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16 June 2017

Albert Bassermann

Albert Bassermann (1867–1952) was one of the first great German stage actors who worked for the cinema. In 1933 he fled the Nazi regime and became an Oscar nominated character actor in Hollywood.

Albert Bassermann
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, no. 3070. Photo: Atelier Oertel, Berlin.

Albert Bassermann
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin-Wilm., no. 3077. Photo: N. & C. Hess, Frankfurt a. M.

Albert Bassermann in König Heinrich IV
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 7510. Photo: Hans Böhm. Publicity still for the play König Heinrich IV (Henry IV) with Albert Bassermann as Percy.

Albert Bassermann in Faust
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 7511. Photo: Hans Böhm. Publicity still for the play Faust with Albert Bassermann as Mephisto.

Albert Bassermann in Die beiden Klingsberg
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin-Wilm., no. 9145. Publicity still for the play Die beiden Klingsberg by August von Kotzebue with Albert Bassermann as Graf Klingsberg.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde


Albert Bassermann was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1867.

At 20, he began his acting career in his birthplace. He spent four years at the famous Hoftheater in Meiningen, and then moved to Berlin. From 1899, he worked for Otto Brahm till 1904 at the Deutsches Theater and till 1909 at the Lessing Theater.

In 1908 he married Elisabeth Sara Schiff, who became known as actress Else Bassermann.

From 1909 to 1915, Bassermann worked with legendary director Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater. He specialised in Shakespearean roles (Richard III, Hamlet) and was a famous interpreter of the plays of Henrik Ibsen.

Bassermann was also among the first German theatre actors who worked in film. With his wife Else he played in the Vitascope production Der letzte Tag/The Last Day (Max Mack, 1913).

In 1913, he also played the main role of the lawyer in a silent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Der Andere/The Other (Max Mack, 1913), after the play by Paul Lindau, and a year later he played a doctor in Urteil des Arztes/Opinion of the doctor (Max Mack, 1914) with Else Bassermann.

From 1917 on, he and Else starred together in more than a dozen silent films such as Herr und Diener/Man and Servant (Adolf Gärtner, 1917) and Du sollst keine anderen Götter haben/You should have no other Gods (Adolf Gärtner, 1917) which were also written by Else Bassermann.

In 1922 he appeared in Ernst Lubitsch’s Das Weib des Pharao/The Pharoah's Wife (Ernst Lubitsch, 1922) starring Emil Jannings. It was an epic piece of film-making, with 6,000 extras and elaborate sets.

He then starred opposite Henny Porten in Frauenopfer/Women's Sacrifice (Karl Grune, 1922) and opposite Liane Haid and Conrad Veidt in Lucrezia Borgia/Lucretia Borgia (Richard Oswald, 1922).

In the following years he also worked with such well-known German silent film directors as Leopold Jessner (at the Lulu adaptation Erdgeist/Earth Spirit (1923) starring Asta Nielsen), Friedrich (Frederic) Zelnik (Briefe, die ihn nicht erreichten/ The letters which did not reach him (1925) with Marcella Albani) and Lupu Pick (Napoleon auf St. Helena/Napoleon at St. Helena (1929) with Werner Krauss).

Throughout the 1920s, Bassermann remained active in films but also on stage in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Albert Bassermann
German postcard by Photochemie, no. K. 1672.

Albert Bassermann
German postcard by Photochemie, no. K. 1677.

Albert Bassermann and Else Bassermann in Der letzte Zeuge
German postcard by Verlag Herman Leiser, no. 1071. Photo: Greenbaum-Film. Publicity still of Albert and Else Bassermann in Der letzte Zeuge/The Last Witness (Adolf Gärtner, 1919).

Albert Bassermann as Wallenstein
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 1990. Photo: publicity still for a stage production of Wallensteins Tod (The Death of Wallenstein) by Friedrich Schiller.

Albert Bassermann and Hanni Weisse in Du sollst keine anderen Götter haben (1917).
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 5462. Photo: Greenbaum-Film. Albert Bassermann and Hanni Weisse in Du sollst keine anderen Götter haben (Adolf Gärtner, 1917).

Albert Bassermann, Hanni Weisse, Else Bassemann and Ewald Brückner in Du sollst keine andern Götter haben (1917)
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin-Wilm., no. 5463. Photo: publicity still for Du sollst keine andern Götter haben/Thou shalt have no other gods (Adolf Gärtner, 1917) with Albert Bassermann, Hanni WeisseElse Bassermann and Ewald Brückner.

Hitchcock


In 1933, Albert Bassermann was outraged by the discrimination shown in Nazi-Germany towards his Jewish wife Else. Although Adolf Hitler personally held him in high regard, Bassermann was told that if he wanted to continue to perform in Germany, he would have to get divorced.

Bassermann would never divorce Elsa and also never performed in Nazi-Germany. Till then he had been very active in the early German sound film. He had starred in such classic films as Alraune/Daughter of Evil (Richard Oswald, 1930) with Brigitte Helm, Dreyfus (Richard Oswald, 1930) featuring Fritz Kortner, and Voruntersuchung/Inquest (Robert Siodmak, 1931).

Lately he had starred opposite Hans Albers in the UFA production Ein gewisser Herr Gran/A Certain Mr. Gran (Gerhard Lamprecht, 1933).

The Bassermanns fled to Switzerland and later to Austria. In Vienna Albert and Else appeared in the film Letzte Liebe/Last Love (Fritz Schulz, 1935). In 1938, the Anschluss of Austria with Nazi-Germany forced them to emigrate again, this time to the United States.

Bassermann’s ability to speak English was very limited, but he learned lines phonetically with assistance from his wife and found work as a character actor in Hollywood. He was cast as Dr. Robert Koch in Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (William Dieterle, 1940) featuring Edward G. Robinson as the German physician who developed the first synthetic antimicrobial drug in 1908.

As Albert Basserman he also played a sympathetic chemistry professor in Knute Rockne, All-American (1940, Lloyd Bacon) starring Ronald Reagan.

For his performance as the kidnapped Dutch statesman Van Meer in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940), he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor.

His distinguished-looking countenance and serious demeanour lent itself to being assigned a variety of consular or professorial roles: he was excellent as Consul Magnus Barring in A Woman's Face (George Cukor, 1941) with Joan Crawford, Professor Jean Perote in Madame Curie (Mervyn LeRoy, 1944) featuring Greer Garson, and a dying German music teacher in Rhapsody in Blue (Irving Rapper, 1945).

In 1944 he made his Broadway debut as the Pope in the world premiere of Franz Werfel's stage play Embezzled Heaven (the English version of Der veruntreute Himmel).

Albert Bassermann
German postcard by Margarinewerk Eidelstedt Gebr. Fauser G.m.b.H., Holstein, Serie 1, no. Bild 13. Photo: Transocean.

Albert Bassermann in Traumulus
German postcard by Verl. Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 7581. Photo: Hans Böhm. Publicity still for the stage play Traumulus by Arno Holz.

Albert Bassermann in Der Letzte Tag (1913)
German postcard by Verl. Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 7799. Publicity still for Der Letzte Tag/The Last Day (Max Mack, 1913) based on a script by Paul Lindau.

Albert Bassermann in Der Snob (1914)
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 8319. Photo: Willinger. Publicity still for the play Der Snob (The Snob, 1914) by Carl Sternheim.

Albert Bassermann
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 9528. Photo: N. & C. Hess, Frankfurt am Main.

Albert Bassermann, Else Bassermann
German postcard, no. 8772. Photo: Willinger. With Else.

I'm never through!


After the war, the 83-years-old Albert Bassermann returned to Europe. In November 1946 he made a triumphant guest appearance at the Wiener Volkstheater and played in Paul Osborn's Der Himmel Wartet (On Borrowed Time), in Henrik Ibsen's Baumeister Solness (The Master Builder) and - in favour of the political victims of the Nazi terror - in Ibsen's Gespenster (Ghosts), each directed by Walter Firner and stage designed by Gustav Manker.

President Karl Renner, Chancellor Leopold Figl, Vienna's Mayor Theodore Körner, and representatives from the four Allied occupying powers attended the premiere. In the following years he toured along European as well as American theatres and often worked for the radio.

His final film appearance was in The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1948).

His illustrious career was already acknowledged in 1911 when he received the Iffland-Ring from the prominent actor Friedrich Haase. In the following decades Bassermann himself attempted to bestow the Iffland-Ring, but he outlived each of the three grantees he chose (a.o. Alexander Moissi). Not wanting to be mistaken a fourth time, he deferred making a choice.

In 1952, Albert Bassermann died from a heart attack while on a flight from New York to Zurich. After his death an association of German actors decided that the Iffland-Ring should be passed to Werner Krauss. Today the ring is worn by Bruno Ganz.

Albert and Else Bassermann had one daughter, Carmen. Wikipedia quotes actress Uta Hagen in her book Respect for Acting: "One of the finest lessons I ever learned was from the great German actor Albert Basserman. I worked with him as Hilde in The Master Builder by Ibsen. He was already past eighty but was as 'modern' in his conception of the role of (Master builder) Solness and in his techniques as anyone I've ever seen or played with.

In rehearsals he felt his way with the new cast. (The role had been in his repertoire for almost forty years.) He watched us, listened to us, adjusted to us, meanwhile executing his actions with only a small part of his playing energy. At the first dress rehearsal, he started to play fully. There was such a vibrant reality to the rhythm of his speech and behavior that I was swept away by it.

I kept waiting for him to come to an end with his intentions so that I could take my 'turn.' As a result, I either made a big hole in the dialogue or desperately cut in on him in order to avoid another hole. I was expecting the usual 'It's your turn; then it's my turn.' At the end of the first act I went to his dressing room and said, 'Mr. Basserman, I can't apologize enough, but I never know when you're through!' He looked at me in amazement and said, 'I'm never through! And neither should you be."

Albert Bassermann in a dual role in Herr und Diener
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 5465. Photo: Greenbaum-Film. Albert Bassermann in a dual role in the German silent film Herr und Diener/Master and Servant (Adolf Gärtner, 1917).

Albert Bassermann and Rose Liechtenstein in Der Eiserne Wille (1917)
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 5467. Photo: Greenbaum-Film. Publicity still for Der eiserne Wille/The Iron Will (Adolf Gärtner, 1917) with Rose Liechtenstein.

Albert Bassermann and Hanni Weisse in Du sollst keine andern Götter haben
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 5482. Photo: Greenbaum-Film. Publicity still for Du sollst keine andern Götter haben/Thou shalt have no other gods (Adolf Gärtner, 1917), with Albert Bassermann and Hanni Weisse.

Albert Bassermann in Vater und Sohn
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 5557. Photo: Greenbaum-Film. Publicity still for Vater und Sohn/Father and Son (William Wauer, 1918).

Albert Bassermann and Käte Wittenberg in Dr. Schotte
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 5562. Photo: Greenbaum-Film. Publicity still for Dr. Schotte (William Wauer, 1918), starring Albert Bassermann and Käte Wittenberg.

Albert Bassermann
German postcard by Verl. Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 7512. Photo: Hans Böhm. Publicity still for Albert Bassermann as Percy in the stage production König Heinrich IV.

Albert Bassermann in Der Andere
German postcard by Verl. Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 7517. Photo: C. Brasch, Berlin. Publicity still for Der Andere/The Other (Max Mack, 1913).

Albert Bassermann
German postcard by Verl. Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 7518. Photo: C. Brasch, Berlin. Publicity still for Der Andere/The Other (Max Mack, 1913).

Albert Bassermann
Austrian postcard by Iris Verlag, Wien (Vienna), no. 326. Photo: Zimbler, Wien.

Albert Bassermann
Austrian postcard by Iris Verlag, no. 617-2. Photo: Zimbler.

Brigitte Helm, Albert Bassermann, Alraune
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 127/4, 1929-1930. Photo: Ufa. Publicity still for Alraune/Daughter of Evil (Richard Oswald, 1930) with Brigitte Helm. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Albert and Else Bassermann in Groszstadtluft
German postcard. Publicity card for Albert and Else Bassermann in the play Groszstadtluft in the Berlin theatre Scala.

Sources: I.S. Mowis (IMDb), Wikipedia (English and German) and IMDb.

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