Sprechen Sie Oscar? Austria's Klaus Maria Brandauer Comes Out of the Cold with Out of Africa

updated 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

For years all of Europe has known Klaus Maria Brandauer as Austria's most versatile stage actor. He has enthralled critics and audiences at the prestigious state-run Burgtheater in Vienna with powerful interpretations of Don Carlos, Tartuffe and Hamlet. Now Brandauer is contemplating a soliloquy that few, until recently, would have scripted for him: an acceptance speech at the Oscars on March 24.

Brandauer, 41, has just made a remarkable transition to the American screen with his complex and subtle supporting performance in Out of Africa as Baron Bror Blixen, the Swedish aristocrat who marries Meryl Streep's Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen). He is the early favorite to win the Best Supporting Actor's Oscar for it, but don't expect to see him waging one of those shameless campaigns for votes. Since Out of Africa, it has been back to the Burg, where Brandauer is in the middle of a trimphant run as Hamlet. He is "pleased" by the nomination, but unusually terse about its impact on his career. To win or not to win? "Let's not get into that."

It was Brandauer's electrifying and emotionally withering performance in Mephisto that got Hollywood to notice him. The Hungarian-German co-production won Best Foreign Film in 1982 and he won Best Actor in Cannes. Brandauer played an intellectual, left-wing actor who sells out to become director of the Nazi state theater. Ironically, when Hollywood tried to cash in on his "overnight" fame in Mephisto, he resisted offers to play "S.S. generals, Bolshevik heavies and Nazi gangsters. The money made it difficult to say no, but I didn't want to get typecast." He almost refused the part of 007's nemesis in Never Say Never Again. "I saw it as crazy, just rubbish. In New York and Hollywood, they have no interest in my Vienna career." He acquiesced because it was "fantasy entertainment. My only condition was that I not have one eye or a gold tooth or play a hunchback. I just wanted to be natural."

Though his Bror did give Streep's Blixen/Dinesen syphilis and more insidious forms of distress, he turned the "villain" of Africa into far more than a central casting caricature. "I tried to make Bror ambiguous and believable, to show the respect and love that developed between him and Karen." On the set he lived the part of the colonial he played: chauffeur-driven Peugot, chocolates from Vienna and pasta from Italy. He escaped the set no fewer than 16 times to return to his lifelong home in Altaussee, Austria (pop. 1,800) and Karin, his wife of 23 years.

His road to such perquisites was hard. Klaus's father, Georg Stenj, was a German artillery sergeant. His mother, Maria Brandauer, was an Altaussee girl. When Klaus was born, his father was at the Russian front. Not long thereafter, he was captured, and languished until 1949 in a POW camp. Finally, when Klaus was 5, he recalls, "The door opened, and there stood this very thin man who said, 'I am your father.' " Eventually his father moved the family to West Germany, but young Klaus frequently visited his mother's family in Altaussee.

It was on one such visit that he caught the attention of young Karin Mueller with a stunt she still recalls. "I was sitting by the lake with some friends," says Karin, a successful television director and scriptwriter, "and there was this crazy-funny kid on a sailboat playing the trumpet." They became lovers two years later and Karin soon had an "accidental" pregnancy. Son Christian, now a music student in Chicago, was born four months after their Roman Catholic wedding in 1963. Meanwhile, Klaus, who never considered any career other than acting, had dropped out of university studies in Stuttgart to make the most of his first career break—winning a spot in a repertory company in Tübingen. In time he distinguished himself as both director and actor in a range of Shakespearean roles and German classical theater.

Brandauer receives a monthly paycheck from the state theater and shares with Karin a two-bedroom apartment in Vienna. The two speak by phone every day if they are separated by their jobs. They survived an often stressful collaboration—Karin as writer-director, Klaus as narrator—on a nine-part TV documentary on theater. "It's not easy," says Karin, 40, "to change his mind. But I love working with him. It helps when you both have the chance to realize your ambitions and be tolerant." Adds Brandauer, "There have been so many surprises and troubles and fights and we have survived them all." Their five-bedroom hillside home in Altaussee is 200 miles from Vienna—just a two-hour drive as Brandauer does it in his prized black '84 Mercedes 500. Once there, beyond catching up with movies on the VCR, Ping-Pong, antique hunts and skiing (rowing in summer), he prefers doing "nothing"—throwing a log on the fire is work.

It is the antidote of choice for a man who is by constitution mentally and physically taut—and one who gives everything he has onstage. In the craft of acting, he says, "You combine everything—the brain, the logic, heart, soul and chemistry of character." Oscar and the lure of Hollywood have a challenge in store for every weapon in that arsenal, but Brandauer seems more than equal to the test.

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