defined Maximilian Schell’s career for many — the role that won him an Academy Award — was playing German lawyer Hans Rolfe in 1961’s Judgment at Nuremburg. The film is set in 1948; four Nazi-party judges are being tried in a postwar American-led tribunal. The judges are mostly silent throughout the film. Their voice is the young Hans Rolfe, who has volunteered to defend one of the judges, Ernst Janning, and in the process, defend Germany. Hans Rolfe is determined to present Janning’s case as unsentimentally as possible. He persecutes victims of the Nazi regime on the witness stand, often falling into the staccato, German-inflected screaming one could hear at rallies in the Ehrenhalle. And then he brilliantly (and convincingly) explains why he must do this in order to prevent the collective punishment of the German people.
There is a scene in the middle of Judgment at Nuremburg when the prosecuting attorney pulls out newsreel footage of death camps (a daring choice for a film still so close to the war) — decimated corpses bulldozed into mass graves, starved children, souvenirs made from the bodies of victims. Throughout this scene, Schell’s character has a look on his face that is an impossible mixture of shame and outrage. We see in his eyes a guilt that will not — cannot — be accounted for. It is also the look of someone being assaulted, and mercilessly. Every burden of postwar Europe is reflected in the face of Maximilian Schell. For the curious career of Maximilian Schell was not about re-creating the past. It was about those who were trying to survive in its aftermath.
What was it like to pass each other in the street, in daylight, to see each other in cafés, be seated next to each other on streetcars? A man who had been sent to Dachau would see a former SS man in the reflection of a shop window. A former Nazi-party doctor would treat the Auschwitz survivor as a patient. The woman who saw her Jewish neighbor led away in the dead of night, now stands next to her in the bread line. They wondered, how can this person still be living? They wondered, am I still alive? Nazis, Jewish survivors, Germans — after the war, they had no choice but to re-enact normal daily life in the rubble of European towns and cities. The wartime experiences of Nazis and Jews couldn’t have been more different. And still they shared the experience of having to go on.
“To be honest,” Schell once said, “I don’t think I’m an actor. I’m a creator — or try to be.” Was Maximilian Schell — actor, creator — attempting to make himself into a coherent space for Germany’s fractured souls? There is a scene in Judgment at Nuremburg where Hans Rolfe politely confronts the film’s presiding judge (Spencer Tracy). It is Schell’s final appearance in the film. After months of deliberation, the American tribunal has finally pronounced the Nazi judges guilty and sentenced them all to life in prison. Rolfe, ever-confident, has come to Judge Haywood just as the latter is about to leave Germany for good.
Hans Rolfe: I’ll make you a wager…
Judge Dan Haywood: I don’t make wagers.
Hans Rolfe: A gentleman’s wager… in five years, the men you sentenced to life imprisonment will be free.
Judge Dan Haywood: Herr Rolfe, I have admired your work in the court for many months. You are particularly brilliant in your use of logic. So, what you suggest may very well happen. It is logical, in view of the times in which we live. But to be logical is not to be right, and nothing on God’s earth could ever make it right!
This assessment of Rolfe’s motives is powerful. But it is a misunderstanding. Hans Rolfe does not want to punish Nazi judges nor does he want to absolve them. He does not want justice for the victims — this is the concern of the Americans. Hans Rolfe wants his Germany to be made whole again.
Some take up acting as a form of self-fulfillment. Others act as a form of self-sacrifice. In the days of ancient Greece, where the roots of modern Western drama lie, there was no theater without sacrifice. The sacrifice was literal — a goat usually — but the theatrical act was a spiritual sacrifice too, a symbol of “man rising out of himself” (as Dorothy Mills wrote in her 1925 The Book of the Ancient Greeks), impelled forward by an unexplainable force. Through drama, people could watch themselves, investigate themselves, see themselves from a distance, almost as the gods did. This is what the word theater means, to behold. Leading actors had to play seemingly opposing roles — male/female, comic/tragic, man/god — yet it was always to a common purpose: to show how life is made up of irreconcilable qualities, and to behold what it means to be a human in a seemingly irrational world.
In the early 1970s, Maximilian Schell was offered the role of Arthur Goldman in The Man in the Glass Booth. It was a role, Schell said, he could not turn down. The Man in the Glass Booth is a truly strange film. Its main character, Arthur Goldman, is a wealthy Jewish industrialist who survived Auschwitz. Schell plays Goldman with an intensity bordering on derangement. Goldman is obsessed with an SS officer he calls Colonel Dorf. Colonel Dorf killed his father, Goldman tells his assistant, bodyguard and personal physician. Dorf is still alive, Goldman says, living in New York. Moreover, Colonel Dorf is plotting to kill him. Halfway through the film, Israeli agents burst into Goldman’s high-rise. Goldman, the agents say, is Colonel Dorf. Goldman admits they are right and congratulates them. The agents whisk Goldman to Israel where he is tried for crimes against humanity. From the safety of a bulletproof glass booth set up for him in the courtroom, Goldman defends Hitler and the Third Reich with all his heart and soul.
At last it is revealed that Arthur Goldman faked the medical records proving he was Dorf. This proves that he is, in fact, Arthur Goldman after all. Or is he? All we know for certain about the man in the glass booth is that he is broken and lost. In the final scene of the movie, Goldman/Dorf hears the footsteps of German soldiers inside his head, hears the gunfire, opens his eyes wide, and collapses dead in his box.
In The Man in the Glass Booth, Maximilian Schell became his own version of an actor from the days of ancient Greek drama. He literally embodies the impossible dualism between Nazi and Jew, victim and perpetrator. Onscreen, we see Schell alternately davening and goose-stepping. At home, in a private dark room, Goldman/Dorf raises a menorah to his outstretched arm to let the fire burn him. In the courtroom, in a private glass booth, the arm that earlier held the menorah is raised in a Nazi salute. Postwar Germany made an actor like Schell possible. It created the extremes of experience that bore his odd burden: the Nazi-Jew. “There are two souls in every actor,” Schell once said. “One watches the other.” This isn’t true of every actor, of course. But it was true of Schell himself. Maximilian Schell was an actor willing to take on two souls so that they could behold each other. • 15 March 2014