Klaus Maria Brandauer: The Outsider as Insider

A conversation with Austria’s stage and screen legend on Wilhelm Reich, Democracy and knowing who we are

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | December 2012 / January 2013

Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, who has starred in “Never Say Never Again” and “Out of Africa” (Photo: David Reali)

The cobalt blue lights of the Gartenbaukino glow seductively against the night sky as the crowd converges for the Viennale premiere of The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich, a new film by Austrian director Antonin Swoboda, and starring Klaus Maria Brandauer. Opening 18 Jan., it is the first Brandauer has made in three years, and a project very close to his heart. A "Liebesfilm", he calls it.

People pour through the huge glass doors, dividing for the various "will call" windows, and flowing inside and down the steps to the buffet. Soon it’s impossible to move; any progress involves slithering sideways, wedged with apologies and attempts at wit. No matter; the mood is contagious, smiles on every side. ("Vienna radiates this atmosphere!" Brandauer tells me later.)

This is a film that belongs on a giant screen like the Gartenbau, where the sweeping landscapes of lake-side or desert, of cloud cover or canopy of stars become viscerally real, with the concentration of 736 moviegoers tingling on the skin.

We meet the next evening in an upstairs hotel room at the Hilton Stadtpark – you probably can’t meet with Klaus Maria Brandauer in a Kaffeehaus and hope to be left alone. It is nearly 18:00 and an alert aide has brought a bottle of Zweigelt, a few glasses and a corkscrew. Brandauer reaches for the bottle and the opener and sets to work.

"It’s the least I can do; I have kept you waiting," he says in English, with a smile and a slight nod of the head. With practiced hand he twists in the screw, presses down the arms, and grasping tight, whips out the cork with a resounding pop. Appreciative "ahhs" all around. Glasses are poured with a gurgle; he swirls the wine around gently in his glass, breathes it in and takes a sip.

"It’s quite fine," he declares, with a smile and settles into his chair. From here, we continue in German; his choice, but also my preference: I want to hear his thoughts in his own language.

Like many English-speaking film lovers, I got to know Klaus Maria Brandauer as Bror von Blixen, the Baron who agrees to marry Danish heiress Karin Dinesen (Meryl Streep) "for the adventure" in Out of Africa, an unforgettable performance that won him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But Brandauer already had his laurels from the Academy of Motion Pictures for his starring role in Mephisto, Istvan Szabo’s powerful Oscar-winning film about a German actor heralded for his performance as Faust, who makes his own bargain with the devil as the Nazis come to power.

Brandauer’s other ‘80s film coup in English was in the "unofficial" Bond remake, Never Say Never Again, that brought Sean Connery out of retirement in 1983 and was described by critics as the best acted of all the Bond films: "For one thing," wrote critic Roger Ebert, "there’s more of a human element, and it comes from Klaus Maria Brandauer, as Largo," in a performance praised by Richard Schickel, of Time Magazine, for its "silky, neurotic charm." He joined Connery again in The Russia House in 1990 and co-starred with a young Ethan Hawke in White Fang in 1991.

More recently, his attention has returned to the stage at Vienna’s Burgtheater, where he has shined in role after role as a leading and ensemble actor since he first joined the company in 1972.

So what drew him back to the screen to play the controversial psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich?

While many of Reich’s core ideas have since joined the mainstream, at the time, he was considered threatening: His two most important books, Character Analysis, and more specifically The Mass Psychology of Fascism, both 1933, got him immediately thrown out of the German Communist Party (whom he described as "red fascists") and expelled from the International Psychoanalytical Association for political militancy (1934); they were banned first by the Nazis (1933), and later by the Americans (1956). Pirate copies became available again in the university underground of the late 1960s, and only reprinted a decade later. Both are now considered masterworks in the field.

In the U.S., his research got increasingly under the skin of the American Psychological Association, the Food and Drug Administration, the FBI, and ultimately the Atomic Energy Commission, leading to his arrest for defying a court order to cease research. He was forced to burn his own books and jailed awaiting trial. Convinced of his innocence, he tried unsuccessfully to defend himself in court; he lost all appeals and died in prison, at the age of 60, of "a broken heart".

Brandauer finds it ironic, that Reich got into such legal difficulties in the U.S. In both, Denmark and Norway, where he had stayed briefly, Reich had felt like an outsider. But he hadn’t expected that in America.

"It was the Promised Land for him," Brandauer tells me. "He was incredibly happy to go there, particularly after everything that had happened to him in Europe, in Germany…" It was in part the hostility of Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, who set professional colleagues against him, claiming Reich had not treated her father well.

"But Reich was a great admirer of Freud," Brandauer shakes his head. "There were pictures of Freud in his rooms. But there are points where you have to say, ‘The master was not right’, and many masters can’t tolerate that." For Reich, "the question was ‘What do you do with this knowledge?’ You can’t suddenly psychoanalyse millions of people. So there has to be another way. And the way he found was through sociology, over the consciousness of the society."

Brandauer’s sympathy for Reich saturates his portrayal on screen. So that even when Reich is at his most stubborn, ("He could be unbearable toward the staff!") you believe not only in his sincerity but also his fundamental kindness and humanity. Reich’s obsessive tenacity to his vision feels admirable rather than mad. Although he clearly drives others over the edge:

"We cannot pay the electric bill and you still talk about saving the world," Reich’s colleague and second wife Ilse (Jeanette Hain), explodes in frustration. Reich/Brandauer looks at her with compassion… and goes back to work.

It’s clear, Brandauer ("from the Styrian provinces") feels at home among outsiders and underdogs. "Even today," he confesses, laughing, "I find it miraculous that I was ever allowed on stage in the Big City!"

This empathy has defined his approach to the role: "Whatever character I am playing, I have to be concerned with those in the minority, who are sick, who have been damaged," he says. "A society is only on track to the extent that it takes care of those who are not doing well. And this is absolutely the way Reich saw it."

It is a clear political message of the ever-present danger of lost ideals. "Here and now and anywhere, such things can happen," Brandauer says, "anywhere where individuals set themselves against the mainstream. This is about Democracy, so hard won, that we must relentlessly defend. So in relation to Reich, we are on the side of the one who is innocent, who wants nothing more than follow through on an idea. We don’t have to say it’s a good thing. But we have to allow it."

After 40 years in Vienna, Brandauer has watched the city become more alive, more open. ("One probably shouldn’t congratulate oneself, but I find it exemplary.") But what we mustn’t lose, he says, is Vienna’s slower pace of life, something Reich also promoted: "Children, give yourselves time! We don’t need progress, we must go deeper inside ourselves."

But we are already going too fast, Brandauer complains. ("The Italians would never put up with that!") And he finds, to his horror, that meetings "of a business variety" are taking place outside a Kaffeehaus. "This is not acceptable," he protests with a gesture of disgust. "A meeting between two business people belongs in a Kaffeehaus. Then one comes a little late, and the other can say, (yawn) let’s meet again next week. And suddenly everything slows down."

But change comes just the same; time pushes us forward. "But where we haven’t really come so far," he says, "is in the relations between people. We haven’t really found ourselves."

For a review of Brandauer’s 2010 debate with Vienna’s Archbishop Cardinal Christoph Schönborn on God and the Devil, see "God, the Devil and Us" in TVR April 2010.

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