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.

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?