Times Staff Writer

Klaus Maria Brandauer admits that "at the moment, life is beautiful."

It's no wonder that Brandauer, Austria's best-known actor, can say that. He just completed a successful run of "Hamlet" on stage in Vienna and recently received a best-supporting-actor nomination and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Karen Blixen's feckless, philandering Swedish husband in "Out of Africa."

When director Sydney Pollack asked him more than a year and a half ago to play Baron Bror von Blixen, Brandauer said, "It wasn't a hard decision to make. It was clear that I should do it. It was very important for me to get involved with another big American film. It would be another further step in the international film business."

A stocky man with Tatar features and an expansive, often mischievous manner, Brandauer, who's at ease in English, talked about the role recently over a late breakfast in his Beverly Hills hotel suite.

For all the eagerness with which he accepted the part, he realized that he'd be playing yet another negative character, a man who gave his wife the syphilis that, in her later life as the celebrated Danish writer Isak Dinesen, infected her spine and caused her unspeakable agony.

In the two films he's made with Hungary's Istvan Szabo, the Oscar-winning "Mephisto" and the Oscar-nominated "Colonel Redl," Brandauer played men who were tragic rather than evil. In "Never Say Never Again," cast opposite Sean Connery's OO7, he was one of the wittiest of the Bond villains.

"First, I thought I can't fly away from these characters with dark sides," said Brandauer. "I thought, what can I do to make this 'baddie' interesting and believable? Then by accident I met the nephew of Bror Blixen, who described him as a wonderful person, a great hunter who had a wonderful relationship with nature--and even with Karen Blixen's lover, Denys Finch-Hatton. His nephew said: 'Please do everything to make him charming, because he was a charming man.' His wish really covered my own wish, so I tried 'to make publicity' for Bror.

"Let's face it, he and Karen made a deal, not a marriage. She had the money, he had the title. They were two people who wanted to leave the deteriorating European world to find a fresh direction in Africa, in Kenya. Yet even when a deal is made in such a relationship, step-by-step respect and even a certain kind of love can develop. I was aware of their progress from friendship to a love affair. Deep in Bror was a boyishness, a childishness and also a spontaneity. He was terribly afraid to get too involved with people. He liked to get more involved with animals and sunsets and sunrises."

To Brandauer, Karen Blixen was "a good-looking woman with a strange relationship with her father, who committed suicide when she was 10. She wanted to make decisions for herself and not be manipulated. I haven't seen the film yet--I'm dying to see it!"

Brandauer laments giving up so much responsibility "to the man who in the movies is God--the director," but was sold by Pollack's own performance as the agent in "Tootsie." "I had the feeling he must be able to understand the problems of actors, and I was right. It's hard to create a sense of family with several hundred people on location, but he did that in Africa. I had the feeling we all knew each other before we started. He directed us very quietly, very softly--with tenderness. I would say, with Sydney you are directed, but you don't have the feeling that you are directed."

Brandauer has nothing but praise for the professionalism of the film's stars, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. "We had a very simple relationship--no complications at all," he said. "I don't think you can make a movie alone; you need others to create a tension, a rapport, and they were wonderful. You have to have a personality, some kind of charisma on the screen that has nothing to do with the part or even the creating of the part. It's a presence, and they both have that."

On Brandauer's schedule is a film of his "Hamlet," another film with Szabo and, most likely, another major American production he's not yet at liberty to discuss. " 'Hamlet' is the play of plays, including even the Greek tragedies," said Brandauer. "It's open for every interpretation, but Shakespeare is always the winner: You cannot fall out of his hands. I started thinking about Hamlet when I was 18, and now I'm 41.

"For me, Hamlet was a decent, innocent, fantastically well-educated man who realized that the moment you made a decision it would be wrong for someone--that no decision can be right for everybody. He was a man who reflected. It would not be useful for society if we were all Hamlets. There would be no progress because no decisions would be made, but people like Hamlet are necessary for the perspective they provide."

Brandauer sees his next film with Szabo, "Hanussen," as the completion of a trilogy, although he admits that when they began with "Mephisto," the story of an actor who sells his soul for fame in Nazi Germany, they didn't have that in mind. "First, I played an opportunist for Istvan, then a loyalist (the pre-World War I Colonel Redl, whose homosexuality allowed him to be exploited as a traitor), and now an individualist.

" 'Hanussen' is the true story of a visionary who had a certain power over people, who thinks he's God, the center of the universe, a man who tries to create the world as he would like it. In Vienna he was a cabaret performer, a singer and a magician. Then he went to Berlin before Hitler came to power and became the center of the artistic life. Every important person in this society believed and respected him. But then he started becoming involved in politics. One day before the Reichstag fire, he predicted it would happen; that was his downfall."

Brandauer, who next will be seen in Jerzy Skolimowski's "Lightship" as a man who gets an opportunity to redeem a past mistake, is passionate about his craft. "Life is sometimes boring, but in acting you have the chance to kiss, to caress the audience," he said. "You must not make one second like another because that could be boring. When I act, I want to do it with blood! Otherwise, why waste the time?"

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World