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When we think of a name like Max Reinhardt, we inevitably refer to one of the most important personalities of the Austrian and world cultural scene of the last century. Thanks to him, important innovations both from the point of view of staging and, indeed, with regard to the enhancement of actors and their direct relationship with the audience are still being adopted today.

A new experience for the audience

The Max-Reinhardt-Seminar in Vienna is today one of the most important film and theatre academies in Austria. Here, for example, actors such as Marlene Dietrich, Christine Ostermayer, Paula Wessely, Helmut Qualtinger, Senta Berger and Christoph Waltz have studied. And, in fact, its founder, director Max Reinhardt, has always given great importance to actors, both in theatre and, indeed, film.

When we think of a name like Max Reinhardt, we inevitably refer to one of the most important personalities of the Austrian and world cultural scene. Thanks to him, important innovations both from the point of view of staging and, of course, with regard to the enhancement of the actors and their direct relationship with the audience are still adopted today, having given rise to a more modern, more ‘direct’ understanding of the performance itself.

Born in Baden bei Wien on September 9, 1873 to a family of Jewish origin, Maximilian Goldmann did not take the surname Reinhardt until 1890 – the year he took his first steps in theatre – inspired by the protagonist of the novel Immensee by Theodor Storm. Young Max, therefore, first began working as an actor, then, once hired by director Otto Brahm at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin (of which he would be artistic director from 1905 to 1933), he also began staging his first plays.

After his first theatre direction, when he staged Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas und Mélisande at the Neuen Theater in Berlin, Max Reinhardt experimented for the first time, in 1905, with stage sets built on a revolving stage in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a technique that is still widely used today) and also began to approach the cabaret world, organising numerous shows, especially at the Schall und Rauch (now the Kleines Theater) and concentrating above all on parodies of literary and theatrical texts (particularly noteworthy are the four different versions – classical, naturalist, symbolist and cabaret – of Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos) and, at the same time, he also devoted himself to political satire, creating the famous character Serenissimus, a caricature of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Cabaret, however, was only a pleasant distraction for Max Reinhardt. His true love was theatre, where he enjoyed experimenting with new ways of staging, first following the rules of Kammerspiel, then making the audience and actors have an increasingly intimate relationship, conceiving the theatre performance as the most inclusive experience possible (memorable were the plays staged in the large courtyard of Leopoldskron Castle, his home in Salzburg). Similarly, Reinhardt tended to differ greatly from naturalist theatre, believing that, during a performance, the audience mainly needed to be entertained and amazed by the magnificence of what was performed before their eyes, instead of continuing to think about their everyday problems. As already mentioned, moreover, fundamental to him were actors. Anyone involved in theatre had to be, according to Max Reinhardt, also an actor, even if he or she did not have to play a role on that particular occasion. The ideal theatre was, for him, one in which the director was not necessary as an intermediary between the actors and the audience.

These innovative theories were first tried out in Berlin, then again in Austria (in Vienna and Salzburg, where he was among the organisers, together with stage designer Alfred Roller, composer Richard Strauss and conductor Franz Schalk, of the famous Salzburg Festival) and even in the United States, where, after several stays, Reinhardt moved permanently together with his wife (actress Helene Thimig) due to the coming of Nazism and where he died on October 31, 1943.

Could, then, a brilliant and change-oriented mind like his have remained indifferent to such an exciting new invention like the cinematograph? Of course not. And in fact, Max Reinhardt began making his first films as early as the 1910s, making Sumurûn in 1910 and, after founding a small film production company in Vienna, The Miracle (1914), the direction of which was later entrusted to French director Michel Carré, following some controversy concerning the staging of some miracles that had taken place in Vienna. In Germany, the director found fertile ground for his new passion, and in 1913 he signed a contract with Paul Davidson’s PAGU company, making a couple of films produced in Italy: Die Insel der Seligen (1913), which caused quite a stir at the time due to some nude scenes and the simulation of a sexual act, and A Venetian Night (1914), all made together with cameraman Karl Freund.

In the United States, Reinhardt only made one film: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). The film, made with his friend Wilhelm Dieterle (who for the occasion helped Rainhardt with the English language) and with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska won two Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Film Editing. On this occasion, among other things, the director noticed Olivia de Havilland’s talent for the first time, helping her become the international star we all know and love today.

In short: a curious and innovative mind and one of the greatest Austrian artists of the last century. Max Reinhardt’s talent has influenced and continues to influence numerous directors and filmmakers around the world and has initiated new ways of understanding staging itself. Cinema and theatre meet and give the audience an all-round experience, making them feel, if only for a couple of hours, in a magical world apart.

Info: the page of Max Reinhardt on iMDb; the page of Max Reinhardt on