Krauss, Werner

(1884-1959)
   Actor. Krauss joined Albert Bassermann, Fritz Kortner, and Gustaf Gründgens as one of the greatest acting talents in the 20th-century German theater. His was the widest range of character portrayals, from Oedipus to Dr. Caligari to the Captain of Köpenick and Jack the Ripper, even to Jüd Süss in the propaganda film of the same name. Krauss played nearly every major character in nearly all of Shakespeare's plays; he played both Faust and Mephisto to ringing acclaim, and his roles in plays by Friedrich Schiller were equally extensive. His voice was unusually expressive, and though he was relatively short in stature and had little grace in his movement, witnesses almost uniformly report that he was riveting every time he appeared on a stage. His intensity captured the attention of audiences everywhere he performed, as he was able to direct their attention to his own absorption within the character. Few actors before or since Krauss possessed his uncanny chameleon-like ability to transform himself so completely into the character he was playing.
   Krauss grew up the son of a pastor and attended teachers' college before volunteering as an extra at the Lobe Theater in Breslau. He then joined a touring company with no theater training whatsoever, touring the countryside in miserable productions of farces and melodramas. His first engagement at a permanent theater came in 1908 at Guben; he thereafter held jobs in Bromberg, Aachen, Nuremberg, and finally in Berlin, where Max Reinhardt hired him for small roles at the Deutsches Theater in 1913. At the Deutsches, Krauss began to attract attention to his ability at metamorphosis when Reinhardt cast him in larger roles by Frank Wedekind. His first major roles in Berlin were the title characters in Wedekind's Der Kammersänger (The Court Soloist) and Der Marquis von Keith (The Marquis of Keith). Into those parts, as he did with Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream and dozens of other minor characters, he seemed simply to disappear.
   When Reinhardt revamped the Busch Circus around the corner from the Deutsches Theater and reopened it in 1919 as the Grosses Schauspielhaus, Krauss played Agamemnon in a production of Aeschylus's The Oresteian Trilogy that stunned every member among nightly audiences of 3,700 individuals who saw it. Indeed, one critic said "a deep shudder" passed through everyone in the new house who witnessed Krauss's performance (Stefan Grossmann, Vossische Zeitung, 30 December 1919). At the same time, Krauss was alternating his performances as Agamemnon before huge crowds with a performance before perhaps 300 people at a time in August Strind-berg's three-character Advent.
   Soon thereafter Krauss left Reinhardt and went to work for Leopold Jessner at the newly named Staatliches Schauspielhaus (State Theater) on Gendarme Square in Berlin. There Krauss seemed to explode onto an altogether new theater landscape, even as he buried himself deeper into the German theater's greatest roles. As Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, he filled Karl Friedrich Schinkel's enormous space with a presence "that seemed to leap off an old Roman coin" (Hans Flemming, Berliner Tageblatt, 29 May 1920). Even after he was dead at the hands of assassins, the presence of Caesar remained as "the very personification of Imperator, the prototype [that engendered] a long line of Roman Caesars" (Norbert Falk, BZ am Mittag, 29 May 1920). Krauss followed up his death as Caesar with his death as Old Hilse in Gerhart Haupt-mann's Die Weber (The Weavers) at the State Theater, and when he died in the play's final scene, no one in the audience moved a muscle, even after the actors proceeded onstage for a curtain call. Only gradually, as they realized Krauss had left his chair onstage and was actually alive and ready to take his bow, did they begin clapping. In Die Räuber (The Robbers), Krauss again died—but this time a well-deserved death of the villainous Franz von Moor. The grotesque sight of Krauss, his knees knocking together as he proclaimed, "I am an outcast of Hell, the misbegotten depravity of passion," eradicated all thought of him as the majestic Caesar or the hubris-ridden Agamemnon—but by 1921, when the production opened, most audiences had come to expect such protean efforts from Krauss.
   His reputation throughout the country had grown exponentially after the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which he played the title character who supposedly carries a mystical somnambulist around in his "cabinet" for display at county fairs. The fact that Dr. Caligari is the figment of a mental patient's imagination made Krauss's portrayal of him no less imposing, and his performance in the 1919 film has remained, in the opinion of many, one of the most frightening ever recorded. Krauss had made several films before Cali-gari, but this one solidified his standing in the minds of most Germans that he was indeed among the most magnificent performers in their midst. Some critics said they already knew Krauss had defined "Expressionist" acting, citing his performance as Robespierre in Rein-hardt's 1920 world premiere of Romain Roland's Danton. In it, Krauss was the "dandy of the Reign of Terror" (Paul Wiegler, BZ am Mittag, 16 February 1920), an angular abstraction whose words cut more sharply than the guillotine. Through the 1920s his film acting added to his reputation, while his theater work did likewise. Two performances mark his artistry at the beginning of the 1930s: first as the unemployed shoemaker Wilhelm Voigt in Heinz Hilpert's world premiere of Carl Zuckmayer's Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (The Captain of Köpenick), and later a role that could not be more different from Zuckmayer's sympathetic ne'er-do-well: Iago to Heinrich George's Othello. Yet both are representative of Krauss's incomparable versatility in an almost endless series of completely different roles.
   A role that permanently besmirched him, however, emerged after 1933: that of Nazi sympathizer. There have been numerous attempts to explain Krauss's allegiance to the National Socialists; some attributed it to his naïveté. Zuckmayer said Krauss always had a childlike gullibility, but ultimately he felt that Krauss was like many other German actors in the Third Reich: most concerned with their own self-interest. Krauss was involved from the beginning of governmental regulation and subsidy of theater activity during the Nazi era. When the new Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda was created, Joseph Goebbels appointed a former Reinhardt actor named Otto Laubinger as president of the Reich Theater Chamber; Laubinger's "representative to the profession" was Werner Krauss. Krauss was implicated with Nazi manipulation of the theater from the outset of the Hitler dictatorship; he was also a frequent recipient of numerous prizes and awards from the regime, including the Goethe Medallion for Art and Science and the honorific "state actor."
   Given his affinity for the Nazis, it is difficult to explain Krauss's starring role in the most important anti-Nazi performance that took place in the Third Reich: Jürgen Fehling's production of Shakespeare's Richard III, in which Krauss hobbled around with a club foot in obvious parody of Goebbels's handicap; the enormous, six-foot-long sword Krauss carried with him reduced his actions to that of a petulant child—again in mockery of Goebbels. Since Krauss was dwarfed by his enormous weapon (designed by Traugott Müller), the result depicted Richard as a cruel child with dangerous means at his disposal. The parallel to Goebbels was unmistakable. Krauss was furthermore no devil in royal purple but rather the dangerous comedian, stroking his sword, carrying it with him all the time, dropping it only once—when his mother curses him. The sword became a costar with him; it became a representative of his thoughts, describing his thoughts when his lips were closed. When the final confrontation came in Act V, there was no final battle. Fehling cut the battle and allowed Bernhard Minetti and
   Krauss to stand alone, facing each other on that enormous stage. Richmond raised his sword and as soon as Richard shouted, "Ahorse! My kingdom for a horse!" he sank to the floor in death.
   Krauss had died thousands of times onstage in his career, but his career never recovered its former vitality after World War II. He was forbidden to perform until 1950. The final decade of his life was spent in Austria, which awarded him the Iffland Ring in 1954.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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