Arts: Heart of darkness

Klaus Maria Brandauer is in London to play the architect Albert Speer. And it's not the actor's first brush with the Nazi era. What's the attraction?
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He was a man of enormous talent but I cannot tell you what the talent was." That's Klaus Maria Brandauer on Albert Speer, the much-hated Nazi whom he is about to play at the Almeida Theatre. Brandauer's own talent is enormous, yet equally difficult to pin down. He gravitates naturally towards characters in extremis, people on the brink of murder, execution or suicide. His performances are underpinned by a clear intelligence, but there's also an indefinable, elusive quality that he describes vaguely as "vision".

Speer marks Brandauer's English-language stage debut. Set in East Berlin in 1980, this compelling slice of faction by the Argentine-born writer Esther Vilar presents Hitler's organisational mastermind at the age of 75. He has been brought back to Berlin's Academy of Arts where, from 1938 to 1941, he and the Fuhrer planned their monumental capital city, Germania. A fictional Stasi official, Hans Bauer, grills Speer about his role in the war and the Holocaust, then offers him a chance to return to the political big time.

In the play's remarkable premiere, held in January last year in the Berlin Academy hall used by Speer and Hitler, Brandauer played Bauer. That role now goes to Sven Eric Bechtols, and Brandauer, who also directs, has "the challenge of seeing this subject from the other side".

He has read several biographies alongside Vilar's version of the man, but the research has left him completely in doubt. "Speer was one of the men responsible for that murderous system," he says, after a 10-hour rehearsal, "yet I have listened to hours of taped interviews he gave in the late Sixties and his voice sounds so sympathetic - very simple and open." He would love to have met Speer, to judge for himself whether the man who consistently denied prior knowledge of the Final Solution "was really a genius or a liar".

Millions more people know Brandauer as Sean Connery's megalomaniac foe in Never Say Never Again, or Meryl Streep's brutish husband in Out of Africa, than will ever see Speer. But for him to be playing a figure from the Third Reich seems utterly appropriate if you find it difficult to picture him in character unless it is to a background "colour" that includes swastikas and Aryan thugs.

In Mephisto, the Oscar-winning drama that first brought his restless, magnetic presence to an international audience, he shone as an actor who abandons his anti-Fascist principles to further his stage ambitions in Hitler's Germany. His title role in Hanussen was as a clairvoyant Austrian soldier murdered by Brownshirts when his predictions are no longer of use to the Nazi propaganda machine. For his directing debut, Seven Minutes, he cast himself as Georg Elser, the itinerant craftsman who narrowly failed to assassinate Hitler in 1939. For Kindergarten, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a close friend, persuaded him to play a Second World War German army officer. There can be no other actor so closely associated with that dark phase of history.

On Mephisto, Hanussen, and Colonel Redl (as the bisexual Jew who became a turn-of-the-century intelligence chief), he collaborated with the Budapest- born director Istvan Szabo. During the Eighties they were cinema's two- man Austro-Hungarian empire, producing historical drama at its finest: brisk and unsettling. One of their goals, says Brandauer, was to demonstrate "how it is impossible for an individual to live in society without compromise". Where better to illustrate that argument than a Germany where, if you did not want to toe the party line, you fled, dissembled or died.

Hanussen and Seven Minutes placed Brandauer's character in almost unwatchable scenes. Hanussen is blindfolded and made to crow like a cockerel before he is murdered; thugs beat Georg Elser to the ground and urinate over his face when he fails to return their "Heil Hitler!". "I hope I won't be misunderstood," he says, "but to deal with such extreme situations as an actor is fantastic."

Brandauer was born too late to have had to stand against Hitler, a fortnight after D-Day, in Altaussee, an Alpine village near Salzburg: "1,800 inhabitants, 500 cows, 2,000 chickens, eight months of snow". Scene one of a Brandauer biopic would show a van containing a mobile cinema pulling into Altaussee for its monthly visit. The 13-year-old Klaus used to slip into the back room at the inn where the films were shown (he breaks into a rousing chorus of Altaussee men ordering beer and sausages to re-create the background), to watch Bardot and other images that "were not really permitted" for the village's children. "I'm not sure if the mobile cinema was the reason I first decided to become an actor," he says, "but it was quite something."

"I did not suffer because of the war. But my grandfather had been imprisoned for being a social democrat and my father had fought as an Obergefreite [lance-corporal]. I remember listening to them talking about their experiences in the war and so, luckily, I realised very young what could happen to individuals during conflict." At 18, he married an Altaussee girl, Karin Muller, who became one of Austria's most respected television directors. She died of cancer in 1992, aged 47, and he has not remarried. Their composer son Christian, now 36, scored a number of his mother's films, and his father's second feature as a director, Mario and the Magician (yet another tale of individuals caught up in the rise of Fascism, this time in Twenties Italy).

In the Seventies, performances in Moliere, Shakespeare and Goethe established Brandauer as Austria's finest stage actor, yet he was largely unknown beyond what he calls "this very small country which, because it uses the German language, is a little bit swallowed up by Germany".

That all changed with Mephisto. Szabo collected the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and Brandauer won Best Actor at Cannes, which gave him the chance to chew scenery as Maximilian Largo in Connery's 1983 return to Bond, Never Say Never Again. "It was paradise! The aim is just to entertain people. For two hours you make them very happy. It's very unjust that you have a much better quality of life if you do films like that, rather than Colonel Redl. But I'm very grateful, because in the shadow of Connery I got a little attention and so maybe more people went to my and Istvan's films."

After directing the Bond, Irvin Kershner said: "Klaus is an intellectual and you don't find that very often with actors." Brandauer, however, rejects this label, suggesting that a few after-hours conversations about Russian literature and Hieronymus Bosch must have given "Kersh" an exaggerated impression of his intellect.

In the mid-Eighties, had it not been for the simultaneous rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brandauer would have become Austria's most famous screen export. His performance in Out of Africa brought him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (he lost out to Don Ameche's rejuvenated seventy- something in Cocoon), and his brief appearance as a dissident was the best thing in The Russia House. His muscular voice is a significant part of his armoury, but he would have been a star in the silent era. The only contemporary actor who can match him for neurotic intensity is Christopher Walken, who, coincidentally, has been cast as a Bond villain and, in The Dead Zone, a clairvoyant.

Brandauer's English does not, you suspect, allow him to answer questions as fluently as he might like, but the sometimes faltering delivery cannot dilute the charm. When he talks about a satisfying role, he smiles like a fox with the keys to the chicken coop. You can imagine him inspiring his students at Vienna's Max Reinhardt Seminar, where he leads intensive two-week drama workshops. "I take the teaching very seriously," he says, "and it makes me very happy, because this way I can keep myself young." What if a student wants to act like Brandauer? "For a moment I'm a little happy, but I make it clear that this is impossible. He can only watch me, take that as an example, and then find the one way for him to express himself."

He will be back in Vienna in the autumn, playing Cyrano de Bergerac, by which time we may have seen him speaking French in a recently completed Rembrandt biopic. Brandauer as Cyrano? Perfect casting: a hero bursting with energy, doomed not to get the girl. Brandauer as Rembrandt is less obvious: he's too charismatic to seem old, but he's definitely a master.

`Speer' is at the Almeida Theatre, London N1 (0171-359 4404), from Thursday until 27 March