Werner Johannes Krauss (Krauß in German) was a German stage and film actor. Regarded as one of the greatest actors of his time, Krauss dominated the German stage of the early 20th century. However, his participation in the antisemitic propaganda film Jud Süß and his collaboration with the Nazis made him a controversial figure.
Krauss was born at the parsonage of Gestungshausen near Coburg in Upper Franconia, where his grandfather was a Protestant pastor. He spent his childhood in Breslau (present-
In 1903 he debuted at the Guben municipal theatre. Though he never attended an acting training, he continued to play in Magdeburg, Bromberg (Bydgoszcz), at the Theater Aachen, in Nuremberg and Munich.
By the agency of Alexander Moissi, in 1913 he met the theatre director Max Reinhardt, who took Krauss to his Deutsches Theater in Berlin. However, Krauss initially only gained minor and secondary roles like King Claudius in Shakespeare's Hamlet or Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust, wherefore after his military discharge as a midshipman of the Imperial German Navy in 1916 he also pursued a career as a film actor.
Krauss got a first role in Richard Oswald's silent movie Tales of Hoffman. Committed to playing sinister characters, he became a worldwide sensation for his demonic portrayal of the titular character in Robert Wiene's film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), up to today considered a milestone of German Expressionism. Krauss also played the title role of William Shakespeare's Othello in a 1920 adaption, and played Iago in a 1922 film adaptation. He was prominently featured in Paul Leni's Waxworks (1924), Ewald Andre Dupont's Varieté (1925), F.W. Murnau's Tartuffe, and The Student of Prague (1926).
In 1924 Krauss continued his theatre career by joining the ensemble of the Prussian State Theatre in Berlin. He again appeared on stage of the Deutsches Theater from 1926, as in Strindberg's A Dream Play filling five roles or as Wilhelm Voigt in the 1931 premiere of Carl Zuckmayer's The Captain of Köpenick. He also performed at the Vienna Burgtheater, and guest performances even brought him to London and on Broadway in New York, where Max Reinhardt staged Karl Vollmöller's The Miracle in 1924.
Krauss' consummate skills in characterization earned him the title of "the man with a thousand faces". His fellow actress Elisabeth Bergner called him "the greatest actor of all time" and a "demonic genius" in her memoirs. Oskar Werner, born Oskar Josef Bschließmayer, chose his stage name in Krauss' honour.
Krauss was an unapologetic antisemite who supported the Nazi Party and its ideology. While the Nazis seized power in Berlin in January 1933, Krauss joined the Vienna Burgtheater ensemble to perform as Napoleon in Campo di Maggio (German: Hundert Tage), a drama written by Giovacchino Forzano together with Benito Mussolini, whereafter he was received by the Italian dictator and also made the acquaintance of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. In the course of the totalitarian Gleichschaltung process, Krauss was appointed Vice President of the Reichskulturkammer theatre department and served in that capacity from 1933 to 1935. In 1934, Krauss was designated as a Staatsschauspieler ('State Actor', i.e. an actor of national importance). Upon the death of Reich President Paul von Hindenburg in August, he signed the Aufruf der Kulturschaffenden to merge of the offices of President and Chancellor in the person of Adolf Hitler. Goebbels and Hitler rated Krauss as a cultural ambassador of Nazi Germany.
Krauss and Max Reinhardt worked together for the last time at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, staging Goethe's Faust (with Krauss as Mephistopheles) in the Felsenreitschule theatre, shortly before Reinhardt emigrated to the United States. In 1940, Krauss simultaneously played the roles of six stereotypical Jewish characters – among them Rabbi Loew and Sekretar Levy – in Veit Harlan's antisemitic propaganda film Jud Süß, implementing Harlan's concept of a common Jewish root. When asked by Wolfgang Liebeneiner about the devastating effects of his performance, he replied: "that's no concern of mine -
After the war, Krauss had to leave his home in Mondsee near Salzburg and was expelled from Austria. He also was banned from performing on stage and in films in Germany. His films were proscribed and he was ordered to undergo a denazification program from 1947 to 1948, whereafter he could return to Austria to become a naturalized citizen. In 1950, he again performed as King Lear at the Ruhr Festival in Recklinghausen. However, in December his performance with the Burgtheater ensemble at the Kurfürstendamm Theatre in Berlin met with protest.
In 1951 Krauss again received German citizenship. Ultimately, he was rehabilitated to the extent of being invited to German film festivals. In 1954, he received the Iffland-
Krauss died in relative obscurity in Vienna, Austria in 1959. He was cremated and buried in an Ehrengrab in the Vienna Zentralfriedhof.