Kortner, Fritz

Kortner, Fritz
(Nathan Kohn, 1892-1970)
   Actor, director. Kort-ner was among the most gifted actors in the Weimar Republic and was instrumental in revitalizing the German theater in the post-World War II period. He received training at the Burgtheater in his native Vienna and began his career in Mannheim in 1910. The following year he was working for Max Reinhardt in Berlin, but his career did not blossom until 1919 when he began work with Leopold Jessner. At the newly renamed State Theater, he played a series of classics in controversial productions, bringing an abrupt, strongly arbitrary style to great characters such as Hamlet, Gessler, Macbeth, Danton, and especially Shylock. Later, under Reinhardt, he brought a similar intensity to plays by Frank Wedekind and Bertolt Brecht. His most commercially successful production in the Weimar period was Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings's What Price Glory? (under the title Rivalen, in a translation by Carl Zuckmayer) with Hans Albers.
   In the 1920s, Kortner worked steadily in films, completing more than two per year during that decade. Among the most memorable were Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box) with Louise Brooks and Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt (The Woman You Long For) with Marlene Dietrich. The former was in some ways a recapitulation of the stage production Erich Engel directed at the State Theater, amalgamating Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Pandora's Box together for one evening's performance. Kortner played Dr. Schön in the first play and Jack the Ripper in the second. "Lulu shot me as Dr. Schön, but I avenged him as Jack the Ripper [when I] cut open her belly. We thought that was poetical in the sense of Wedekind" (Kortner, Aller Tage Abend [Munich: Kindler, 1969], 254). Kortner's film acting differed significantly from his stage performances; for the screen, he was often subtle and compliant with film's commercial demands, while on stage his "strength of expression," as he described it, was to many observers "obvious exaggeration" (274).
   Kortner was on a Scandinavian tour when the National Socialists came to power and he immediately emigrated to England, where he appeared in a few films. Later he settled in Vienna to work at the Burgtheater, but in 1938 he was forced to move again, this time going to Hollywood. There Kortner met often with Reinhardt, Thomas Mann, Berthold Viertel, and numerous other German exiles. Meeting with Brecht was always difficult, because Brecht would talk about the "inability of the Germans to revolt" because they were Hitler's "willing subjects." "We differed on that," Kortner recalled. "I was at that time an excessive enthusiast for the so-called 'good German.' Years later, after my return, I learned to restrain that enthusiasm" (320).
   Returning to Munich in 1949, Kortner began directing at the Kammerspiele. He was intent on reforming German acting as he found it upon his return. It was "pompous, puffed up, and ponderous," he said, though he gave credit to directors who had worked under the Nazis such as Engel, Jürgen Fehling, and Gustaf Gründgens for "coming back from the dead [in the 1950s] and wanting to create an 'anti-Hitler acting style'" (305). Kortner observed that the Nazis approached "style" completely in terms of externals, which—despite such modernist tendencies as spare stage decoration, abstract lighting, and symbolic use of color—had nothing to do with what was "really modern" in the theater, which he described as "an intellectual procedure and only in the narrowest sense a fact of decor" (306). He insisted that "Nazi theater" may have looked modern, but it was essentially a throwback to the old heroic affectation of the court theaters.
   Kortner directed a series of outstanding productions in the postwar years. His 1954 Waiting for Godot with Heinz Rühmann was one of the first significant "absurdist" productions in the German theater. Among Kortner's acting "discoveries" was Klaus Kinski, who played the title role for Kortner in a Berlin production of Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos and later Prince Hal in William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 at the Kammerspiele. In the last production he ever directed, Kortner cast a young Klaus Maria Brandauer as Prince Hettore Gonzaga in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Emilia Ga-Jotti. Among Kortner's directorial assistants in Munich were Peter Stein and Jürgen Flimm, who subsequently employed Kortner's techniques and ideas. Their work is perhaps Kortner's greatest legacy to the German theater.
   Kortner's two books of memoirs are among the best any German actor ever wrote. On nearly every page of both books, one senses Kortner's passion for acting; what emerges is a man stupendously talented and extremely unfortunate, yet one who never gave up on anything. He is unapologetic for what he termed "the Jewishness brought to art," both as an actor and later as director. He was likewise proud of his talent and took credit at times for developments where no credit was due. For Jessner's innovative departures in Shakespeare's Richard III of 1920, for example, Kortner claimed he had a dream of the famous "Jessner steps" and had sketched out the steps along with the entire design of Richard III for Jessner. He also claimed credit for giving Zuckmayer the idea for Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (The Captain of Köpenick) and said he could never forgive Zuckmayer for "stealing" it: "I was the initiator of the play with the original idea and the outline of the action. Zuckmayer always had a contradictory attitude towards this fact. Before and after Hitler he denigrated my contribution and when Hitler came [to power] Zuckmayer cursed me." Beyond the questionable veracity of such assertions remains the fact that Kortner's postwar career would have been impossible elsewhere in Europe or in the United States. He would probably have resorted to teaching somewhere in his later years because he was simply too irascible and too noncommercial to continue directing and acting. But the generously subsidized German theater was hungry for a new identity of itself in the 1950s and 1960s, and Kortner was one who helped provide it.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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