Monday, February 24, 2014

Louise Brooks Encyclopedia: Fritz Kortner

Welcome to a new feature of the Louise Brooks Society blog - a monthly entry from Louise Brooks Encyclopedia. This second entry is devoted to actor Fritz Kortner.  The Austrian-born stage and film actor and later theater director played Dr. Ludwig Schön in G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929).

Fritz Kortner with Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box (1929).

Born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Kortner studied at the city's Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Kortner took part in Vienna's rich cultural life, and around this time met the critic and satirist Karl Kraus, who helped shape the hopeful actor's thinking on the theater as well as his Jewish identity. (Earlier, in 1904, Kraus was instrumental in helping Wedekind stage his Lulu plays in Vienna.) After graduation, Kortner moved to Berlin to make his name. He joined Max Reinhardt's theater company in 1911, performing in King Oedipus, Faust, and Frank Wedekind's Erdgeist, where he likely met Tilly Wedekind. After five years with Reinhardt, Kortner joined Leopold Jessner's company. Kortner's breakthrough came in 1919 with his performance in Ernst Toller's Transfiguration; soon afterward, Kortner became one of Germany's best-known actors and the nation's foremost performer of Expressionist works. He went on to appear in many classical and modernist plays, including works by Arthur Schnitzler and Bertolt Brecht. 

Fritz Kortner (far right) as Schigolch in a 1919 production of Wedekind's Die Büchse der Pandora.Mirjam Horwitz (middle) played Lulu.

Kortner played Schigolch in a 1919 production of Die Büchse der Pandora at the Hamburger Kammerspiele. And in a 1926, in production at the Schauspielhaus Berlin, he was both Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper. (The role of Lulu in the latter production was played by Gerda Müller, an actress with whom he had performed in Macbeth. Her circle included Brecht and the noted conductor Hermann Scherchen, to whom she was briefly married.)

Fritz Kortner (far right) as Jack the Ripper in a 1926 production of Wedekind's Die Büchse der Pandora.
Gerda Müller
(left) played Lulu, and Lucie Hoflich played the Countess Geschwitz (middle).
On stage, Kortner was known for his powerful voice and explosive energy; in the 1920's, however, his work began to incorporate greater realism as he developed a more controlled delivery and greater use of gesture. His considerable fame during the years of the Weimar Republic was linked to his playing Shakespeare's most problematic characters, Othello, Richard III, Hamlet, and especially Shylock. His presentation of the latter made him a target of the right, with Nazi pundits depicting the actor as a lecherous Jew. In March of 1929, not long after the debut of Pandora's Box, Kortner was falsely accused of raping a gentile woman.

Kortner appeared in over ninety films. His specialty was complex, sinister characters. His films include starring roles in Warning Shadows (1923, with Fritz Rasp),  The Hands of Orlac (1924), Beethoven (1927), The Woman One Longs For (1929), The Ship of Lost Men (1929, with Marlene Dietrich), Atlantic (1929, with Francis Lederer), Dreyfus (1930, with Fritz Rasp), and Chu Chin Chow (1934, with Anna May Wong), as well as later supporting roles in The Razor's Edge (1946) and Berlin Express (1948). In Pabst's Pandora's Box, Kortner reprised the role of Dr. Schön, a respected, middle-aged newspaper publisher entangled in a love affair with Lulu.

Like Pabst, Kortner was artistically and politically aligned against the Nazis. With Hitler's rise to power, the Jewish actor left Germany, emigrating in 1933 to Vienna, then to London, and then New York–where he renewed his friendship and was an advisor to the influential American journalist and broadcaster Dorothy Thompson. Eventually, Kortner ended up in Hollywood, where he found work as a character actor and theater director. His stay in Los Angeles brought him into contact with new acquaintances like Charlie Chaplin, and old friends and fellow exiles like Brecht, Salka Viertal, and Heinrich Mann. Following the war, Kortner along with Brecht and others committed themselves to rebuilding the German stage. The actor returned to his shattered homeland in 1949. In the decades that followed, he was noted for his innovative and sometimes controversial staging of classics by Molière, Schiller, and Shakespeare; in the latter's Richard  III (1964), the King crawls over piles of corpses at the play's end. Kortner penned his memoirs and died in Munich in 1970, at the age of 78.

Below are some scenes from Warning Shadows featuring Kortner.

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