Times Staff Writer

A young man at a German apolitical rally pulls a gun from beneath his olive drab poncho, raises it toward the liberal party candidate and fires twice. Within seconds he is subdued and charged with attempted assassination.

So begins "Morgen in Alabama," winner of the 1984 German Federal Award and the film that in one sense marks the return to German cinema of Maximilian Schell as an actor/star. For the first time in 25 years, Schell is appearing in a German film that he did not also produce or direct.

That the defense lawyer played by Schell should dog the would-be assassin's trail back to a present-day right-wing party is a twist that has caused a stir in Germany, where the existence of such verboten groups hasn't been addressed in the popular cinema.

The film was deemed worthy of being the German entry for nomination as best foreign film in this year's Academy Awards. To help it along, its star journeyed all the way from location shooting on the NBC miniseries "Peter the Great" in Suzdal in the Soviet Union to the Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip.

"This is the first film in Germany made by a German director (Norbert Kuckelmann) that deals with the new fascist movements," Schell said, between puffs on a European cigarette.

"It's not as clear as the left wing. The left wing commits criminal acts. They rob a bank, they throw a bomb and so forth. The right-wing groups are much more difficult, because their ideals are somehow much more similar to the ideals of the government.

"They say, 'We have to keep together, we have to communicate,' so their slogans could somehow almost be Reagan's slogans."

The film, which will open Friday at the Cineplex under the English title "Man Under Suspicion," stops short of drawing any clear conclusions about Germany's new right-wing groups. "That is the poetic quality of the film," Schell said, "that it shows a situation where you really cannot put the finger on it."

So it is, he noted, with the right wing of every country. "That's why it could happen tomorrow in Russia, tomorrow in Alabama. That is something important to come from Germany, that they don't want it to happen again."

Equally significant is that film maker Kuckelmann, a lawyer himself, used government money to make the film, Schell said, and got the highest national award for best picture.

Unlike in the United States, the German equivalent of the Oscar has little impact on film-going habits. Schell said that "Morgen in Alabama" "was not a great hit" when released last year.

But the prospect of an Oscar is a different story.

"The Oscar has an integrity," Schell said. "And because it's so well done and so widely publicized, people trust it. So this film, if it should win as Best Foreign Language film, it would be a tremendous hit in Germany."

Hopes for an Oscar nod--even a nomination--prompted distributors of another current Schell film to hold back its U.S. release until nominations are announced Feb. 6. "Marlene," the quasi-documentary on Marlene Dietrich that Schell directed and in which he appears, is doing well in Germany, where it earned the national award for best documentary.

"It's not really a documentary," he said in slow, thickly accented speech. Dietrich had the idea for the project and sat for days of tape-recorded interviews with Schell--but then refused to be photographed. "I had 16 hours of tape and a black screen, and then I had to invent a story. You see the crew at work, you see me doing the research, then you see excerpts from her films, then you hear her tape, then you see her in the film. It's a story of her, and at the same time it's the story of a legend."

"Marlene" has been submitted for nomination in the Academy Awards' documentary category.

Schell's longish hair and gray-tinged mustache--in contrast with his clean-cut visage in "Morgen in Alabama"--are held over from his portrayal of "Peter the Great," a role that should bring his face before millions more viewers than either of his current German films.

Once again, Schell seemed unable to shake off the political significance of his role.

"This is the first time that Russia allowed an American production to be filmed in Russia. The government has no script approval. To make a picture about Peter the Great, who is their hero . . . can you imagine that Americans would allow a Russian company to do a picture about George Washington? I think it's a great political step.

"That's why I think that the cultural people, the artists, are the real ambassadors. The image of America is not made by the government in Russia; it's Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando--that's the image of America. We have two discotheques in Suzdal, where we shoot, and it's all American music. The government couldn't forbid it because they're helpless; the people love the music."

Schell will return to the Soviet Union in March for shooting in Leningrad, home of early 18th-Century Czar Peter I. There are three more months of shooting scheduled in Russia. The miniseries tentatively will air early in 1986.

Known for his performances in such films as "Judgment at Nuremberg" (for which he won an Academy Award), "Topkapi," "Julia" and "The Chosen," Schell won't even have time to start another American project before "Peter's" air date. After shooting on the miniseries, he said, "I will go directly to Berlin to direct a modern opera; then back to the Salzburg Festival, where I have been the last five years playing 'Everyman'; then I will do the new film with (novelist and screenwriter Friedrich) Durrenmatt; then I will direct 'Don Giovanni' next year at the Munich Opera; then I will go back to Berlin to the theater."

That list of activities also suggests why Schell, a peripatetic bachelor at 54, never made a permanent move to the film-making capital that sprawls below the balcony of his Chateau Marmont suite.

"I'd love to be here and to work here, but it has to be something more decent than 'The Black Hole' (Disney Studio's 1979 science-fiction attempt, in which he appeared). I turned down a lot of bad roles, and I turned down a few good ones, because as you can see, I'm booked out until '86."

Schell said that his first choice "more and more is directing"--he's directed five German films in the last 11 years, each of which earned the German Federal award.

"The big difference--for actors--from earlier times is that they wrote for Humphrey Bogart, for Marlene Dietrich, for Gary Cooper. The studio put on a writer and said, 'This is Max Schell, let's do a film for him, modeled to his personality.' Today, everybody's struggling for himself, even Dustin Hoffman."

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