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Austrian Actress Paula Wessely Dies

May 12, 2000

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ Paula Wessely, postwar Austria’s foremost theater and movie actress and one of the most acclaimed performers in the German-speaking world, has died at age 93.

The Burgtheater, whose troupe she joined in 1951, said Wessely died Thursday in a Vienna hospital. Friday’s announcement gave no cause of death.

While acclaimed for some of the finest stage acting of the 20th century, Wessely was also accused of having been a voluntary tool of the Nazis for having appeared in Nazi propaganda films throughout the Second World War.

Wessely, born in Vienna on Jan. 20, 1907, started her stunning career that spanned more than six decades when she debuted at Vienna’s Volkstheater in 1924. In 1987, her inimitable way of speaking German was once more heard at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin during a reading of literature.

Even in pre-television times when her career climaxed, ``The Wessely,″ as her fans would lovingly call her, was a household word in Austria, and in parts of Germany, even among those who had never seen her on stage.

Her style of acting was subdued, even sparse, and while she commanded all levels of speech, her voice, and above all her timbre, was unique and recognized by everybody.

In fact, by her way of speaking German Wessely was perhaps the best representative of the old Burgtheater-Deutsch, many Austrians born before the war would claim was the best German ever spoken on any stage.

And she stood above her husband, Attila Hoerbiger, himself a well-known actor.

Before and during the war, Wessely was one of those actresses and singers who thrived under Nazi rule and whose talent and reputation were fully exploited by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his aides in wartime German cinema.

She was the star in many Nazi-era movies, but the part most held against her was the leading role in the Nazi propaganda movie ``Heimkehr″ (Homecoming) produced in 1941. Her talent to portray women who are capable of suffering and willing to resist and rise above all adversity served the Nazi propagandists in good stead.

After the war, when her great career at the Vienna Burgtheater began, Wessely had regrets for that role, but some critics remained unconvinced by her token repentance for her career under the Nazis.

The shadows of the past could not prevent her from becoming Austria’s No. 1 actress after the war.

She excelled in most key female roles of the German and non-German drama, from Friedrich Schiller’s ``Mary Stuart″ to Arthur Schnitzler’s ``Anatol,″ and from Henryk Ibsen’s ``John Gabriel Borkman″ to Tennessee Williams ``Glass Menagerie.″

While she refused an invitation to go to Hollywood, Wessely became also known to theater people in the non-German-speaking world. Sir Laurence Olivier mentioned her name when asked to name the world’s best actresses, and Bette Davies is known to have watched her movies.

Thomas Mann, one of Germany’s foremost writers and a Jew, wrote about Wessely: ``She holds a place in the small gallery of women who, unwittingly, have moved my heart.″

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