Oskar Werner was born on 16 November, 1922 in Vienna. His father, an insurance clerk, left the family when Oskar was just six-year-old. Subsequently, he was brought up by his mother, who supported him by working in a hat factory.
Young Oskar spent a lot of time with his grandmother, who told him stories about Burgtheater. Thus he grew an early interest in acting, which intensified as he started taking part in school plays. By the time he was eleven, he decided to become an actor.
In 1939, one of his uncles managed to find him small ‘walk-on’ roles in a few German and Austrian war-time movies like ‘Hotel Sacher’, where he played the lift boy and ‘Leinen aus Irland’, where he was a hotel pageboy. In addition, he also tried radio acting.
When Oskar was eighteen he joined Burgtheater and made his debut on the 11th of October, 1941 under the stage name of Oskar Werner. Within a short period, he made his mark, playing juvenile/romantic roles.
In December 1941, he was drafted into Deutsche Wehrmacht. Since he was a pacifist and anti Nazi, he did not want to take part in direct combat. So he pretended to be stupid, falling off from the horses and making deliberate mistakes in reading the range finders on canons.
Consequently, he was sent back to Vienna, where he spent the war years peeling vegetables and cleaning latrines. Fortunately, he also received permission to continue acting at Burgtheater.
Some time now he married a half Jewish lady and had a daughter with her. On December 8, 1944, he deserted his regiment and with his family hid in a shack in the Vienna Woods.
As the Russian army began to advance towards Vienna, Werner was forced to run once more. Shortly the family found themselves in the middle of Werner’s old regiment. Luckily, there was confusion all around and they used the chaos to slip beyond the line; but had to struggle hard to sustain.
After the war he rejoined Burgtheater and concurrently took part in various other productions at the Raimund Theater and the Theater in der Josefstadt. During this period, he took up all kinds of roles and thereby learnt the craft by direct interaction.
Werner made his film debut in 1948 in ‘Der Engel mit der Posaune’. The story revolves around a family of piano maker in Vienna and Werner played the role of Hermann Alt, the black sheep of the family. Next in 1949, he was cast in the role of Ludwig van Beethoven’s nephew Karl in ‘Eroica’.
Sometime in-between, he also made his debut as a director and star at the stage with plays like ‘Jugend’ and ‘Der Feigling’. He donated the proceeds from these plays for reconstruction of the Burgtheater.
In 1950, Werner travelled to England to play the part of Hermann Alt in the English version of ‘Der Engel mit der Posaune’. Renamed ‘The Angel with the Trumpet’, the film was Anthony Bushell’s directorial debut.
Later he went back to Vienna to appear in several German-Austrian movies like ‘Das gestohlene Jahr’ (1950), ‘Ruf aus dem Äther’ (1950) ‘Wonder Boy’ (1951) ‘Ein Lächeln im Sturm’ (1951). Sometime now, he met American director Anatole Litvak and signed a contract with 20th Century Fox to star in American war film.
Accordingly, he went to Hollywood and appeared as Corporal Karl Maurer (“Happy”) in ‘Decision before Dawn’ (1951) and received critical acclaim for his role. However, as no more offers were forthcoming he went back to Vienna.
Coming back home, he immersed himself in the character of Hamlet, learning his lines in seclusion in Triesen, Liechtenstein, where he had built a house. Ultimately he signed the contract on 16 November, 1952.
However, he opened this session with ‘Danton’s Death’ in the Zurich Schauspielhaus. ‘Hamlet’, where he appeared in the lead role, was opened next in Frankfurt Main. The play got superb review, which helped him secure his place in the German-speaking theatre.
He next went back to Vienna to take part in several other plays like ‘Henry IV’, ‘Henry V’, ‘Torquato Tasso’, ‘Candida’ and ‘Becket’. In 1955, he returned briefly to films appearing as Hauptmann Wüst in ‘The Last Ten Days’. ‘Spionage’, ‘Mozart’ and ‘Lola Montès’ were three other films he did that year.
After a brief interlude he once more concentrated on stage acting and in 1957, founded his own company, Theatre Ensemble Oskar Werner, producing different plays such ‘Hamlet’ and‘Bacchus’. He also returned to the Burgtheater periodically to take part in plays like ‘Henry V’ and ‘Henry IV’.
In 1958, Werner appeared as Judas in a TV film titled ‘Ein gewisser Judas’. Next in 1962, he played the part of Jules in a French romantic drama film ‘Jules and Jim’, which earned him critical acclaim.
However, it was his role as Dr. Schumann in ‘Ship of Fools’ (1965) that earned him his first Best Actor Award and three other nominations. The same year he also had another award winning performance in ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’.
Next in 1966, Werner starred in a British Dystopian science fiction called ‘Fahrenheit 451’. Next in 1968, he did two more films; ‘Interlude’ and ‘The Shoes of the Fisherman’ before turning back to stage once more; traveling to Israel, Italy, Malta, France, and the United States.
On March 2, 1975 he appeared in the ‘Playback’ episode of the television series ‘Colombo’, Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, the episode ran for seventy-three minutes.
In 1964, he appeared in his last film ‘Voyage of the Damned’. The film was based on a true story concerning the fate of the ocean liner MS St. Louis, which in 1939 was carrying Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba. Werner’s role as Professor Egon Kreisler was highly appreciated by critics.
ACHIEVEMENTS AND AWARDS
Werner is best remembered for his portrayal of the ship’s doctor in ‘Ship of Fools’ (1965). The romance between his character and a countess from Cuba, who is being sent to prison for drug addiction, has been portrayed with almost unbearable but restrained intensity.
His portrayal of Hamlet in the Shakespearean play of the same name is also another of his major works. It has been described as a “profound spiritual experience” by many well-known critics. It was also said that in this play Werner “does not perform Hamlet. He IS “Hamlet!”
Werner received New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor for his work in ‘Ship of Fools’. Additionally, he had been nominated for Academy Award for Best Actor, BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama for the same work.
For his role in ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ he received Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture. He also received nomination for BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for the same work.
He also received nomination for Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture for his work in his last picture ‘Voyage of the Damned’.