Saturday, February 01, 2014

Maximilian Schell Dies

Maximillian Schell died overnight at the age of 83.

I have admired his Oscar–winning work in 1961's "Judgment at Nuremberg" ever since I saw it for the first time. I've never seen it on the big screen, only on TV screens, but I don't think that matters.

It is the acting, not the cinematography, that tells the story in that movie, and Schell's performance, as brilliant as it was, was only one part of it. Other parts were co–star (and co–Best Actor nominee) Spencer Tracy and many other stars in lesser — but no less important — roles, some of whom believed in the project so deeply that they accepted no pay for their work.

Still, Schell's performance was, as I say, brilliant. I wish to take nothing away from it. I've never seen anything like it — and I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about movies. I've seen many admirable performances, but Schell's may have been was the best.

(Well, upon further review, I might have to put it second behind Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird.")

Unfortunately, I think it led to the Austrian–born Schell being pigeonholed in Nazi–related roles — ironic, really, since Schell's family fled Austria after it was annexed by Nazi Germany. That may have been a mixed blessing; he received additional Oscar nominations for his work in two World War II–themed movies in the 1970s.

But he never won another statuette.

He did take steps to avoid being typecast, appearing in a variety of roles through the remainder of his career. I've seen many of them, and I always come away with a renewed respect for Schell's work.

Schell was a remarkably talented man. His family relocated to Zurich, Switzerland, where the young Schell read the classics — and wrote a play at the age of 10. His mother was an actress, and his father was a writer; as a result, Schell said he grew up in a "theater atmosphere," and his artistic talents initially gravitated more to writing, painting and music than acting.

He did a lot of writing in his college years, including part–time work for newspapers to supplement his income. Ultimately, though, he settled on a career in acting, which he launched at the age of 24.

I suspect he still felt torn, even after he had settled on a career in acting. "I don't actually have a profession," he once said. "I wander through life and through all areas of art."

I guess you could say he was something of a pioneer. When he won his Oscar, it was the first awarded to a German–speaking actor since World War II — a real breakthrough for that time in history.

Maximilian Schell certainly left his mark.