Barred from working in Nazi Germany as a Jewish actor, Leon Reuss (born Leon Reiss) tricked the Nazis into celebrating him as an Aryan idol.
Reuss retreated to a cabin he owned up in the mountains of Austria. There he lived and studied the dialect of the local Tyrolean farmers, while working on an impressive beard.
He bleached all of his hair, head and body, by bathing every ten days in diluted hydrogen peroxide. He obtained papers from one of the peasants he’d been closely observing in the mountains.
Having worked with director Max Reinhardt years before, Leon Reuss was afraid that the director would recognize him, but Reinhardt was (apparently?) fooled. In fact, Reinhardt recommended him to Ernst Lothar, in Vienna.
Leon’s alter ego, the “self-taught” Kaspar Brandhofer, debuted on 2 December 1936 in Vienna as Herr Von Dorsday in “Miss Else”.
His acting as the Tyrolean peasant acting like an actor was pitch perfect. He is asked to speak a monologue, but Brandhofer aka Reuss is untrained: he doesn’t know what a monologue is. When he’s enlightened, he replies, “A, yes, I understand, a dialogue with my Lord God.”
The Nazi press raved about the “smell of the earth”, which the blonde, robust Aryan brought into the “mendacious work” of the Jew Schnitzler.
Kaspar Brandhofer, the “earth-rooted 100% Nordic” peasant actor, became the idol of the Nazi Press.
Glowing reviews called him “the humble peasant of the Austrian Alps, the finest natural actor of his generation.”
Nevertheless, just a week later Leon Reuss announced his true identity.
He did it to prove, he said, that talent, not race, makes an actor.
Returning home after that first triumphant night, Reuss felt only emptiness and loneliness. His creation threatened to become a monster (he described it as a “Golem”).
In a Viennese court, the disguised actor was fined for “living under a false name”.
He was conditionally sentenced to a hundred shillings fine or 48 hours of detention.
The resulting uproar caused him once again to have to relocate, this time to the United States.
Another name change, to the less Jewish-sounding Lionel Royce.
Ironically, to survive, he has to play Nazis in third-rate war films. This co-opting of German Jews to play Nazis was quite usual.
In Hogan’s Heroes alone, 4 Nazis were portrayed by Jews: Colonel Klink, Sergeant Schultz, Major Hochstetter, and General Burkhalter. And Corporal Lebeau was played by Robert Clary, a holocaust survivor liberated from a concentration camp at the end of the war.
Hans Weigel, who had attended the premiere of Kaspar Brandhofer, summarized the story of Leon Reuss: in his “Ballad of the blond beard“. When Weigel met Reuss, he gave him a copy:
The last of the 24 verses reads:
“And the moral of the story”:
talent is not needed today
in the free Austria.
It only depends on the beard!
So strict are the customs there … “