German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. G 176. Photo: Quick.
Dazzling appearance, but no charisma
Karl Hermann Martell was born in Tilsit, Germany (now Sovetsk, Russia) in 1906. He was born in a bourgeois, military family.
Already at the age of 13, Karl made his film debut in the silent film Das große Geheimnis/The big secret (Herbert Gerdes, 1920). (Filmportal.de also mentions Die Tragödie der Manja Orsan/The tragedy of Manja Orsan (Richard Eichberg, 1919) with Charles Willy Kayser and Ruth Weyher as his debut, but this must be an error while Martell’s part in this film is described as a theatre director).
His debut was followed by parts in silent films like Die goldene Pest/The Golden Plague (Louis Ralph, Richard Oswald, 1921) with Anita Berber, and Das goldene Haar/The Golden Hair (Bruno Eichgrün, 1922).
In the following years, he studied acting at the Max-Reinhardt-Schule. In the 1930s, he became a well known film actor, often playing officers or aristocrats. In one of his first films as an adult, he played opposite Swedish stage and screen star Zarah Leander in the Austrian backstage musical Première (Géza von Bolváry, 1937), which became an enormous box office hit. It was Leander's first German language role, and she was immediately signed by the Ufa.
For a long time, Martell was considered Zarah Leander's ideal film partner. Among his best known films of the 1930s are La Habanera/Cheated by the Wind (Detlef Sierck a.k.a. Douglas Sirk, 1937) again with Leander and another box office success, Der Spieler/The Player (Gerhard Lamprecht, 1938) based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Western Frauen für Golden Hill/Women for Golden Hill (Erich Waschneck, 1938).
Stephanie D’heil at Steffi-Line: “Although Karl Martell also worked with other female audience favourites, for example with Camilla Horn in the sentimental thriller Gauner im frack/Rogue in Tuxedo (Johannes Riemann, 1937), he never achieved Zarah Leander’s star status. The reason is probably that he lacked a certain charisma and despite his dazzling appearance, his performances always seemed rather ‘pale’.”
At CinéArtistes, Philippe Pelletier writes however that “In 1939, Martell embodies the very convincing Lieutenant Ludwig Becker in D III 38, a war drama by Herbert Maisch.”
German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 2582/2, 1939-1940. Photo: Quick / Tobis.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 3278/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Herzog-Verleiher Kreis.
Convicted for collaboration
During the Second World War, Karl Martell played in such films as the crime film Alarm (Herbert B. Fredersdorf, 1941), the controversial biopic Ohm Krüger (Hans Steinhoff, Karl Anton, 1941) featuring Emil Jannings as Transvaal politician Paul Krüger, Damals/Those Days (Rolf Hansen, 1943) with Zarah Leander, and Das alte Lied/The old song (Fritz Peter Buch, 1945) starring Winnie Markus.
After the end of the war, Martell was convicted for his collaboration with the Nazi regime and his participation in various propaganda films. He was sentenced to a ban on acting for several years.
In the 1950s, Martell only worked only incidentally for the cinema in mostly forgettable productions. Among these later films are the melodrama Herzen im Sturm/Hearts by storm (Jürgen von Alten, 1951), the adventure film Die Gefangene des Maharadscha/Circus Girl (Veit Harlan, 1953), and its sequel Sterne über Colombo/Stars on Colombo (Veit Harlan, 1954).
From the early 1950s on, Martell also made documentaries for his own production company in Hamburg.
In 1959, he returned in front of the camera for a minor role in Der blaue Nachtfalter/The blue Moth (Wolfgang Schleif 1959), in which he was reunited with Zarah Leander. Then he retired from the film business.
Forgotten and alone, Karl Martell died in 1966 in Hamburg, Germany. He was 60.
German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3699/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Quick.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 3052/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Tobis / Quick.
Theatrical Trailer La Habanera (1937). Source: Ordner481 (YouTube).
Sources: Philippe Pelletier (CinéArtistes – French), Stephanie d’Heil (Steffi-Line - German), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Filmportal.de, Wikipedia (German and English) and IMDb.