Silent Stars in the Twilight Zone: Joseph Schildkraut

Welcome to a new variation of After the Silents, in which I examine the careers of silent movie personnel in the sound era. For this outing, I’m going to be periodically sharing my reviews of Twilight Zone episodes that feature veterans of the silent era. Today’s guest of honor is a personal favorite of mine: Joseph Schildkraut.

Schildkraut was a stage star in German, Yiddish and English and is probably best known to silent film fans as the leading man of Orphans of the Storm, where he rocked a powdered wig and caused many a heart to go pit-a-pat.

Schildkraut made two appearances on The Twilight Zone, both in season three and both written by series creator Rod Serling. The first, Deaths-Head Revisited, is a dark Holocaust revenge tale. The second, The Trade-Ins, is a more sentimental tale of an older couple grappling with mortality and androids.

There’s not much to say about this second episode except that it’s a sturdy science fiction concept and Schildkraut overcomes some dodgy old age makeup to deliver a perceptive performance as an elderly man trying desperately to purchase new artificial bodies for himself and his wife. This is a solid episode, acted well and written well. No surprises but Schildkraut’s sweet character pulls it through. Also notable are Alma Platt as Schildkraut’s wife and Theodore Marcuse (Korob in Catspaw, Star Trek’s only Halloween episode) as a gambler with a heart.

(When this episode is written about, the most common anecdote is that Joseph Schildkraut’s real life wife passed away while this episode was being filmed and he channeled his grief into the performance.)

Deaths-Head Revisited in the bleaker and more interesting of the two episodes and, barely a decade and a half removed from the war, the wounds would have been quite fresh for audiences of 1961.

Oscar Beregi, Jr. plays Captain Gunther Lutze of the SS. Lutze has returned to Dachau under an assumed name for the purpose of wallowing in nostalgia, happy memories of a time when he controlled the lives and deaths of hundreds, thousands of prisoners. The camp has been abandoned but Lutze’s memories are strong and he is enjoying himself when he realizes that he is not alone.

Alfred Becker (Joseph Schildkraut) is still there, still wearing his prisoner’s stripes. He reminds Lutze of the pain he inflicted and declares that he will pass sentence on him for his crimes. Of course, there is a twist and most of you will probably see it coming but the actors sell it.

The most chilling thing about the episode is Schildkraut’s calm, collected rage. He has endured the worst savagery imaginable and his capacity for emotion has been sapped. The ruthless, logical, methodical way he recounts Lutze’s crimes is mesmerizing. Schildkraut was, of course, coming from a very personal place but there is also immense skill in the performance. To unleash such power and yet maintain complete control is no easy task and it is a marvel to behold. Beregi, whose father was a silent film star, matches Schildkraut’s performance with a more blustery technique that works to put across the arrogance and brutality of Lutze.

This episode contains no graphic violence, all the horror is in dialogue atmosphere and the ghosts and relics of torture. Its restraint is its power as our minds summon up images far more terrifying than what could ever be shown. Truth be told, this episode gave me nightmares. (I have a fairly strong stomach for the macabre but genocide is something I can’t handle; I haven’t actually seen that many classic films about the Holocaust because of this.)

With the exception of a few incidental characters at the opening and closing of this episode, it is essentially a two-man show and the perfect casting ensures its success. Beregi’s descent into madness and Schildkraut’s calls for justice create a cacophonous finale that is deeply satisfying. In the 1960s, Nazis were still being hunted down and charged with their crimes but there were some whom evaded detection and arrest into the new millennia.

This episode is generally acclaimed but it is occasionally labeled as simplistic in its portrayal of Lutze. You know what? I’m pretty good with that. Of all the movie tasks in the world, I’d say empathizing with an SS captain is not exactly a priority. The Twilight Zone was a half-hour television show taking on the Holocaust and Serling quite rightly focused on the character of Becker.

This is a haunting, unflinching episode, exactly what fans of The Twilight Zone expect from this groundbreaking show.

Availability: The Twilight Zone series has been released on DVD.

Joseph Schildkraut

Joseph Schildkraut’s father, Rudolph, was one of the top stars of the German and Yiddish stage but both father and son experienced their share of antisemitism. In his younger days, Rudolph accepted the lead part in a Passion play and then had to run for his life when an angry audience realized that the man playing Jesus was Jewish. (Nobody ever accused racists of being bright.) Joseph had racial slurs thrown in his direction when he worked on Orphans of the Storm and some of the crew, feeling that this newcomer was upstaging Lillian Gish, threatened to arrange an on-set “accident” for him. (Violent racism on a D.W. Griffith set? Shocking, I know.)

Schildkraut and Gish in “Orphans of the Storm”

After Orphans, Schildkraut found himself in demand as a sex symbol. He tried unsuccessfully to work with Norma Talmadge (oil and water) and then returned to the stage before signing on with Cecil B. DeMille’s new studio, which was hungry for stars. Schildkraut locked horns with co-star Jetta Goudal during the production of The Road to Yesterday (join the club) and didn’t think much of the other programmers DeMille cast him in. I respectfully disagree as Young April is charming.

(By the way, I have a LOT to say about DeMille casting Schildkraut as Judas Iscariot in King of Kings but I’m keeping my powder dry for my eventual review.)

Schildkraut with William Boyd in “The Road to Yesterday”

With the coming of sound, Schildkraut did a stint at Universal, bopped around various smaller studios and finally landed at MGM. He spent much of the studio era playing silky villains, though he also could head in more sensitive directions, as his Oscar-winning portrayal of Alfred Dreyfus proves. Schildkraut played Otto Frank on stage and screen and The Diary of Ann Frank was released just two years before Deaths-Head Revisited.

Joseph and Rudolph Schildkraut in “Young April”

The Twilight Zone was a little bonbon of science fiction, fantasy or horror delivered weekly. Sometimes, these episodes contained special treats: skillful performances from experienced actors. Schildkraut was two for two in the show and the pair of episodes beautifully showcase the versatility that had served him so well throughout his long career.

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8 Replies to “Silent Stars in the Twilight Zone: Joseph Schildkraut”

  1. Let us not forget his charming/smarmy “villain” in “The Shop Around the Corner” (parentheses because he wasn’t evil, just a nogoodnik). He truly was a wonderful performer !

  2. Joseph Schildkraut’s My Father and I has a revered place on our film/theatre book shelves in the bio section. Thanks so much for doing these TZ reviews, and may I add that your take on Deaths-Head Revisited is just about the best I’ve read (big fan of TZ, so have read quite a few).

    Rod Serling’s spot on casting choices, his fine scripts, his evocative writing: more timely now than ever.

  3. I remember him from the Twilight Zone-esque, adaptatation of Poe’s “The Tell- Tale Heart”, made as a 20 minute film in 1941.

  4. It’s interesting to note Schildkraut’s career span with Jewish characters from the negative to the positive. To go from Judas Iscariot to Alfred Dreyfuss (nevertheless in a film where the word ‘Jew’ was not mentioned) to Otto Frank to a concentration camp victim (separately from Frank, who was also a survivor), and then his final role as Nicodemus in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, decrying Caiaphis’ Kangaroo court.

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