Thursday 13 June 2024

Caught Between Worlds by S. Nadja Zajdman, schnaps

 I first became aware of him during a war crimes trial.  He was capital M masculine; dark, brooding, and intense.  He defended the indefensible.  He seemed to have sprung from the wrong side of history, and he had me from the instant the camera zoomed in on his chiselled features, as if compelled to do so by his command.  I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.  I would keep an eye on him and the other eye out for him to the end of his life, and beyond.   

Born into the sound of music, raised in Heidi-Land and acclaimed in Hollywood, Maximilian Schell returned to the clamour and ferment of Western Europe’s mid-twentieth century cultural life to reinvent himself as a stage and film director and director of operas, and as a pianist professional enough to perform with Leonard Bernstein.  All the while he continued waging the last necessary war over and over again in film, both in the character of Nazis, as well as in the characters of their Jewish victims, as if he felt guilty for having spent the period of the actual war in neutral Switzerland, or as if he couldn’t make up his mind. 

Ultimately Schell lived with, and in the last months of his life, he married a decades-younger opera singer who looked like Heidi.  Schell had returned to his roots, to his mother’s family estate in the Austrian Alps, and there he would die and be buried, like Heidi’s grandfather, in the pastoral splendour of The Alm.   

          The image and influence of Maximilian Schell ran current and counterpoint to my fifteen-minute career as an actress, along with my inheritance of the Holocaust, which I received through my mother.  Because of this heritage and out of deference to my mother’s sensibilities I kept hidden my affinity for Mittel Europa, which may have been an Ernst Lubitsch fantasy even while it existed.  Yet my maternal grandfather studied in Zurich during the First World War and my maternal grandmother studied opera in Vienna, so why should I not feel the pull of an alternate world I might’ve been born into, if that world hadn’t rejected my grandparents?  Why did I consider such an attraction aberrant?

          I had an extended and intricate—albeit one sided—relationship with Maximilian Schell.  I followed his first directorial efforts in little cinema venues, where they would run for a week.  My mother was amused by my fascination with “that aging German,” yet indulgent.  She even accompanied me to the screenings, letting her guard down, and confessing, “Kid, ya got good taste.”

          Still, my mother withheld full approval. In the years before we both matured, in my mother’s mind, any German of her generation was suspect until proven innocent.  Paradoxically Schell’s older sister Maria, a shooting star of the 1950s, enchanted Mum.  Though her younger brother’s career would soon leave Maria’s in the dust, the lovely Teutonic maiden who smiled winsomely through tears was firmly entrenched in my mother’s melancholy heart. 

          The other part Schell was born to play was the schizophrenic, or self-destructive character of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who takes on the identity of a Nazi war criminal so that Israeli hunters will find him, try him, and supposedly execute him—or was the character really the said Nazi hiding in the open as a Jewish Holocaust survivor?  Originally a stage play, The Man in the Glass Booth, patterned on Eichmann and his trial, was so controversial that in Montreal, when a production was scheduled at The Saidye Bronfman Center Theatre (known today as The Segal Center Theatre), thugs from the Jewish Defence League planted portions of the script, out of context, in the mailboxes of Jewish homes, and threatened to bomb the theatre if it went forward with its plans.  The theatre’s artistic director, a French Jew born to Polish parents and, like my mother, a survivor of wartime Warsaw, had dropped his last name and used the French version of his middle name.  Thus, in the local theatre milieu, he was known by the stage name of Marion Andre.  This time under threat of physical violence from Jews, Marion Andre resigned in disgust and left for the brighter lights and keener minds of Toronto.

Several years later the American Film Theatre Institute, as part of its mandate to film and preserve great plays with great actors, produced a filmed version of The Man in the Glass Booth.  Who to cast in the lead role was a no-brainer.  Everything Schell had done and stood for led to this moment and this part.  In movie palaces across North America, audiences flocked to see the mind-bending Man in the Glass Booth.

          In Montreal, at the now-defunct Van Horne Theatre, the film was presented as a special event.   As in live theatre, printed programs were prepared.  The audience for this one-night-only screening consisted of the same people who, several years earlier, were provoked into raising a stink putrid enough to shut down a theatrical production and drive its director out of the province.  There seemed to be collective amnesia surrounding the hysteria of several years past. 

On this breezy spring evening Our Crowd came out to socialize, to hail the play, to laud the performance of the international star Schell, and to ask themselves, and each other, “Is he Jewish?”  Some were questioning the identity of the character Schell played.  Some were questioning Schell’s credentials.

In those days, long before the advent of the Internet, there was no way of prying into the private life of a public person unless he was popular enough to be of interest to movie magazines, or notorious enough to be of interest to the tabloids.  In North America, Schell was neither, so there was a blackout on information that might reveal the private man.  In the theatre-style program that was provided for the filmed event, I picked up the first clues to Schell’s origins, and his sympathies.  “Born in Vienna, 1930…in 1938 he moved to Switzerland…”  Since Schell was eight years old at the time of this “move,” one assumed that his parents moved with him.

          “See Ma!”  I exulted, pointing to the biography in the program.  “He isn’t German, he’s SWISS German!”  My sceptical mother perused the program.  The nuances embedded in the truncated biography were even more obvious to her than they were to me.

          “Alright.”  My mother allowed herself a smile.  “He’s kosher.”

          What a relief.  I plopped in my seat.  Now that Mama had accepted him, the path was clear.  Maximilian could marry me when I grew up--or when I came of age, at least.   


When I was thirty, I dreamt a riotous dream.  I was in a brilliantly lit ballroom.  I was elegantly gowned.  I was standing next to an equally elegant, tuxedoed Maximilian Schell but I was the center of attention, because I was his bride-to-be. 

          The greats of the German-speaking film and theatre world were in attendance, both the living and the dead, along with a couple of outsiders.  There was a monocled Fritz Lang, who puffed smoke from a gold-tipped cigarette inserted in a long-stemmed holder, into the pixie-like visage of a sour-looking Peter Lorre.   There was a shimmering Marlena Dietrich, who had no eyebrows, but was sporting a top hat, white tie and tails.  There was a scruffy Bertholt Brecht, who had refused to don a tie, but was welcomed anyway.  After a cursory greeting, Brecht makes a beeline for the heavily laden buffet, and stuffs bread rolls into his over-sized pockets.  Dietrich sidles up to Hedy Lamarr, while Anton Walbrook drools discreetly over my Max whom, I realize with a start, I will have to, forever after, call Max, because Maximilian takes too long to say. 

           At the far end of the ballroom, on a love seat, lounges a bearded Sigmund Freud.  The doctor of the subconscious smiles knowingly at Schell while, in an opposite corner of the vast reception hall, Freud’s protégé and rival Carl Jung smiles knowingly at me.

Above it all, an ebullient Ernst Lubitsch swings on a blazing crystal chandelier.  He has taken it upon himself to stage this phantasmagoria.  All the while I wonder; if we are in the German-speaking world, why is everyone addressing me, and each other, in English? 

Liebchen,” explains my Max.  “We’re in your dream.  You have to be able to understand it.”

Surreptitiously, like a conscience, through a hidden entrance Theodore Bikel sneaks into the hall.  He is wearing a white shirt open at the collar, casual slacks, and sandals.  He has a guitar strapped to his back.  The teddy-bear-like Bikel shifts his guitar to the front of his burly torso and, standing next to a set of French windows, presses his back against the wall.  Positioning his guitar, he strums and hums, “I kiss your hand, Madam, wishing it were more…”  Bikel lifts his guitar pick, glares at me, and abruptly stops.  “Don’t do it.”  Bikel’s glance shoots darts at me.  Maidele, please don’t do it.”

From his perch atop the chandelier, Lubitsch spies Bikel and tries to shoo him out of the picture and out of my dream.  At that moment Conrad Veidt and his last and Jewish spouse stroll arm-in-arm into my vision and viewpoint.

 “It can work, liebchen,” Veidt encourages me, and dismisses Bikel.  “Look at us.”  He beams beatifically at his beloved Lily.  “It can work.”

          I say nothing, but think to myself, “Your marriage worked because you gave the finger to Goebbels and fled to England in ’33.  Then you gave away your life savings to support the British war effort, and crossed the ocean to Hollywood only to end up playing Nazis.  Your marriage worked because you lived Here, and not There.”  Except that I am now disoriented, and can no longer distinguish between Here and There.  In the literal world, I am alone and asleep in my bed in Montreal.  In my dream, I am in a ballroom in Munich because, in the 1980s, Munich has become the center of the German-speaking film world.  Max must be here for his work. 

          I avert my eyes from Veidt and raise them towards Max.

           “We won’t be living here all the time.  We can live some of the time in Switzerland.  You promised.”  Though I am over the moon to have bagged Max, I feel guilty about the prospect of living on the continent that hounded my mother out of it.

          I receive no clear answer from my dream-state inamorata.  Instead, I wake up. 


A few weeks after experiencing this dream, my mother called, gleefully needling me.

           “I’ve got news for you!”  Mum trumpeted, and she didn’t break it gently. “I read in the newspaper that Maximilian Schell just got married to a Russian actress twenty-five years younger than he is!  Too bad, sweetheart!  Hee hee!”  This marriage was the actress’ second marriage.  Surprisingly, or maybe not, at the age of fifty-five, it was Schell’s first.

          “Oh leave me alone!”  I moaned into the receiver.  I was stung by the loss of my fantasy.  I was also flabbergasted at learning that, on the other side of the world, an exact contemporary had realized my dream.


It would not be until fourteen months after Schell’s sudden death that I stumbled onto news of it.   I was at the bottom of a well of bereavement.  I had recently lost my mother.

          Certainly I didn’t grieve for Maximilian the way I grieved for my mother, but the news of his death was the first piece of news to pierce the placenta of anguish that separated me from the living world.  If my mother had outlived him, we would’ve commiserated over his passing.  If Mum had heard about it first then, this piece of news, she would’ve broken to me gently.     

          On my own, almost obsessively, I entered into the virtual world of the Internet.  I discovered the details of Schell’s back-story, and was able to follow the events that unfolded in the aftermath of his death.  His funeral appeared to be a state funeral.  His Russian ex-wife did not attend, though Schell’s stepson, the offspring of her first marriage, delivered the eulogy. 

          The sombre funeral procession through a pristine Alpine village might’ve been staged by Schell.   It was the dead of winter.  The fresh snow was piled high.  The bleakness of the landscape and the mourners’ black attire were juxtaposed in stark contrast to a whited-out world. 

            Then came the aftermath.  Astonishingly, a man in his eighties, with a very young wife and an even younger daughter, left no legal testament.

Surfing the net, I weaved in and out of the distant past and recent past, watching Schell, at the height of his power and beauty, receive his one and only Oscar from the hands of a middle-aged Joan Crawford; watching Schell, in old age, in his Alpine retreat, flip sadly through a family album, revisiting his dead parents and his sisters. 

          I delved into Schell’s romantic history, which proved densely populated.  His taste in women remained consistent.  No matter how old he got, Schell preferred his partners to be around the age of thirty.  No matter how old he got the women Schell preferred, responded. 

          Schell’s marriage to the Russian actress did not last, but it produced a daughter who was born when he was close to sixty.  His last love was an opera singer who is German, whose birthday is one day away from Hitler’s birthday, whose name isn’t Heidi, yet I came to think of her that way. 

          The couple kept an apartment in Vienna, and retreated regularly to the family estate on The Alm.  The magical technology of this century allowed me to visit Maximilian on his private alpine meadow.  I entered the upscale, well-equipped, and immaculate living area that was referred to, ingenuously, as a “hut.”  At the far end I could glimpse the kitchen where Schell cooked potato dishes and prepared his favourite repast, which was wiener schnitzel, no less, serving dinner to the young woman who drove up the perilous mountain pass to be with him, after a period of stage work in Vienna.  Like a good director, Schell left her notes. 

Schell had slowed; he had mellowed.   He achieved more than most artists can hope to accomplish in a lifetime, and now he mentored the young woman he had drawn in and made part of what was left of his life.

A baby grand piano served as the living room’s centrepiece.  In clement weather the windows were open so that when “Heidi” played, the sound of music mingled with the sounds of nature.  It was the sound of music that brought “Heidi” and the elderly Schell together.

Having inherited, or claimed, the Alpine retreat, after Schell’s death “Heidi” still kept its windows open and still played its piano while breezes lifted and carried the sound of music to the nearby family burial plot. 

As I continued to research, my fascination with Schell shifted to his young widow.  She must have had more than prettiness and youth to hold such a man.  I intrude upon her virtual person.  “Heidi” had a burgeoning career, when she first met Schell.  Now, on her own, she continues to work.  Financially, she needs to work.  Emotionally, she needs to work even more. 

  During the course of their unconventional relationship, which most people considered an inappropriate one, it was “Heidi” who bore the brunt of the public’s scurrilous curiosity. 

“Has being the girlfriend (sic) of the great Maximilian Schell opened doors for you?” A female interviewer snidely inquires.

          “It has opened some doors.”  Heidi admits.  “It has also closed others.”  Ah.  I begin to admire this by-no-means dumb blonde.  

          Schell’s widow was widely criticized for auctioning off his art collection.  She was pilloried for selling a portrait of Maria Schell.  Rightfully so.  Hadn’t my mother stripped her walls when I first moved into my present apartment in order to live in close proximity to her, installing the portraits of the ancestors onto my walls?  I promised I would keep the ancestors safe, and I do.  How dare this rotznase part with the portrait of the mythic Maria!  I grew impatient when I read this.   As far as I was concerned, Maria Schell should’ve been kept in the family.

 I lost patience with the dead Maximilian, too.   Why didn’t you make a will, I berate him, in my mind, as if he could hear me, as if my opinion mattered.  You old fool.  I hear my mother chastise.  Did you think you were going to live forever?  You should’ve known better than to leave a mess!

Periodically I would check in on Heidi to see how she was coping.  She told interviewers who monitored her progress, and as time went on, there were less of them, that she was crying less.  Heidi began to spend less time in retreat on The Alm.

Within three years of Schell’s death, his widow gave birth to a daughter who was sired by a young relative of Schell’s.  She will always be tied to the Schell family now.  She will never be alone again, 


My mother and Maximilian Schell were born two years apart and died two months apart.   In the decade since they’ve been gone, I’ve come to realize that the Aryan actor with the weltschmerz and the war orphan who transcended her war were flip sides of the same coin that came together in me. 


About the author

S. Nadja Zajdman in a Canadian author. In 2022 she published the story collection The Memory Keeper (Bridgehouse Publishing, Manchester), as well as the memoir I Want You To Be Free (Hobart Books, Oxford). In 2023 Zajdman published a second memoir, Daddy's Remains (MacKenzie Publishing, Canada) 

Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)

No comments:

Post a Comment