I recently watched the French film Lola Montès, about the celebrated19th century actress/dancer/courtesan Lola Montez. I found the direction by Max Ophuls highly imaginative. After watching it, I checked out the backgrounds of the actors.
That led me to Oskar Werner, billed simply as “the Student” in the movie. He appears in two places as a young man, at the end enthralled by Montès as they escape from a revolution in Bavaria. I had never heard of Werner, but it turns out he had a notable career (Jules and Jim, Ship of Fools, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Fahrenheit 451, The Voyage of the Damned, and even an episode of Columbo) before alcoholism and a heart attack killed the Vienna native at the age of 61 in 1984.
What grabbed my attention, however, was not his resume but his life during World War II. In a nutshell: he showed extraordinary courage and ingenuity during the war. He not only used his acting talents to subvert the Wehrmacht’s plans for him (certain to be fatal) but he married and rescued a half-Jewish actress, Elisabeth Kallina, and then deserted the German Army in 1944, going into hiding and saving his wife and infant daughter.
Any one of these acts would be noteworthy. Together, they are stunning in what they say about the morality and daring of a man who, as far as I can tell, never had much to say about the drama of his life, which must rival stories such as that of Solomon Perel in Europa Europa. The story is amazing, and I read nothing to contradict any of its twists and turns.
Every web posting about Werner’s life, even the New York Times obituary of October 24, 1984, reflects the facts given in a single interview with him, in the October 8, 1966 edition of the Saturday Evening Post magazine titled “A Very Phony Profession.”
According to the Post article,
In 1941, at the age of 18, Werner was admitted to the Vienna Burgtheater—the youngest actor ever to be so honored. Unfortunately, he was drafted almost immediately into the German Army and sent to Czechoslovakia. Six months later he was selected to enter officers’ training school.
“So many officers had been killed on the Russian front that they needed replacements desperately,” he says “and I was for them the embodiment of the Aryan type. But I am a pacifist. I didn’t want any responsibility so I behaved stupidly. I fell from my horse and made mistakes reading the range finders on the cannon, and finally they kicked me out of training school.”
For the next three years, Werner was stationed in Vienna, peeling potatoes and cleaning latrines. The tedium of his daily routine was brightened only by the chance to resume his career on a part-time basis with the Burgtheater. During one performance, he met an actress named Elisabeth Kallina, and in early 1944 they were married secretly—a necessity because she was half-Jewish.
That September, U.S. planes dropped 106 bombs—he remembers the number exactly—in one raid on the Vienna barracks. Many of Werner’s friends were killed. He escaped unhurt, but was in such a state of shock that he was given two months’ sick leave. Ordered to join an active reserve unit on his return, he took his wife and infant daughter [Eleanore] and fled into the woods.
Eventually, he found refuge in a small hut, but only to learn that his sanctuary was squarely in the path of the Red Army. “The artillery fire was constant for two and a half days,” he recalls. “The shells hit all around our little hut, and it was shaking like a leaf. My wife almost went crazy, and I would have killed us all except I had no weapon. We knew that to go out there would be suicide, but it was better than to have to wait for execution.”
Hiding his daughter in a laundry basket, he and his wife raced toward the disintegrating German lines—and into the arms of a lieutenant from his old company. In the confusion they escaped. “I was a deserter from December, 1944 to April 1945,” Werner says. “It was a nightmare.” [A 1965 article in a movie fan magazine fills in more details about the final flight from the woods back to Vienna.]
For Werner, the nightmare didn’t end with the surrender. “There was nothing to eat. I couldn’t sleep because I was so hungry. We ate peas with worms, there was no oil or fat for cooking, and my wife traded her watch for eight pounds of filthy, dirty grease. I had to play at the Burgtheater every evening, and when I turned onstage, I would feel dizzy because of my weight—even with my winter coat—was not even one hundred pounds.”
He went on to have a memorable career in the U.S. and Europe, with roles that intersected with wartime and Jewish topics in several places. In the 1951 U.S. movie Decision Before Dawn, he played Happy, a German POW who spies for the Americans in the final months of the war. According to the Post,
Werner accepted the part against the advice of his friends. The opposition to making an anti-Nazi picture was incredible,” he says. “I can’t tell you how I was insulted.” the film was blacklisted by the German picture industry, and the director said, ‘For you, maybe it is better if it doesn’t come out at all.’ I told him, ‘But I have the convictions of that boy in the picture; the blacklist is an honor for me.”
Later, he played a Jewish East German spy in 1965’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, and then the (presumably Jewish) Dr. Egon Kreisler in 1976 in Voyage of the Damned, about the doomed Jewish refugees on the ship St. Louis. He also played a doctor in the film Ship of Fools, although nothing indicates the character of Willie Schumann was Jewish.
After reading the story I wanted to learn more: about Viennese theatrical productions in the fall of 1944, who Oskar and Elizabeth trusted to perform the secret marriage, how the Werners kept their daughter fed and warm in the winter of 1944-45, at what point did the Werners feel liberated after escaping from his lieutenant, how his children responded to their Jewish heritage, how Werner regarded his wartime exploits.
I can’t find much that doesn’t come from the ur-article in the Post, which I discovered on a Werner discussion forum. The site has a handful of other interviews and movie-magazine gossip but nothing in depth about the war years. There’s a final long video interview of a sick, disheveled Werner in the 1980s online. After researching his life, I’m eager to see his other works, to pay attention to how this brave, tormented man appeared on screen.
What a life, and what a legacy of unassuming moral fearlessness. I want to know more.