But Michael Degen should be present to an audience of millions first and foremost as the ridiculously conceited Vice-Questore Patta of the “Donna Leon” crime thrillers in the first. From 2000 to 2019, he gave the Venetian official his particular stature, always in a perfectly tailored suit with a wink. This Monday (January 31), the actor and author (“Not All Were Assassins”) turns 90.
There is no missing Patta
Degen wants to celebrate his birthday with his third wife, a journalist, in his hometown of Hamburg. Asked about his signature role Patta, he told the German Press Agency: “I don’t miss him, I don’t even know if I particularly like him. But viewers obviously love him – and surprisingly not only in Europe.”
The modest actor with the charisma of a gentleman has an anecdote ready. “A few years ago, my wife and I were in Quebec, Canada. We were having dinner at the ‘Château Frontenac’ hotel above the St. Lawrence River when a gentleman and lady swooped down and said breathlessly that they had to kiss me right away because they loved the Vice Questore on French television so much. Well, that was before Corona – I allowed them to do that,” he recalls, clearly amused.
Degen, who was born in Chemnitz in 1932 as the son of a Russian-Jewish language teacher and businessman, achieved the feat both in challenging theater and television roles and in lighter roles (“Dies Drombuschs”, “Klinik unter Palmen”, “The Elder”) to inspire.
On the run from the Gestapo
On the other hand, the years of his youth spent in Berlin are painful. Fleeing the Gestapo, the young Jewish man assumed false identities with his mother Anna from 1943, both were eventually hidden and rescued by a couple in an arbor colony. By then, his father had long since died from his imprisonment in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
After training as an actor from 1946 at the Deutsches Theater, Degen emigrated to Israel at the request of his mother, where he found his older brother Adolf. He learned modern Hebrew and was hired at the Tel Aviv Chamber Theatre. But after two years he returned to Germany. Because of the desire for his mother tongue, as he later explained.
Decades later, in 1999, the father of four released his life story. “Not All Were Murderers – A Childhood in Berlin” became a bestseller. Jo Baier filmed Degen’s memories with Aaron Altaras and Nadja Uhl in 2006 for ARD. To what extent do thoughts of the Nazi era still stir within him today? “There are people who are close to me who claim that my work saved me from having to go to the therapist. There may be some truth in that,” the sword replies simply, which received the prestigious Kainz Medal.
For him, his work also has a political aspect. Television roles such as the Jewish businessman in Egon Monk’s three-part series “The Oppermann Sisters” (1983) based on the novel by Lion Feuchtwanger or Degen as Adolf Hitler in the two-part series parts of Michael Kehlmann’s “Secret Reich Matters” (1988) stand for that. Likewise, his appearances from 2010 in Thomas Bernhard’s drama “Heldenplatz” about the so-called annexation of Austria in 1938 at the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna.
Bitter vision today
The actor does not watch the news without bitterness. “The fact that young German Jews have to fear for their lives again, that anti-Semitism and racism cannot be eradicated leaves me with impotent anger. With so many roles, with my books and in interviews, I’ve tried to do my part to raise awareness and get people to (re)think,” says Degen. He draws a skeptical conclusion: “But I doubt that it was of some use. Believe me, this is not a satisfactory balance sheet after 90 years of life.”
But the artist, who is doing “rather well considering my age”, can also benefit a lot from his existence. “If the situation allows it, we will travel,” he told the dpa. “Even before the pandemic started, we bought a small mobile home. In the fall, we were in Croatia, and when the weather got worse, we went to Italy right away. Venice, Florence, Rome – all comfortably within your own four walls, Corona-compliant and completely independent.» And Degen alias Patta to add: “Thanks to the mask, no one in Venice asked me where I had left Commissioner Brunetti.” (dpa)