26 July 2014

Oskar Werner

Talented Austrian actor Oskar Werner (1922-1984) was Jules in François Truffaut’s Nouvelle Vague classic Jules et Jim (1962). He is also known for international films like Ship of Fools (1965), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968). Werner received an Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe Award in 1966.

Oscar Werner
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 12/80, 1979. Photo: publicity still for Voyage of the Damned (Stuart Rosenberg, 1976).

Decision Before Dawn

Oskar Werner or Oscar Werner was born Oskar Josef Schließmayer in Vienna, Austria in 1922.

His parents divorced when he was fairly young. Oskar spent much of his childhood in the care of his grandmother, who entertained him with stories about the Burgtheater, the Austrian state theatre.

Performing in school plays also aroused a deep desire to act. His father (Wikipedia) or his uncle (IMDb) helped him to get parts as an extra in films like Geld fällt vom Himmel/Money falls from the sky (Heinz Helbig, 1938) and Hotel Sacher (Erich Engel, 1939).

He decided to drop out of high school in order to pursue acting roles. In 1940, director Lothar Müthel accepted the then eighteen years old as a member of the Burgtheater. Oskar was the youngest person ever to receive this recognition.

He made his theatre debut using the stage name Oskar Werner in October 1941. Two months later, Werner was drafted into the Wehrmacht.

As a pacifist and staunch opponent of National Socialism, he was determined to avoid advancement in the military. He finagled his way into KP duty feigning incompetence and was assigned to peeling potatoes and cleaning latrines instead of being sent to the Eastern Front.

In 1944, he secretly married actress Elisabeth Kallina, who was half-Jewish. They immediately had a daughter, Eleanore. That December, he deserted the Wehrmacht and fled with his wife and daughter to the Wienerwald, where they remained in hiding until the end of the war.

Werner returned to the Burgtheater, and also acted in productions at the Raimund Theater and the Theater in der Josefstadt, frequently playing character roles.

He made his film debut in Der Engel mit der Posaune/The angel with the trumpet (Karl Hartl, 1948). The following year he portrayed Ludwig van Beethoven's nephew Karl in Eroica (Walter Kolm-Veltée, 1949).

In 1950, Werner journeyed to the United Kingdom to reprise the role he had played in Der Engel mit der Posaune in its English-language version, The Angel with the Trumpet, under the direction of Anthony Bushell.

He and his wife divorced at about this time but remained friends.

He appeared in a few more German–Austrian films before going to Hollywood for a lead role as a German prisoner of war in the war film Decision Before Dawn (Anatole Litvak, 1951) opposite Richard Baseheart. The 20th Century Fox production was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Picture.

Werner was ripe for film stardom, but the subsequent roles promised by the studio failed to materialize. Hurt and disappointed, he returned to Europe and settled in Triesen, Liechtenstein, in a home he designed and built with a friend.

He returned to the stage and during the 1950’s he performed in Hamlet, Danton's Death, Henry IV, Henry V, Torquato Tasso, and Becket, among others.

In 1954 he married Anne Power, the daughter of French actress Annabella and adopted daughter of Tyrone Power.

After a period of inactivity in the cinema, Werner appeared in five films in 1955. Among them were the war drama Der letzte Akt/The Last Ten Days (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1955) about Hitler’s last ten days, Mozart/The Life and Loves of Mozart (Karl Hartl, 1955), in which he played the title role, and Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955) as a student opposite Martine Carol.

Gary Brumburgh describes him at IMDb as “An aloof, handsome blond with wide-set, hooded eyes and quietly solemn features”. Despite his good looks and obvious talent, it would take seven more years before he began to draw critical acclaim and international recognition in the cinema.

Martine Carol,  Ivan Desny
German postcard by Kolibri-Verlag G.m.b.H. Minden/Westf., no. 1719. Photo: Gamma / Union / Vogelmann. Publicity still for Lola Montez (Max Ophüls, 1955) with Martine Carol and Ivan Desny.

Jeanne Moreau
Jeanne Moreau. French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 1017. Photo: Sam Lévin.

Jules et Jim

In 1962, Oskar Werner's final breakthrough came with the French film Jules et Jim/Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962) based on Henri-Pierre Roché's semi-autobiographical novel about his relationship with writer Franz Hessel and his wife, Helen Grund.

Werner became an international sensation as the highly romantic and intellectual Austrian Jules who falls in love with the same woman, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), as his best friend Jim (Henri Serre).

Jules et Jim is one of the seminal products of the Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave. Wikipedia describes it as “an inventive encyclopedia of the language of cinema that incorporates newsreel footage, photographic stills, freeze frames, panning shots, wipes, masking, dolly shots, and voiceover narration (by Michel Subor).”

Werner's then portrayed the philosophical Dr. Schumann in Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer 1965), which recounts the overlapping stories of several passengers aboard an ocean liner bound to Germany from Mexico in 1933. His role won him the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor and nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actor, the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama, and the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor.

His portrayal of Jewish East German spy Fiedler in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965) won him another Golden Globe Award and his second BAFTA nomination. Gary Brumburgh calls Werner’s acting style “remote, rather morose and, as a result, intriguing“.

In 1966, he played book-burning fireman Guy Montag in François Truffaut's film adaptation of the cult-classic Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The relationship with Truffaut was irreparably damaged over artistic differences while filming. The unhappiness of that film experience triggered an already burgeoning drinking problem and the decline of his career.

Werner next played an orchestra conductor in the British drama Interlude (Kevin Billington, 1968) and a Vatican priest loosely based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the American drama The Shoes of the Fisherman (Michael Anderson, 1968).

That same year he divorced Power and put his film career on a hold. He returned to the stage and spent time travelling in Israel, Italy, Malta, France, and the United States.

He appeared in an episode of the TV series Columbo (Bernard L. Kowalski, 1975) featuring Peter Falk, and the following year he made his final screen appearance in Voyage of the Damned (Stuart Rosenberg, 1976) as Faye Dunaway’s Jewish husband.

The story was inspired by true events concerning the fate of the MS St. Louis ocean liner carrying Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba in 1939. For his part he received another Golden Globe nomination.

Werner was an alcoholic, which was a deciding factor in the decline of his health and career. He lived most of the time retired in his house in Liechtenstein. His last stage appearance was in a 1983 production of The Prince of Homburg, and his last public appearance was at the Mozart Hall in Salzburg ten days prior to his death.

On 22 October 1984, Werner cancelled a reading at the Hotel Europäischer Hof in Marburg because he was feeling ill. He was found dead of a heart attack the following morning, only two days after François Truffaut had died.

Oskar Werner was 61. He is buried in his adopted country of Liechtenstein.

He had two children, his daughter Elinore (1944) with Elisabeth Kallina, and son Felix (1966) with the American model Diane Anderson.

Trailer Decision Before Dawn (1951). Source: UmbrellaEntAU (YouTube).

Trailer Jules et Jim/Jules and Jim (1962). Source: UmbrellaEntAU (YouTube).

Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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