Maximilian Schell: A true giant

Oscar winner Maximilian Schell was a formidable force in film and beyond.

WHEN Maximilian Schell won the Best Actor Oscar in 1962 for his role in Judgment At Nuremberg, he gave a short speech in which he recalled being questioned by a US Customs official.

“He ... (asked) what I was doing here, and I said, ‘I’m going to do a film’,” Schell told the glittering crowd in his accented English. “And he said to me, ‘Good luck, boy’. And I think that was very unusual for a Customs man. And I can tell him now that I had it.”

Undoubtedly, Schell, whose family fled the Nazis when he was a boy, made his own luck – not only as a celebrated actor who amassed more than 100 film and TV credits, but also as a director of films, documentaries, plays and opera.

Schell, 83, died of natural causes on Saturday in a hospital in Innsbruck, Austria, according to his agent. Schell’s wife Iva was with him when he died. They were married in August.

Schell’s career in the United States began with a role as a Nazi officer in The Young Lions (1958). His English was limited at the time and he had an unlikely tutor – Marlon Brando, one of the film’s stars, famous for his mumbling. “Marlon was extremely kind to help me with the part,” Schell said in a 1990 interview.

A year after Young Lions, Schell played, for the first time, the most famous role of his career: attorney Hans Rolfe in Judgment At Nuremberg.

That was in a televised Playhouse 90 version of the Abby Mann script. When it came time for the star-studded film version, Schell didn’t seek to again play Rolfe, the fictionalised lawyer who vehemently defends Nazi judges.

“I wanted to do Burt Lancaster’s role as the Nazi judge who doesn’t say much,” Schell said in 2011. But director Stanley Kramer insisted he reprise his role as the attorney, and Schell, in the view of some critics, walked away with the film. One of the actors he beat for the Oscar was Spencer Tracy, who also appeared in the movie.

Schell played numerous high-profile screen and stage roles, including a celebrated Hamlet, but Judgment At Nuremberg always remained a highlight. “Some of your work you forget,” he said in 2001. “This one, I didn’t forget.”

Schell was born in Vienna on Dec 8, 1930, to a poet father and actress mother. In 1938, when the Nazis annexed Austria, the family fled to Switzerland. Schell studied at the University of Basel and had several stage roles before getting his first film parts in the mid-1950s. In Hollywood, he was cast in several films about the war, often as a Nazi soldier, sympathiser or resister.

He was nominated for an Oscar for The Man In The Glass Booth (1975) about a wealthy industrialist who is kidnapped and put on trial in Israel for war crimes. Another nomination came for his small part in Julia (1977), as a man trying to arrange the smuggling of funds into Germany to support the anti-Nazi underground.

But there were other types of roles. In the comic heist film Topkapi (1964) he plays a master criminal, and he reunited with his friend Brando for The Freshman (1990). And there were roles in big-budget sci-fi films, such as The Black Hole (1979) and Deep Impact (1998).

The handful of films he directed were in some cases highly personal. The documentary Marlene (1984) is largely about him trying to get an aging Marlene Dietrich – who was also in Judgment At Nuremberg – to appear on camera. She refuses, but Schell’s mixture of their recorded conversations and archival footage resulted in a highly praised film.

Two of Schell’s large-scale opera productions were done by Los Angeles Opera. “Directing is like meeting a woman,” Schell once said. “You don’t know her, but something strikes you and then you just have to go into it. Michelangelo said that in every rock there’s a figure hidden. All you have to do is carve it out. With care, not haste.”

In addition to his wife, Schell’s survivors include his daughter Nastassja, from a previous marriage to actress Natalia Andreichenko that ended in divorce, and a grandchild. – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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