Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/01/2012

A Story of Serendipity

The Diary of Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank

The actor Joseph Schildkraut is best known for his portrayal of Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank (1). For most Americans, that is likely the only role for which he is known—and, if they are like me, they could not have said his name, only that there is a father in the 1959 movie. Schildkraut was born in 1896 in Vienna, and died in 1964 in New York.

In a strange twist of my re-emergent career as researcher I have on my desk beside me Schildkraut’s autobiography, My Father and I (2). I have started reading the book. It is easy to read, almost story-like. No, very story-like. As the title indicates, it is both biography and autobiography. The father is the great German-American stage and silent film actor, Rudolph Schildkraut. The elder would hardly be known to anyone except the most avid film buff. His most famous role was the High Priest Caiaphas in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic silent film King of Kings, in which his son played Judas. It was the culmination of the work together of father and son. (They each, by the way, died at age 67 of a heart attack.)

In a series of “retrospective” articles from fifty years ago, ETC: A Review of General Semantics of 2000-2001 reprinted a letter headed “Semantics and the Actor” from a Burton Suchoff who praises Joseph Schildkraut’s acting in the film Emile Zola, in which he plays a man who has been imprisoned in a single cell for fifty years. When his character is released from prison

Mr. Schildkraut evidently gave “emotion” the go-by. . . He let himself way down on the abstraction ladder, far below “emotion” . . .  No sobbing, no stage tears or pumped-up “emotions.” Instead . . . we saw him moving with a sense of space-relationship that had been subjected to a distortion . . . This depiction of his exploring freedom, and almost rejecting it, was profoundly moving . . . Actors who work in the way illustrated are not being “coldly intellectual.” On the contrary, they . . . are much more likely to be carried away by what they are doing because they are becoming involved with the fabric of the extensional experience that produces the emotion. (3).

Why I am writing about Schildkraut is not, perhaps, as mysterious as it may seem.  In the space of a few days I’ve developed a fascination with him totally unexpected and most likely totally irrelevant to my life and to any project I’m working on. It’s strange suddenly to want to know about the life and work of a not-so-famous actor who died when I was in college. It may seem that I’m reverting to my college days (see my post of October 30), but these coincidences and connections are simply what happens, I tell my students, when one begins a research project.

As it turns out, the Schildkrauts, elder and younger, were characters in a real-life drama (in addition to the apparently fascinating story of their immigration to the United States from Austria) that bears some investigation—peripherally relevant to one of the most troubling issues of my lifetime, one in which I have been personally involved for many years. Rudolph Schildkraut’s last silent film role in Europe was as Herb Schildt in “The struggling Israel,” a biographical film of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism.

Joseph Schildkraut

Joseph Schildkraut

This would be but an interesting (or not) bit of film trivia (except for those who understand the consequences of Herzl’s work which are to this moment wreaking havoc in world politics) but that both Schildkraut’s  became embroiled inadvertently in controversy over DeMille’s silent screen epic of the Passion of Jesus. With Rudolph cast as Caiaphas, Chief Priest of the Jews who condemned Jesus to death, and Joseph cast as Judas who betrayed Jesus, a central scene is between the two of them plotting the betrayal. The uproar over DeMille’s supposed anti-Semitism was more than a tempest in a teapot. The Anti Defamation League denounced the film as “The Most Dangerous Anti-Semitic Photoplay In Filmdom,” saying the film perpetuated the old idea that the Jews had killed Jesus (4). The ADL gathered support from around the country, and the film became central in a protracted struggle to change the way Jews were depicted in film. The Schildkraut’s were dumfounded by the entire outrage because they were, of course, Jewish and viewed the film simply as a vehicle for them to practice their art.

All of this is an interesting sidelight to many topics. Film, Zionism, acting theory, Cecil B. DeMille, the ADL, portrayal of minorities in American film, etc., etc., etc.. But in what way is it interesting to me? Why have I bothered to investigate either the film or the Schildkraut’s or DeMille.

Every semester at about this time, I have my students read a short introduction to writing the research paper from the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab of Purdue University). It suggests that students

. . . think of the research paper as a living thing, which grows and changes as the student explores, interprets, and evaluates sources related to a specific topic. Primary and secondary sources are the heart of a research paper, and provide its nourishment; without the support of and interaction with these sources, the research paper would morph into a different genre of writing . . . (5).

The information about Joseph Schildkraut (and that found in nine more scholarly journal articles I have not quoted or used) is part of the living thing that is growing and changing as I explore. . .

My favorite librarian, Jerome Sims, was snooping a week or so ago on the internet for—what else?—material relating to the real subject of my research, the American composer, David Diamond. He found listed on EBay a book, the autobiography of Joseph Schildkraut, with an inscription by Schildkraut on the flyleaf. One can most likely assume that the person for whom the book is inscribed owned the book. Schildkraut’s nickname, by the way, was “Pepi.” (Oh, and I bought the book.)

For David Diamond

For David Diamond

(1) The Diary of Anne Frank. George Stevens, Director. Twentieth Century Fox (1959). Starring Millie Perkins, Shelley Winters, Joseph Schildkraut.
(2) Schildkraut, Joseph. My Father and I, as told to Leo Lanin. New York: Viking Press, 1959.
(3) “Fifty Years Ago In ETC.” ETC: A Review Of General Semantics 57.4 (2000): 504.
(4) Herman, Felicia. “‘The Most Dangerous Anti-Semitic Photoplay in Filmdom’: American Jews and The King Of Kings (Demille, 1927).” Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal Of Film & Television 46 (2000): 12.
(5) “Writing a Research Paper.” Purdue OWL. The Writing Lab of Purdue University. 1995-2012. Web. 1 Nov 2012.


%d bloggers like this: