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R.I.P. Maximilian Schell

Actor and filmmaker Maximilian Schell has died at the age 83. Schell was born in Vienna into a theatrical family: His father was the playwright Hermann Ferdinand Schell, his mother was the Austrian actress Margarethe Noe Von Nordberg, and his older sister was the successful actress Maria Schell.) The family fled to Zurich in the late 1930s, after the Nazis annexed Austria, where Schell wrote his first play at the age of 10, worked as a journalist, and served in the Swiss Army before deciding to devote his life to acting.

Schell made his movie debut in a German film, Kinder, Mutter Und Ein General (1955), before going to American to act in the Broadway production of Ira Levin’s Interlock. American movies followed--often movies in which, like an earlier generation of European actors who had escaped the Nazis, he was obliged to play characters who were either Nazis themselves or somehow caught up in their cause.

In 1958, Schell played the commanding officer of a conflicted Nazi solider played by Marlon Brando in The Young Lions. A year later, he appeared in the Playhouse 90 production of Judgment At Nuremberg, as a young attorney called upon to represent the Nazi defendants at the war crime tribunals. In 1961, Schell recreated the role for the big-screen version of the TV play, and was rewarded with the Academy Award for Best Actor.


Around the same time, Schell’s performance as Hamlet was captured in a film made for German TV. Although Schell’s stage performances in the play were legendary—and he made many other, far more terrible movies in his time—this is somehow the one that wound up on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Schell’s other film acting credits include Jules Dassin’s Topkapi (1964), Sidney Lumet’s A Deadly Affair (1966), the Nazi-hunter thriller The Odessa File (1974), Sam Peckinpah’s World War II drama Cross Of Iron (1977), Richard Attenborough’s all-star World War II epic A Bridge Too Far (1977), the mad-scientist role in the Disney sic-fi adventure The Black Hole (1979), and a 1980 TV film of The Diary Of Anne Frank, in which he played Otto Frank. He was Oscar-nominated again, twice, for the film version of Robert Shaw’s play The Man In The Glass Booth (1975), as a Nazi death camp survivor who is accused of being a war criminal, and for Fred Zinneman’s Julia (1977), as a liaison for the anti-Nazi underground.

By the late 1960s, Schell became more interested in making his own films, and his choice of roles as an actor often showed it. He produced and starred in an adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle (1968), then made his directing debut in 1969 with First Love, an eccentric adaptation of a Turgenev novella. In 1974, he enjoyed international success with The Pedestrian, an examination of war guilt that revisited some of the same arguments made by his character in Judgment At Nuremberg. In 1976, he directed the thriller The End Of The Game, and 10 years later he directed the documentary Marlene about his Judgment At Nuremberg co-star Marlene Dietrich—a project that became complicated when Dietrich, having previously agreed to sit for a feature-length interview, suddenly refused to be photographed.

In 1986, Schell starred in the TV miniseries Peter The Great; two years later, he was nominated for an Emmy for his performance as Lenin in the HBO film Stalin, starring Robert Duvall. He revealed a sly sense of humor in Andrew Bergman’s 1990 comedy The Freshman, raised a family of hit men in James Gray’s Little Odessa (1995), sold James Woods out in John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), sweated the end of the world in Deep Impact (1998), and in his last film role, played a legendary con man called “Diamond Dog” in Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom (2008). In 2002, Schell produced and directed another feature documentary about a distinguished film actress: My Sister Maria. 

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