Maximilian Schell: Man of Many Gifts

9 Feb
Schell in JN

Austrian born Maximilan Schell was a mere 31 years old when he won the 1961/62 Best Actor Oscar for his impassioned performance in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg. At the time, per the Academy’s database, Schell was the second youngest Best Actor winner, behind Marlon Brando in 1954’s On the Waterfront. This many years later, he’s still considered the fourth youngest with Adrien Brody (The Pianist) and Richard Dreyfuss (The Goodbye Girl) in the top two slots.

I watch the morning news, both local and national editions, every weekday–frequently on Saturdays as well, often on Sundays too. Strange then, that I neither saw nor read anything about the passing of Oscar winner Maximilian Schell until I flipped through the latest issue of People. Apparently, Schell died in Austria, his birthplace, last Saturday, February 1, at the age of 83. Of course, we all know how the death of another Oscar winner, Philip Seymour Hoffman, attracted scads of media attention–and scrutiny–over the past week (guilty as charged on my end), and Schell’s death somehow got lost in the shuffle.

Anyway, here’s what I know about Schell. I’ve long been a fan even though I have NOT seen more of his movies than I have seen, but I have some clear faves, and I’m familiar with some of his more high-profile offerings.


Judgment at Nuremberg (1961): In a film headlined by such established actors as Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, and Richard Widmark (not to mention Montogimery Clift in a supporting role), Schell, a relative newcomer to American films, walked away with top honors, including the year’s Best Actor Oscar along with a Golden Globe and accolades from the New York Film Critics Circle. Not only did Schell  (lower left) triumph over co-star Tracy (upper right) in the Oscar race, he also trumped Paul Newman in The Hustler and Charles Boyer in Fanny.  (The fifth nominee was Stuart Whitman in the barely remembered The Mark.) Interestingly, Schell portrayed the same character, Hans Rolfe, in a televised version of the same story in 1959. The twist in the scenario, if there is one, is that Schell actually portrays the defense lawyer, the man arguing on behalf of  someone on trial for war crimes. Even if viewers don’t buy Rolfe’s argument that blame has been cast too easily on a few individuals, while ignoring the larger picture and perhaps the bigger crime, Schell packs a wallop in his “big” moments.


Topkapi (1964): In this delightful caper, Schell (center) shared the screen with Melina Mercouri (r) and Peter Ustinov (l), who won his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar. This is a movie that Michael and I frequently watch late, late, at night. Glamorous locales, intricately plotted, plenty of suspense, a “mod” flourish or two, and more than a few laughs. Never disappoints. If you’ve never seen it, you might be surprised at how much Brian De Palma borrowed from Topkapi in the first Mission Impossible big screen adventure back in ’96, specifically the scene in which Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt uses an elaborate harness to penetrate a high level security office–a scene recently parodied in Progressive Insurance commercials featuring actress Stephanie Courtney as ever solicitous Flo. Just know that director Jules Dassin and crew did it first in Topkapi.

The Pedestrian

The Pedestrian: Schell wrote and directed this 1973 Oscar nominated German film which also looked back at at the war and war criminals. Schell appeared in the movie as well. I’m pretty sure that seeing Schell being interviewed about The Pedestrian on one talk show or another is my oldest memory  of him outside knowing he’d won an Oscar for Judgement at Nuremberg. If I had ever seen him in a film prior to that, it escaped me at that time. Okay, back to The Pedestrian. The Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film that year went to François Truffaut’s Day for Night; however, back in Germany, The Pedestrian scored at the German Film Awards, taking not only Best Picture but also Best Actor (Gustav Rudolph Sellner). Schell also directed international sensation Dominique Sanda in 1970’s Young Love, a Swiss offering which also competed at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.


The Man in the Glass Booth (1975): Schell, in heavy old-age makeup, earned his second Best Actor nomination for the American Film Theatre adaptation of Robert Shaw’s play (perhaps inspired by the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann). Though director Arthur Hiller’s treatment is a bit stagey, and Shaw asked to have his name removed from the credits, the movie serves as a powerful showcase for Schell’s tremendous talent as he navigates the difficult arc of a wealthy industrialist crumbling under the weight of cruel, conflicting identities. Detractors no doubt find it loud and/or hammy, but for me it’s simply mesmerizing. Jack Nicholson bested Schell for the Oscar, but he was in good company with also-ran Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.


Julia (1977): Schell (r) earned his third and final Oscar nomination–as Best Supporting Actor–for his brief role (practically a cameo) as the enigmatic Mr. Johann in an adaptation of one passage in Lillian Hellman’s memoirs Pentimento, starring Jane Fonda (l) and Best Supporting Actress winner Vanessa Redgrave. I’ll be frank. I was a senior in high school the year this movie competed in the Oscar race, and while most of my classmates were clearly rooting for all things Star Wars, and that means Alec Guiness as Obi Wan Kenobi, I was pulling for Schell, subtle but significant in a role full of intrigue. Interestingly, he lost to no less than Jason Robards (aka Jason Robards Jr.) as Hellman’s mentor and sometime lover Dashiel Hammet in the same film. Robards made history as the first back-to-back winner in the category, following his triumph as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in 1976’s All the President’s Men.


Marlene: Never content to rest on his laurels, Schell once again ventured behind the camera to create this Oscar nominated documentary about silver screen legend Marlene Dietrich. Simply, Dietrich was in her 80s at the time, and she agreed to cooperate on the condition that Schell not film her directly. To that end, audio of Schell’s interview with the aging, and quite temperamental, star is played against footage of her best work.  My memory, from seeing a clip on one of the early morning news shows, is Dietrich getting testy when pressed by Schell to explain why she considers The Devil is a Woman the greatest film ever made. I believe her response is something to the effect of “It is because I say it is.” That’s my memory. Thanks, Max.

The Freshman

The Freshman (1990): No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. That’s Marlon Brando on the left, parodying his Oscar winning role as The Godfather’s Don Corleone in Andrew Bergman’s 1990 romp. The movie stars Matthew Broderick (not pictured) as a fresh-faced college student who falls in with a suspicious crowd, including Schell (r) as an alternately sinister and loopy chef, as soon as he hits the Big Apple in order to attend NYU. The Freshman was one of my favorite movies from 1990 though it was not a huge hit. On the other hand, we did well enough with it back at the old UA during the same summer in which we also played Ghost and Total Recall. Those who are less than enthused with the Freshman (no connection to Harold Llyod’s 1925 offering) complain that it’s silly and derivative, but most of the jokes hit, and the derivative stuff is harmless (and even makes sense in context). To me, it’s tremendously sweet and clever, and the cast is top-notch:  Brando, Broderick, Schell, Bruno Kirby, Penelope Ann Miller, B.D. Wong, Paul Benedict, Frank Whaley, and Bert Parks (as himself). Indeed, The Freshman was actually nominated for a Casting Society of America award. Make it a double-feature with Topkapi and enjoy!

Schell’s many other credits include The Young Lions (1958), which first teamed him with both Marlon Brando and Montogmery Clift, The Odessa File (with Jon Voight–and still on my bucket list), Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977), Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977), The Chosen (1980) and Disney’s extravagant 1979 Christmas offering, The Black Hole. One of his last films was 2008’s quirky–and that’s really the best word–The Brothers Bloom starring Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo.

He appeared in many high profile TV productions, earning Emmy nominations for Stalin (as a supporting player to star Robert Duvall), and Miss Rose White. He also portrayed no less than Peter the Great in a 1986 mini-series. He enjoyed a six episode run on the acclaimed Wiseguy and starred in a 1959 adaptation of Hamlet.

Schell’s death is not as shocking as the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman a week ago, but I feel the void nonetheless. I don’t know whether Schell ever truly became a household name in spite of decades of exciting work, but I certainly know that he dedicated most of his life to honing his craft, creating meaningful work (often succeeding), and exploring a wide variety of opportunities. A life well-lived, Mr. Schell.

Thanks for your consideration…

Schell at the Internet Movie Database:

Academy Awards Database:


One Response to “Maximilian Schell: Man of Many Gifts”

  1. vinnieh 09 February 2014 at 10:20 am #

    Really nice tribute.

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