The stage and screen actor Hannes Stelzer was one of many young performers who rose to fame during the Third Reich but died before the war's end through military service.
Stelzer was born in 1910 in Austria and commenced his career in earnest in 1928 with an engagement at the Neuen Theater in Frankfurt am Main. After three years as a contracted artist, he was called to the Landestheater in Darmstadt, and in 1935 he was considered for the role of the young Friedrich in Steinhoff's biopic Der junge und alte Königwith Emil Jannings as his father. After first commiting to the role, he eventually declined it in order to take up another stage engagement, but Jannings remembered him and in 1936 Stelzer made his film debut in Traumuluswith Jannings in the title role. Between then and 1943 Stelzer made a total of 18 feature films, including five with Karl Ritter.
Stelzer was a handsome rising film star whose skills could allow him considerbale success in comedies, in costume dramas, and sophisticated contemporary films. In some of his most famous film roles, he played the son of a great industrialist (again Jannings) in Veit Harlan'sDer Herrscher(1937), an accomplished acrobat variety artist in Truxa (1937), jilted lover in the screwball comedy Ein hoffnungsloser Fall (1939), Ilse Werner's beau in Bal Paré (1940), and a young Nazi visual artist in the anti–modern art propaganda film, Hans Zerlett's Venus vor Gericht (1941).
Hannes Stelzer was an active pilot in Germany's Luftwaffe and between film roles he took on combat missions in WWII. His first film with director (and Luftwaffe Major) Karl Ritter was the WWI epic Unternehmen Michael (1937), and three years later, he appeared in Ritter's Bal Paré. In 1941 Stelzer starred in Stukas, and in the same year in Ritter's Über alles in der Welt. His final film role was in Ritter's Besatzung Dora, which finished filming in January 1943. In March of that year the film was banned from being released because scenes shot on the Leningrad front, in western France and in the Cinecitta film studios in Rome as a last-minute substitute for Bengasi, could not be used, as German defeats and setbacks on these war fronts made the film untenable.
On 27 December 1944, Stelzer died in a plane crash over the village of Zemné, Slovakia (not in Hungary as is often stated) in a snowstorm, according to a Wehrmacht report. He was 34 years old. Karl Ritter noted Stelzer's death in his diaries. The Film– Nachrichten newspaper of 27 January 1945, had a front page Memorial to Hannes Stelzer, which stated that it was particularly the roles in Karl Ritter's films in the decisive years of Stelzer's career which influenced and formed the young actor in his artistic style. The translation of this Eulogy as well as the masthead of this issue of the newspaper and the Stelzer Memorial are reproduced below. (The newspaper succeeded the Film–Kurier Tageszeitung in November 1944 as the official national film trade paper, and the film publication of record for the remaining months of the Third Reich.)
The type of aircraft piloted by Stelzer on the night of his death:
The Film–Nachrichten newspaper of 27 January 1945 had a front page Eulogy to Hannes Stelzer, written by Editor and journalist Felix Henseleit, which is truncated here:
" The news of Hannes Stelzers’ heroic death has deeply shaken all in the greater community where the achievements of this young actor had long made him a household name. Before Hannes Stelzer took the field as a pilot a few years ago, we saw him, even during the war, in some great roles that have defined his artistic character in a particularly crucial way. These were the roles in films by Karl Ritter, in the critical years as a young actor, anxious to find his artistic expression, style and form. We saw him for the last time in the film work Professor Ritter created from the field of air reconnaissance, and particularly memorable to us is the image that Hannes Stelzer imprinted on the film Stukas, in which he was a young officer under Professor Ritter’s direction. In the films that have been mentioned here, Hannes Stelzer had become a household name for the film audience. That he had the attitude that said film roles demanded in real life, as evidenced by the service to his country, his heroic death is now witness, which will always keep alive the memory of him by his film roles. A life came to an end, which leaves traces in the memories of thousands that cannot be obliterated with the day and also not with the years. "
Erroneous information about Stelzer in other publications:
The prestigious CineGraph Lexikon, one of the most respected reference works on German film, mixes up Stelzer's two marriages, stating that he married Bard first, then divorced her for a younger bride and therefore Bard committed suicide from losing him. This is completey false. He married Bard as his second wife, both of his wives were in fact ten years older than he was, and as far as Bard's fate goes, read below. Such "facts" are repeated again and again by newer historians who are too lazy to research the facts before accepting such nonsense -- a sorry fact!
Bard did not marry Stelzer until July, 1941, a year after they worked on Ritter's Über alles in der Welt together, although this marriage (outside of the erroneous CineGraph entry) is commonly dated as having taken place in 1940. The actual marriage date was confirmed when Karl Ritter's unpublished diaries were cited in William Gillespie's 2nd edition Karl Ritter – His Life and 'Zeitfilms' Under National Socialism (p. 127) as Ritter and his wife Erika attended the Stelzer–Bard marriage and Ritter acted as witness to the ceremony.
Stelzer & Bard's marriage notice in Karl Ritter's private diary, in which Ritter described the trip to the wedding ceremony in Caputh with his wife, and his making a speech to the assembled families, and acting as Witness to the ceremony in July 1941.
As mentioned above, Stelzr's death has been reported in film histories as having taken place in Hungary (wrong) and the cause of his death also variously reported as from being shot down by a Soviet fighter, from hitting high-power electrical lines above the village he was flying over, or due to a snowstorm. We researched this and have a copy of the Stelzr file from the Reichskulturkammer, dated 27 January 1945, a month after his death. It states categorically:
“an Oberfeldwebelin Stelzer’s fighter squadron reported today that Stelzer, upon returning from a successful enemy sortie, for which he has been awarded an Iron Cross 1st Class, flew into a high voltage line in a snowstorm, crashed and found a hero’s deat."
The Ritter book also has published for the first time ever, two incredibly moving and heartfelt love letters written by Stelzer in the immediate months preceding his death, to a girlfriend he was dating after the death of Maria Bard, obtained from that girlfriend's daughter in the USA. The second letter was penned fifteen days before his fatal air crash. The 2nd edition Ritter book has a Chapter 6 devoted to Stelzer and is the most comprehensive and accurate research on this actor published. No knowledge of these letters was known by film historians until they were revealed in the Ritter book's 2nd edition.
German Films Dot Net has acquired thirty original photographs which many years earlier had come from Stelzer's first wife's estate, with four of the eight photos shown here never having been published previously. On the top row, across, are three film stills from (1) Ritter's Stukas and (2 and 3) from the film Truxa. The photo of Stelzer in a WWI uniform is from the Karl Ritter film, Unternehmen Michael. The remaining photos were unpublished until now. The next photo of him in an overcoat may be a private photo or one from a film (tbc). The next photo shows him as a schoolboy, with his Rucksack on his back, and his Zuckertüte -- the traditional confectionary cone marking a schoolboy' first day of school (circa 1917). As a young man Stelzer was a keen football player and he posed with his old teammates in one photo shown below (he is sitting on the ground, smiling, as his teammates crowd around him.) As his career took off, he bought a brand new 2 litre BMW and that photo shows him taking his father on a drive in 1936. The ninth photo below was taken on 20 August 1942, in Paris, during a pause in the film shooting of Besatzung Dora, by the Luftwafffe Propaganda Kompanie #3 photographer Röder, showing Ritter and some of his cast members, including Stelzer, enjoying a swim together. This photo is labeled "Nur für den Dienstgebrauch!" ("For internal use only!") and has never been published until now. The last photo, in colour, shows the house in Caputh, 6km from Potsdam, where Stelzer lived in the early 1940"s, including the months he worked on Besatzung Dora. He often stayed for dinner at the Ritter's after a day of work at Ufa Babelsberg, then borrowed Karl Ritter's bicycle (or infrequently, the Ritter's auto) and rode to Caputh and brought the bike or car back the next morning.
Hannes Stelzer, as depicted on the Jacques Feyder film poster for Fahrendes Volk (1937)