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Obituary: Bernhard Minetti

"THEATRE HAS become more difficult." In a recent interview, the 93-year-old German actor Bernhard Minetti said that not age but the increasing distraction of other media, the refined vocabulary of the acting profession and the demands made by writers such as Harold Pinter and Thomas Bernhard had made his profession more challenging.

The controversial director Claus Peyman called him "the King of Theatre". Bernhard Minetti was the last of a pre-war generation of giants of the German stage, a generation which included names such as Gustav Grundgens and Werner Krauss. Thomas Bernhard wrote a play for him, a portrait of the artist as an old man, which bears his name.

In this piece, Minetti portrayed what he had for so long been himself: the actor-at-large, a great personality illuminating with his magnificent presence not, in the main, the theatres of Hamburg, Berlin, or Munich, but Kiel, Bochum and Cologne, and smaller provincial towns. Bernhard's Minetti is sitting in state, moored in a hotel lounge in Ostend. The winter weather prevents him from getting away; here he rails majestically against outrageous fortune.

Minetti's co-operation with Peyman and Bernhard, his seminal Faust, Hamlet and King Lear - all this was after the Second World War, fruits of a second career, after a first one lived in the shadow of great colleagues. He was born in 1905 in Kiel, in northern Germany, of Swabian and Italian parents. As a young man he moved to Berlin, where he attended Leopold Jessner's acting school.

In the Berlin of the Weimar Republic and then during the Third Reich Minetti was renowned for the demonic quality of his acting, a character actor even then, never the heroic lead. During the war, he remained politically uncommitted, torn between the attractions of Nazism and Communism, as he later was to acknowledge himself.

His drivenness, fed by an egomania of legendary proportions, was sufficient to carry Minetti into a second career which coincided with the emergence of a generation of dramatists whose writing enabled him to exploit his own obsessive and fragmented personality. When, after Beckett, dramatic tradition seemed to crumble, he was at hand to embody the crumbling.

After the Second World War, during a period on the move, great roles and great directors sought him out until in 1965 he finally settled in Berlin. Later, during his first co-operation with Thomas Bernhard in his Macht der Gewohnheit ("The Force of Habit") in Salzburg, Minetti as the cantankerous circus director would sum up the frustrations of his time in the provinces with the famous and dismissive sigh "And tomorrow, Augsburg!"

The closure of the Schiller Theatre in Berlin in the 1990s, his artistic home and a casualty of the new realities of German reunification, was a heavy blow to Minetti, both personally and professionally, but he continued to work until the very end. The expressionist quality of his craft was acknowledged in tributes by colleagues of great and admiring ambiguity. Martin Wuttke, who had worked with him in one of his last and most famous productions, Heiner Muller's staging of Brecht's Arturo Ui, said of him: "he was a monster, wicked and caustic. His tenderness was dangerous and his helplessness shocking. He was a monolith, not to be easily consumed. He could hold his own against this world, against the terror of the nice and the pretty."

Characteristics like these made Minetti the ideal protagonist for the theatre of protest against a society predicated on wealth, forgetting, and complacency, which was attacked so virulently by authors such as Heiner Muller and Bernhard, and by directors like Claus Peyman (who first cast him as Lear in 1972) and Klaus Michael Gruber, all names intimately associated with Minetti's late, great roles, which he continued to play, despite ill-health, until 1998, his 71st year on stage.

Over this period, he encompassed and indeed helped to form a radical transformation of dramatic style, denoted by names like Peyman and Gruber today and Grundgens and Jessner at the start of his career.

With his continuing inquisitiveness and his appetite for new challenges he gained many admirers especially among the younger generation and a firm place in the German dramatic landscape. "I never thought he would die," said a fellow actor. "The slap in the face he gave me when he was almost 90 during a rehearsal for A Midsummer Night's Dream, the last production of the Schiller Theatre, was strong enough to dispel all doubts."

Minetti's entire career was a firm slap in the face of conventional fame and societal certainty, a working life devoted to exposing "the scandalousness of being alive" as a friend put it. Even his defiant strength, though, could not stave off the end of a career and of a life which seems encapsulated by a line from Bernhard's Minetti: "Madam, it is sheer madness."

Philipp Blom

Bernhard Minetti, actor: born Kiel, Germany 26 January 1905; died Frankfurt, Germany 12 October 1998.