Fritz Kortner(Fritz Nathan Kohn)

Fritz Kortner, actor
Fritz Kortner, portrait photograph for the feature film The Hands of Orlac (Austria 1924, director: Robert Wiene)
Archiv des Deutschen Filminstitut DIF e.V.

Fritz Kortner(Fritz Nathan Kohn)

Ich will haben, daß du weißt, daß ich, der ich kein Dichter bin, aus Not, aus Angst um uns, ein Stück in grässlicher Quälerei aus einem übermüdeten, vor Panik oft toten Hirn reiße. Ich habe so wilde Verdüsterungen, wie ich sie selbst in London nicht gehabt: Ich habe richtige Angst, daß das nicht gut ausgeht.

 [I want you to know that I – not being a poet –  out of necessity, out of fear, am torturing myself to create a piece from my exhausted brain that is often dead from panic. I have such wild dark thoughts, even worse than the ones I had in London: I really fear that this will not end well. (ed. trans.)]

Fritz Kortner, letter from New York to his wife Johanna Hofer in England, 13 December 1937

Bornon 12 May 1892 in Vienna, Austria
Diedon 22 July 1970 in Munich, Germany
ExileGreat Britain (United Kingdom), United States of America
RemigrationFederal Republic of Germany
ProfessionActor, Film director, Theater director

Fritz Nathan Kohn already wanted to become an actor when he was a teenager. He studied dramatic arts in Vienna and changed his name to Fritz Kortner. From 1910 he appeared for Max Reinhardt in Berlin, but also in Vienna, Dresden and Hamburg. Kortner rose to fame in Karlheinz Martin’s expressionistic world première of Ernst Toller’s Die Wandlung (The Transformation) and as the Jewish moneylender Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. He also made a name for himself as a movie actor. From January 1933, Kortner had to fear arrest: he had already been targeted by anti-Semitic attacks by the Nazi press at the end of 1932. After a tour – at the height of his career – he retreated to Vienna, the city where he was born.

In 1934, Kortner and his family emigrated to London, where he learned English and started from scratch. Due to his accent, he mainly played exotic roles. In 1937, hoping to earn more money, he went to the USA by himself where he wrote his first theatre texts and from 1941 he found a job as a screenwriter and actor in anti-Nazi films in Hollywood. In 1944, he and others signed the Declaration of the Council for a Democratic Germany.

For Kortner, his roles and plays in exile were a way of earning a living, not artistic expression. Haunted by self-doubt and financial worries, he struggled to get by in the American film industry, where his acting, his exalted character development and strong accent clashed with the subdued style of his American colleagues. Those were some of the reasons why Kortner returned to Germany at the end of 1947, even though some of his relatives had not survived persecution by the Nazis. He processed his remigration in the role of returner Professor Mauthner in Josef von Báky’s 1949 The Last Illusion.

Selected works:
Film: The Hands of Orlac (orig.: Orlacs Hände, D 1924, directed by Robert Wiene) – actor
Film: Abdul the Damned (GB 1935, directed by Karl Grune) actor
Film: The Last Illusion (orig.: Der Ruf, D 1948/49, Regie: Josef von Báky) – actor, screenplay, idea
Theater: William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice (in the role of Shylock, first of all in 1916, then in 1923, 1924 and 1927) actor
Theatre: Bertolt Brecht: In the Jungle of Cities (orig.: Im Dickicht der Städte, directed by: Erich Engel, première: 29 October 1924, Deutsches Theater Berlin) actor

Further reading:
Völker, Klaus: Fritz Kortner: Jude und Rebell gegen das privilegierte Konventionelle. Berlin: Hentrich + Hentrich 2007