Maximilian Schell Dies: Won Best Actor Oscar, Directed Marlene Dietrich Documentary

Maximilian SchellMaximilian Schell dead at 83: Best Actor Oscar winner for 'Judgment at Nuremberg' (image: Maximilian Schell ca. 1960)

Actor and filmmaker Maximilian Schell, best known for his Oscar-winning performance as the defense attorney in Stanley Kramer's 1961 political drama Judgment at Nuremberg died at a hospital in Innsbruck, Austria, on February 1, 2014. According to his agent, Patricia Baumbauer, Schell died overnight following a "sudden and serious illness." Maximilian Schell was 83.

Born on December 8, 1930, in Vienna, Maximilian Schell was the younger brother of future actor Carl Schell and Maria Schell, who would become an international film star in the 1950s (The Last Bridge, Gervaise, The Hanging Tree). Immy Schell, who would be featured in several television and film productions from the mid-'50s to the early '90s, was born in 1935. Following Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938, Schell's parents, Swiss playwright Hermann Ferdinand Schell and Austrian stage actress Margarete Schell Noé, fled with their children to Zurich.

Maximilian Schell movies

Maximilian Schell made his stage debut in 1952. Three years later, he began appearing in German-language films, most notably a supporting role in Falk Harnack's The Plot to Assassinate Hitler / Der 20. Juli (1955), starring Wolfgang Preiss and Annemarie Düringer, and Helmut Käutner's anti-war romantic drama A Girl from Flanders / Ein Mädchen aus Flandern (1958), opposite Nicole Berger. Based on a novel by Carl Zuckmayer (The Blue Angel, The Captain from Koepenick), the latter film earned Schell a Best Actor German Film Award.

With sister Maria Schell playing leading ladies to the likes of Yul Brynner (Richard Brooks' The Brothers Karamazov) and Gary Cooper (Delmer Daves' The Hanging Tree), Maximilian Schell also tried to break into Hollywood. His first such effort was Edward Dmytryk's The Young Lions, a 1958 World War II drama starring an absurdly miscast Marlon Brando as a pacifist German officer, in addition to Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin, Barbara Rush, May Britt, and Hope Lange. In the eventual box office hit, Schell had a relatively small but memorable role as a disillusioned German officer.

In the late '50s and early '60s, Schell was seen in several American television shows. By far the most important one was that of defense attorney Hans Rolfe, who fights for the rights of a group of Nazi-era German judges in the 1959 Playhouse 90 presentation of "Judgment at Nuremberg." Directed by George Roy Hill (later of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting fame), and written by Abby Mann, "Judgment at Nuremberg" also featured veterans Melvyn Douglas, Paul Lukas, and Claude Rains. (Some of the judges were found guilty in the real-life 1947 trial, and four of them were sentenced to life in prison; but by the time Abby Mann wrote the teleplay, not one was serving a jail sentence.)

Two years later, Maximilian Schell was the only important cast member of the television production to reprise his role in the star-studded 1961 film version. Directed and produced by Stanley Kramer, by then already well known for his Movies with a Message (racism in The Defiant Ones, nuclear war in On the Beach, etc.), Judgment at Nuremberg turned out to be both a critical and major box office hit. Ultimately, Kramer's three-hour film received 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (eventual winner Abby Mann).

Maximilian Schell: 'Contented soul's in 'Judgment at Nuremberg'

At about that time, Schell wrote "There are two souls in every actor. One watches the other. When both are content at the same time, you have a good moment." Judgment at Nuremberg surely was one of these moments of soul communion.

Of the film's prestigious cast – Maximilian Schell, Burt Lancaster (replacing Laurence Olivier), Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, and Judy Garland – four were shortlisted for Oscars: Schell, Tracy, and, in the supporting categories, Clift and Garland. Some time later, while starring in Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, Burt Lancaster wrote to Stanley Kramer, expressing his feelings that Judgment at Nuremberg was saved by "someone as solid as old" Spencer Tracy, adding that Tracy should be told "that they hate Mr. Schell in Europe too."

Perhaps they did hate Maximilian Schell in Europe – but U.S. critics surely didn't feel that way. Schell performed with such "persuasive skill," remarked the Washington Post, "that the emotional temptation will be to root for his side." Both the New York Film Critics Circle and (enough) members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apparently agreed with that assessment, as Schell was named Best Actor of 1961 by the New York critics and the Academy. At the Oscars, the relative Hollywood newcomer beat veterans Tracy and Charles Boyer (Fanny), in addition to Stuart Whitman (The Mark), and pop icon Paul Newman (The Hustler).

Movie stardom, however, proved elusive, even though Maximilian Schell continued to star in mostly prestigious – though not necessarily critically and/or commercially successful – productions throughout the '60s. One solid hit was Jules Dassin's heist comedy Topkapi (1964), in which Schell, Melina Mercouri, Robert Morley, and eventual Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Peter Ustinov become involved in an attempt to steal a jewel-encrusted dagger from Istanbul's Topkapi Palace.

Maximilian Schell movies: Two additional Oscar nominations

Following little-seen efforts such as his own adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Castle (1969), directed and co-written by Rudolf Noelte, and Alessandro Blasetti's Simón Bolívar (1969), in which he had the title role, Maximilian Schell's film career as an international leading man came to an end.

There would still be prestigious film roles for Maximilian Schell in the ensuing decades, but these would almost invariably be leads in small movies or supporting roles in major productions. For instance, for his work in Arthur Hiller's The Man in the Glass Booth, a "niche" filmed play released in 1975, Schell received a Best Actor Oscar nomination – in a double role as a Nazi officer and a Jewish Holocaust survivor, Schell delivered a "shrill and unmodulated" performance, in the words of the Christian Science Monitor. (Actor-playwright Robert Shaw, unhappy with the film, demanded to have his name removed from the credits.)

Two years later, Schell would be shortlisted for the Academy Awards for the third and last time, now in the supporting category, for Fred Zinnemann's 1977 drama Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Schell ultimately lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to his fellow Julia player Jason Robards.

Maximilian Schell would continue working sporadically in the ensuing decades. Among his most notable efforts of the last thirty years was Norbert Kückelmann's watchable anti-Nazi thriller Tomorrow in Alabama / Morgen in Alabama (1984), and supporting roles in Mimi Leder's all-star disaster movie Deep Impact (1998), starring a huge meteor, and featuring Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Vanessa Redgrave, Elijah Wood, and James Cromwell; and Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom (2008), starring Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, and Mark Ruffalo.

According to the IMDb, Maximilian Schell was last seen in front of the camera in Juraj Herz's 2009 Czech horror thriller Darkness. Also as per the IMDb, Schell has one more movie coming out: Pol Cruchten and Frank Hoffmann's Les Brigands, featuring Éric Caravaca and Tchéky Karyo, among others. Another title, Michael J. Narvaez's An Artist's Emblem, is listed as "in production."

Maximilian Schell photo: publicity shot ca. 1960.

Maximilian Schell Maria SchellMaximilian Schell movie director (image: Maximilian Schell and Maria Schell)

Maximilian Schell's first film as a director was the 1970 (dubbed) German-language release First Love / Erste Liebe, adapted from Igor Turgenev's novella, and starring Englishman John Moulder-Brown, Frenchwoman Dominique Sanda, and Schell in this tale about a doomed love affair in Czarist Russia. Italian Valentina Cortese and British Marius Goring provided support.

Directed by a former Best Actor Oscar winner, First Love, a movie that could just as easily have been dubbed into Swedish or Swahili (or English), ended up nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Three years later, nominated in that same category was Schell's second feature film as a director, The Pedestrian / Der Fußgänger, in which a car accident forces a German businessman to delve deep into his past.

A curious psychological drama, The Pedestrian is notable for the presence of a handful of stage and screen legends: future Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Peggy Ashcroft (A Passage to India), Best Actress Oscar nominee Elisabeth Bergner (Escape Me Never), Françoise Rosay (Carnival in Flanders), Lil Dagover (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Käthe Haack (Die Spieler), and Johanna Hofer (Der Verlorene), in addition to Schell's mother, Margarete Schell Noé.

Another '70s effort was the crime thriller End of the Game (1975), with Schell directing Jon Voight, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Shaw, and filmmaker Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae).

Marlene Dietrich and Maria Schell documentaries

Maximilian Schell also directed a couple of well-known documentary features: the Academy Award-nominated Marlene (1984), in which Schell attempts to reveal the real Marlene Dietrich – who allowed him to record her voice, but not to film her – and My Sister Maria (2002), a loving tribute to Maria Schell.

Regarding Marlene, New York Magazine asserted that Schell "draws her out, taunting her into a fascinating display of egotism, lying, and contentiousness. This intelligent woman is taken in by the myth of her own hardness," adding that "the true originality" of Marlene lies in "the way it pursues the clash of temperament between interviewer and star."

After his New York Film Critics Circle win for Judgment at Nuremberg, Schell would remember:

I received the most wonderful letter from Maria. She wrote, 'Now, when you have my letter in your hand, a beautiful day is coming for you. I will be with you, proud, because I knew such recognition would come one day, leading to something even greater and better. ... not only because you are close to me but because I count you among the truly great actors, and it is wonderful that besides that you are my brother.' Maria and I are very close.

Maximilian Schell and Maria Schell were featured together in only one movie, Ronald Neame's 1974 thriller The Odessa File, also starring Jon Voight. Following a troubled life, Maria Schell died in 2005.

Maximilian Schell television roles

Among Maximilian Schell's frequent television appearances in the last several decades were those in Boris Sagal's remake of The Diary of Anne Frank (1980), with Schell as Otto Frank and Melissa Gilbert as his daughter Anne; the title role in Marvin J. Chomsky and Lawrence Schiller's 1986 mini-series Peter the Great, featuring an all-star cast that included Laurence Olivier, Ursula Andress, Lilli Palmer, Trevor Howard, Elke Sommer, Omar Sharif, and Vanessa Redgrave; and a Golden Globe-winning turn as Lenin in Ivan Passer's Stalin (1992), starring Robert Duvall in the title role.

Maximilian Schell also had a recurring role, as Friedrich Fürst von Thorwald, in the German TV series Der Fürst und das Mädchen (2003-2007), and was last seen on TV in two 2007 productions: Peter Weck's TV movie Die Rosenkönigin and, as Albert Einstein, in the anthology series Giganten.

Also worth noting, Schell was an accomplished pianist. He worked with conductor Claudio Abbado, and produced and directed several operas, including Richard Wagner's Lohengrin for the Los Angeles Opera.

Maximilian Schell death

With the death of Maximilian Schell, the earliest surviving Best Actor Oscar winner is Sidney Poitier, who won for Lilies of the Field, 1963. Poitier turns 87 on February 20. Next in line are Gene Hackman for The French Connection (1971), Jack Nicholson for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975, Schell was a nominee that year), and Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl (1977).

Also gone in the last six weeks are the following Academy Award nominees/winners in the acting categories: Peter O'Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, My Favorite Year, Venus), Eleanor Parker (Caged, Detective Story, and Interrupted Melody), Joan Fontaine (Rebecca, Suspicion, The Constant Nymph), and Juanita Moore (Imitation of Life).

Burt Lancaster quote about Maximilian Schell from Kate Buford's Burt Lancaster. Maximilian Schell quotes from the Lillian and Helen Ross-edited The Player: A Profile of an Art. The critic's on Maximilian Schell's performance in Judgment at Nuremberg and The Man in the Glass Booth via Mason Wiley and Demian Bona's Inside Oscar. Maximilian Schell and Maria Schell image via the Deutsches Filminstitut, which presented a Maria Schell exhibition.

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