16 February 2018

Fritz Kortner

Austrian-born stage and film actor and theatre director Fritz Kortner (1892–1970) was one of the best known character actors of the German silent cinema. His speciality was playing sinister and threatening roles.

Henny Porten, Wilhelm Dieterle and Fritz Kortner in Hintertreppe (1921)
German collectors card by Ross Verlag in the series Vom Werden deutscher Filmkunst - Der Stumme Film, picture no. 102. Photo: Ufa. Publicity still for Hintertreppe/Backstairs (Leopold Jessner, Paul Leni, 1921) with Henny Porten and Wilhelm Dieterle.

Fritz Kortner and Olga Tschechowa in Nora (1923)
German collectors card by Ross Verlag in the series Vom Werden deutscher Filmkunst - Der Stumme Film, picture no. 99, group 43. Photo: Ufa. Publicity still for Nora (Berthold Viertel, 1923) with Olga Tschechova.

Fritz Kortner
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 74/1, 1925-1935. Photo: Matador-Film. Publicity still for Das Leben des Beethoven/The Life of the Beethoven (Hans Otto, 1927).

Fritz Kortner
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 74/2, 1925-1935. Photo: Matador-Film. Publicity still for Das Leben des Beethoven/The Life of the Beethoven (Hans Otto, 1927). Collection: Didier Hanson.

Francesca Bertini and Fritz Kortner in Mein Leben für das Deine
Italian postcard, no. 341. Photo: Dist. S.A. Pittaluga. Francesca Bertini and Fritz Kortner in Mein Leben für das Deine/My life for yours (Luitz-Morat, 1928), an adaptation of the play Odette by Victorien Sardou.

Unfit for the Front

Fritz Kortner was born as Fritz Nathan Kohn in Vienna, Austria, in 1892.

He studied at the Vienna Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, an academy at the Burgtheater. After graduating, he received his first engagement at the National Theatre Mannheim. In 1911, he joined Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. There he played only minor roles, and soon he moved again.

These were wander years for the actor, hopping from stage to stage. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was called up for military service. However, he was soon written off as unfit for the front.

In 1915 he made his first film appearances in a series of adventure films directed and produced by Harry Piel, including Manya, die Türkin/Manya, the Turkish Woman (Harry Piel, 1915). During the war he also appeared in such films as Der Märtyrer seines Herzens/The Martyr of his Heart (Emil Justitz, 1918) as Ludwig von Beethoven, Der Sonnwendhof/The Sonnwendhof (Emil Leyde, 1918) and Frauenehre/Honour of a woman (Georg Kundert, 1918), in which his expressionistic acting style first came into its own.

On stage his roles became more important, and in 1919 he had his breakthrough with his performance in the play Die Wandlung (the conversion) by Ernst Toller at Die Tribüne in Berlin. Then director Leopold Jessner committed him for the Staatstheater and made him one of his principal actors. Kortner appeared in many plays by Schiller, Büchner and Shakespeare under the direction of Jessner.

His Shylock in The Merchant of Venice became his most famous role. It made him one of the great stars of the German stage in the 1920s, with a new form of theater: the expressionism. His specialty was playing sinister and threatening roles.

He also intensified his activities in the cinema, where he also excelled in expressionist works with his demonically subtle acting, such as in Satanas/Satan (F.W. Murnau, 1920) opposite Ernst Hoffmann, Die Nacht der Königin Isabeau/The Night of Queen Isabeau (Robert Wiene, 1920) starring Fern Andra, and the thriller Schatten/Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison, 1923) with Alexander Granach.

Another early classic was the drama Hintertreppe/Backstairs (Leopold Jessner, Paul Leni, 1921) in which he played a crippled mailman in love with a maid (Henny Porten) who lives in the same poor apartment building.

In 1924 Kortner married the actress Johanna Hofer, and they stayed together till his death. That year he played the role of the villain in the Austrian silent horror classic Orlacs Hände/Orlac’s hands (Robert Wiene, 1924) opposite Conrad Veidt.

He proved his versatility with completely different parts in two other classics, as Dr. Ludwig Schön in Die Büchse der Pandora/Pandora’s Box (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929) featuring Louise Brooks, and the title role in the early sound film Dreyfus/The Dreyfus Case (Richard Oswald, 1930) with Heinrich George.

461 Fritz Kortner_Hänsom (Fimlbilder. Tomfilmserie; 461)
Postcard by Ross Verlag. Photo: Sandau. Collection: Performing Arts@Flickr.

141 Fritz Kortner_Ramses (Filmbilder 1; 141)
Postcard by Ross Verlag. Photo: Bieber. Collection: Performing Arts@Flickr.

083 Fritz Kortner_Confreia (Film und Bühnen-Künstler Bilder; 83)
Postcard. Collection: Performing Arts@Flickr.

The Attack

During the turbulent times in the early 1930s, the Jewish Fritz Kortner decided to install his residence in Ascona. In late 1932 he was attacked in the Nazi propaganda sheet Der Angriff (The Attack): "One had chosen for the role in Gott, Kaiser und Bauer (1932, God, Emperor and Farmer) the Jew Kortner-Kohn, who actually should have stopped playing in the Berlin theatre scene long ago. He is pretty much the worst and grubbiest type who has ever been on a German stage.”

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Kortner, was on a tour through Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. He decided not to return to Germany. Over Czechoslovakia, then to Vienna - where he performed at Max Reinhardt’s Theater in der Josefstadt – to Paris, the Kortner family then emigrated to Great Britain, where Fritz Kortner could appear in films again.

Among his British films are Chu Chin Chow (Walter Forde, 1934) with Anna May Wong, and Abdul the Damned (Karl Grune, 1935) with Nils Asther.

In 1937, he emigrated to the United States, where he found work as a character actor and theatre director. In 1938 followed his family, and they moved on to Hollywood. Here he worked on scripts. Until his return to Europe in 1947 he starred in nine films such as The Hitler Gang (John Farrow, 1944). However, they were not very convincing artistically.

After his return to Germany, he became noted for his innovative staging and direction. His artistic homes were the Münchener Kammerspiele under Hans Schweikart and the Schillertheater in Berlin under Boleslaw Barlog. A classic became his direction of Richard III (1964) in which the king crawls over piles of corpses at the end. At the Kammerspiele, he directed seventeen plays until 1967.

He also appeared in some interesting films, such as Der Ruf/The Last Illusion (Josef von Báky, 1949) with Johanna Hofer, and the suspenseful drama-thriller Epilog: Das Geheimnis der Orplid/Epilogue (Helmut Käutner, 1950). In the 1960s, Kortner started to direct at the Burgtheater in his native Vienna. He directed his last play, Emilia Galotti with Klaus Maria Brandauer, in April 1970, at the Viennese Theater in der Josefstadt.

Three months later, Fritz Kortner died of cancer in Munich, aged 78. Kortner’s style of interpretation and rehearsal influenced a new generation of directors. Particularly noteworthy are Peter Stein and Jürgen Flimm, who both have been assistant directors of Kortner.

Fritz Kortner
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1325/1, 1927-1928. Photo: Ernst Sandau, Berlin.

Fritz Kortner
Austrian postcard by Iris Verlag, no. 6037. Photo: Terra Film / Götz Hofbauer.

Fritz Kortner
German postcard by Margarinewerk Eidelstedt Gebr. Fauser G.m.b.H., Holstein, Serie 1, no. Bild 68. Photo: Transocean.

Fritz Kortner
British card. Photo: B.I.P. Publicity still for Abdul the Damned (1935).

Sources: Wikipedia (English and German) and IMDb.

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