The Cult of Actor Martin Kosleck in The Flesh Eaters (1964)

*contains spoilers

Actor Martin Kosleck (1904-94 after surgery) was a European actor who fled the Nazis in the early 1930s. He made a mark for himself playing evil Nazis during World War Two in the United States and then seemed to be typecast as the villain. He was well known for playing Nazi propaganda leader Josef Goebbels (1897-1945 suicide) on more than one occasion. I have trawled through his movies and found what I believe to be his cult appearances and they are one of his first US movies The Mad Doctor (1941) where he plays one half of a murderous gay couple with Basil Rathbone (1892-1967 heart attack) …  then there is his turn as the wax museum creator Rudi in one of the Inner Sanctum movies The Frozen Ghost (1945) … a mad sculptor in House of Horrors (1946) and then there is his late career turn as a Nazi, naturally, in the underrated low budget cult science fiction cum horror The Flesh Eaters (1964).

Martin Kosleck in one of his Josef Goebbels performances
The Mad Doctor (1941) poster
Magazine cover featuring The Flesh Eaters (1964)

Kosleck was an alcoholic homosexual whose looks and German accent precluded him from playing romantic leads. His wife mysteriously died and there was a suggestion that she was murdered. If you admire Kosleck’s work as an actor it is because he seems to embody evil.

He was born Nikolai Yoshkin in Barkotzen in Pomerania (Poland) in 1904. The family was reportedly Russian-German and Jewish and Kosleck became an actor formally when he became involved with director Max Reinhardt’s (1873-1943 stroke) theatre and school where he studied for six years. Reinhardt was considered one of the greatest directors working in the German language at the time. It is said that Kosleck had many German friends who he would lunch with in America after he fled – people such as Marlene Dietrich (1901-92 kidney failure).

As the Nazis began to take over Germany and then Europe, Kosleck had been outspoken about his anti-Nazi views. He fled around the time that Hitler became chancellor and it is said that he was charged in absentia and would have possibly lost his life at the hands of the newly formed Gestapo if he had stayed.

Director Max Reinhardt
Kosleck was a talented artist and here’s a portrait of Marlene Dietrich

“I’ve never spoken with a Nazi my whole life. The fools were all over the streets of Berlin when I left in 1931. No one I knew took them seriously,” said Kosleck in one rare interview.

Kosleck worked hard and became a Shakespearian actor in productions such as The Merchant of Venice as opposed to Romeo and Juliet. He made both silent and sound films in Germany before he first went to England. One of those German films was Alraune (1930) starring Brigitte Helm (1906-96) which was a science fiction horror about a prostitute who is impregnated by a scientist with the sperm of a hanged murderer. She gives birth to a girl who has no concept of love and who has an obsessive sexuality and perverse relationships. Definitely pre-Code in the United States where this Frankenstein reworking was described as having “ghastly ideas” by its writer, the poet and philosopher Hans Heinz Ewers (1871-1943).

It was then he went to the States and was spotted performing Shakespeare on stage and taken to Hollywood where he had a false start in Fashions of ’34 (1934). He returned to New York and it was some time yet until he was asked to appear uncredited as Goebbels in Confessions of a Nazi Sky (1939) by invitation of the director Anatole Litvak (1902-74). The film was highly controversial and based on the Rumrich Nazi spy case which was about a spy named Guenther Rumrich whose crime was to impersonate the Secretary of State in order to get blank passports. The FBI let several spies escape while Rumrich received a reduced sentence due to his cooperation with authorities. Kosleck must have made an impression in this movie as it kicked started his career.

A poster for the disturbing Alraune (1933)
Anatole Litvak and a camera
Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, he starred in sixth billing in The Mad Doctor (1941) which was one of the first films directed by Tim Whelan (1893-1957) after his success with The Thief of Baghdad (1940). Whelan had started his career in the silent movies on films starring Harry Langdon (1884-1944 cerebral haemorrhage) and Harold Lloyd (1893-1971 prostate cancer). The Mad Doctor was filmed at a time when Kosleck was busy making movies which was around January to March 1940 but the film’s release didn’t happen until February of 1941.

The Mad Doctor is Basil Rathbone’s film in terms of billing and he was an actor described by other actors as “two profiles pasted together”. In this movie he plays a bisexual doctor or psychiatrist who collaborates with his boyfriend Kosleck to find what makes his female suicidal female patients tick whom he then marries for their money. These women then mysteriously die shortly after the wedding and Rathbone and Kosleck collect.

The Mad Doctor (1941) day-bill
Director Tim Whelan
Domestic scene with Basil Rathbone (left) and Martin Kosleck

The actress who stars in the movie is Ellen Drew (1914-2003 liver ailment) while the man who wants to save her from this remarkably ahead of its time love triangle is John Howard (1913-95).

The ‘domestic’ scenes between Rathbone and Kosleck as the conniving villains don’t go so far as to say they share an apartment at the beginning of the movie but Kosleck is at home with Rathbone’s black cat as he makes a drink and lights the fireplace.

“These atrocious paintings, this absurd wallpaper these pathetic antiques they all breathe her spirit,” says Rathbone almost twistedly waxing lyrical. “I can almost see her now coming down those stairs with that foolish smile and the love-light in her eyes.”

“She’s dead, isn’t that enough?,” says Kosleck.

“No, I can never forgive her… the eight months spent in that cave of romance.”

The script was said to have originally written by playwrights Charles MacArthur (1895-1956) and Ben Hecht (1894-1964) who were responsible for The Front Page, although there is no credit or proof this was so. The screenplay is credited to Howard J. Green who has many credits but none terribly memorable that I can recognise.

The next domestic scene has Kosleck arranging flowers in their new New York apartment as Rathbone comes home after a long day arranging his next Bluebeard assignment with Ellen Drew.

“Maurice, how would you like to be very rich?”

“… Amuse me? It makes he extraordinarily happy,” laughs Kosleck as he takes a seat on a couch after learning this woman has a suicide complex, a “very interesting illness.”

Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
Another domestic scene between Kosleck and Rathbone
It is rumoured that Ben Hecht wrote the script

“If I married her and she died we’d be rich, innocent and respectable,” says Rathbone.

For their third domestic scene, Kosleck must have been in his element as the pair close in on their latest quarry.

“You seem unnaturally happy, George,” says Kosleck over coffee in the apartment as they discuss the upcoming wedding to which Rathbone becomes overly enthused, even manic.

“…What I want to know is, can a man change his destiny?,” he gushes about the upcoming nuptials in South America and his obsession with his current love.

It is then that Kosleck has a hissy fit and throws down a travel brochure as he thinks he is no longer number one.

“Are you trying to tell me you are actually in love with this girl?”

And Kosleck suffers the indignity that he is “out of tune” with his murderous love and questions why.

“Why?,” says Rathbone still manic: “Who should someone as brilliant as I go through life as a monster?!”

“… You are like all the other clever ones … clever until they meet a woman and then they suddenly become fools and the law gets them.”

And finally, when Rathbone is at his most paranoid with his ‘lover’ and asking his help to dig up a body: “I will do any-thing you say!”

Kosleck stayed busy playing Nazis and the baddie throughout World War Two and it is said that he kept playing the roles because he despised the Nazis so much. He wanted everyone to know how rotten they really were. But the last three cult films I will quickly discuss were horror movies.

House of Horrors (1946) lobby card
Rondo Hatton (left) and Kosleck in House of Horrors (1946)
Portrait of Martin Kosleck

Kosleck is fourth billed in House of Horrors (1946) which was the film which introduced the actor Rondo Hatton (1894-1946 heart attack) who suffered from the disfiguring disease acromegaly as the killer known as The Creeper. He had played the Hoxton Creeper in the Sherlock Holmes movie Pearl of Death (1944). As for Kosleck, he opens the movie with a scene in his studio as a twisted or sensitive artist who is pushed over the edge through neglect and poverty. With the large set, we get an idea of what a strong stage character actor Kosleck must have been as he mimes silently before the entry of the other actors who are critics… Following some nasty criticism of his works by these poseurs, Kosleck then destroys one large sculpture with a mallet after the word “abomination” echoes through his mind.

He decides then to commit suicide and finds Rondo Hatton and pulls him from the river which causes him to remark: “Magnifique. The perfect Neanderthal Man.” And he wants to sculpt Hatton into “a masterpiece that lasts forever.” Little does he know his new friend, for whom he cooks a meagre meal of bread and potatoes, is none other than the serial killer The Creeper. Not that he minds since Kosleck is on the verge of insanity himself as once more the morning papers continue to criticise art works negatively.

Kosleck was said to be proud of his work on this movie and it is also said he received the most fan mail of his career at Universal. His audition at the studio led to him being accepted for the role within an hour. Given it is a murderous role, Kosleck’s character is somehow sympathetic and this makes it one of his best. The man would never win or even get nominated for an Oscar but he must have been a fascinating performer when he did Shakespeare. I’m sure every artist or actor can relate to his role of killing off any critic who gives them a bad review… and in a sense it’s ingenious.

Director Jean Yarbrough with Abbott and Costello
Screen icon Rondo Hatton
Kosleck at his most matinee idol looks

As for Robert Lowery (1913-71 heart failure) and Virginia Grey (1917-2004) they are the lightweights of the piece as Kosleck and the silent Hatton’s scenes have more gravitas.

The original script or story was by Universal regular for a few years and pulp writer Dwight V. Babcock (1909-79). He wrote The Mummy’s Curse (1944) and She-Wolf of London (1946) which both featured Kosleck and you wonder if Babcock had Kosleck in mind when he wrote House of Horrors. He also wrote The Creeper (1946) for Hatton and like House of Horrors, both were released after Hatton’s sudden death in February 1946.

Meanwhile House of Horrors was directed by Jean Yarbrough (1900-75) who was well known for poverty row features, most of them considered unworthy of viewing at all. But with this one he rises above or transcends the ordinary as if in the spirit of the script as a director usually dismissed critically. If he was going to make a few movies that were worthy then House of Horrors was one of them. I must admit a weakness for Yarbrough’s last movie Hillbilly’s in a Haunted House (1967) which was Basil Rathbone’s second to last film.

Then there is Kosleck in The Frozen Ghost (1945) from the previous year. It is the fourth of the Inner Sanctum movies (there were six) starring Lon Chaney Jr. (1906-73 multiple cancers and alcoholism) before his dissipation due to the effects of alcoholism. It is said the two actors didn’t get along and that Kosleck despised Chaney.

The Frozen Ghost (1945) poster
Lon Chaney Jr’s usual look in Inner Sanctum
Kosleck fondles a friend in The Frozen Ghost (1945)

“You’re certainly right to say the least – very eccentric” and we don’t know if Chaney is commenting on Kosleck’s sexuality or just the fact that he walks around the wax museum, where he sculpts various celebrities from past and present, and sits beside them and talks to them often in whispers into their ears. It’s a strong Inner Sanctum feature with Chaney as a mesmerist who thinks he has killed someone on stage who had criticised his psychic act… It all ends up being another Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953) with victims encased in wax while put under sedation or suspended animation by Kosleck. Chaney is at his neurotic best as the saying: “It’s all done with mirrors” echoes in his mind which is the result of his trauma at the beginning of the movie. The Inner Sanctum films were all reasonably well made and the pristine print adds to your viewing pleasure but Kosleck wouldn’t get many more good roles once the war was over and the Nazis defeated.

Eleanora von Mendelssohn
A rare smile from Kosleck and Eleanora
Twardowski found Eleanora’s lifeless body

It was a couple years later in 1947 that the actor rather oddly married a woman and her name was Eleanora von Mendelssohn (1900-51). Kosleck had been a lover or friend of German actor Hans Heinrich Twardowski (1898-1958 heart attack) since the early 1930s and both would have known Eleanora’s stage work in Germany and been a part of the same social circles. Twardowski appeared in the early cult movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and he and Kosleck both appeared in The Hitler Gang (1944). Eleanora was a close friend of lesbian writer Mercedes de Acosta (1893-1968) and possibly had an affair. She was certainly addicted to morphine. Her career as a film actress in America didn’t really take off as she was better suited to the stage and her only American movie was Black Hand (1950) which starred Gene Kelly (1912-95 after strokes).

Eleanora was forever unhappy in love with her four husbands and the alcoholic Kosleck was no real prize. She knew Noel Coward (1899-1973 heart attack) and Marlene Dietrich (1901-92 kidney failure) and Helen Hayes (1900-93 congestive heart failure) and writer Leo Lerman (1914-94 cancer) wrote in his journals how volatile the marriage was. It was then reported that Eleanora had committed suicide through an overdose of tablets and injections. There was talk that Kosleck had something to do with it as there was a pillow over her face and ether in the bathtub and it was Twardowski that found her body. Kosleck was in hospital after what was a second fall, this time from a third-floor window, while adjusting a curtain. Was it a cry for help and a suicide attempt? Eleanora’s brother was also in hospital at the same time after suffering a stroke. Eleanora simply told people she couldn’t sleep and supposedly overdosed as there was an empty bottle of sleeping pills beside her.

“She was beautiful enough to make your eyes pop out,” said actress Elisabeth Bergner (1897-1986). “And she was one of the most unhappy human beings I have ever met.”

The Black Hand (1950) poster
Kosleck gives and evil stare
Say no more

Kosleck’s career suffered as a result and by 1948 he finished making movies, except for one German production and then resumed in 1961. The truth being that he returned to the stage in The Madwoman of Chaillot in the late 40s and early 50s. He was probably painting as well. It was during the 1950s that he started a television career almost from scratch for a new generation to watch his evil antics. The appearances were only about one a year in the 50s but by the mid to late 1960s Kosleck had steady work until a heart attack saw him take it easy.

The appearances I have seen don’t give him much to do except for a couple of set up gags in the Get Smart episode The Weekend Vampire where he plays a mysterious doctor whose house lies in the deep woods: “Ah, Honeysuckle Road” he says of one particularly evil and forbidden laneway. His appearance in The Outer Limits is eclipsed by the appearances of Hawaiian Eye stars Grant Williams (1931-85 peritonitis) and Anthony Eisley (1925-2003 heart failure). It’s probably his role in The Wild, Wild West episode The Night of the Diva which makes the most impression as he suddenly seems old and his career would soon be over.

A Day at the White House (1972) poster
The above movie was not viewsd by these residents Ron and Nancy
A scene from A Day at the White House (1972)
An aged Kosleck in the late 1960s show Wild, Wild West

Of interest is the movie which I cannot source entitled A Day at the White House (1972). The plot is about a woman sent by the President of the United States to infiltrate and bring down the Los Angeles porn industry. Instead, she falls in love with the well-endowed owner and the founder of the city’s only rental house for animal sex performers! And people say I’m dirty minded and have plumbed the depths too far!! Anyway, with a director who would work on the Wonderful World of Disney I guess this movie isn’t hardcore porn. Kosleck plays an FBI agent with a penchant for weird disguises. He said in a 1982 interview that he relished the chance to don costumes and do absurd impersonations including one of his friend Bette Davis (1908-89 breast cancer).

“Everyone thought I was the next great comedian of the century,” he said.

Part of Kosleck’s comeback in Hitler (1962)
Byron Sanders in The Flesh Eaters (1964)
Sanders supposedly posed for Salvador Dali
The Flesh Eaters (1964) lobby card
Kosleck complete with luger in The Flesh Eaters (1964)

I just want to mention The Flesh Eaters (1964) which was filmed in 1961 which was the year he made his comeback in movies. It is Kosleck at his most evil and it fits in with the vibe it creates with post-synced sound and an almost innocent America (it was released in 1964) which was set to suffer a malaise following the Kennedy assassination in 1963. There’s a kind of schizophrenia if you really think the movie was made in 1964. The budget was low at around $100,000 and it had almost doubled when a hurricane interrupted production. It is also in black and white and by 1964 most things released would have been in colour. The effects are primitive but effective.

The Flesh Eaters is a time capsule but it is a remarkable one as it emerged around the same time as the colourful gore movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis (1926-2016). It looks great thanks to the cinematography of producer/director under a pseudonym Jack Curtis (1925-70 pneumonia). Together with producer/writer Arnold Drake (1924-2007 pneumonia and sepsis) they have created a gory cult classic and the sounds of the voices of Kosleck who plays a Nazi scientist and the hero pilot Byron Sanders (1925-2001) are iconic parts of the soundtrack along with the alarming music score. Arnold Drake, it should be noted was the creator of such comic book characters as Guardians of the Galaxy in a comic book career that took off around the period when The Flesh Eaters was made and released.

Byron Sanders was probably accepted for the role for his voice and his physique which was rumoured to be used as the model for Salvador Dali’s the “Crucifixion.”

The story is about flesh eating creatures which are almost microscopic and can eat out your stomach if you consume them, while adding electrical current causes them to multiply in the plan by Kosleck to sell to the nation that’s the highest bidder to help destroy their enemies. Kosleck has never been so evil than in this movie and he dies gorily and well in the finale.

Drake said of the production: “Martin, who had a drinking problem, did not drink all the time during working hours. But the moment we were done working, bam, he was into it. But he held off, he was very professional in that sense.”

It is said that later on in the production a lot of vodka was consumed by cast and crew as they worked 18-to-20-hour days.

The way Kosleck would probably like to be remembered

Kosleck’s last movie was The Man with Bogart’s Face (1980) as Horst Borsht before he died aged 89 after abdominal surgery in 1994.

Martin Kosleck was never going to break from of his German origins and he got typecast for that voice which is so precise and German in The Flesh Eaters. And yet that film is the culmination of his career playing evil roles. Sadly, he is not remembered as one of the great villains of the cinema since he never seemed to get the choicest roles. He did however have a demeanour you could not easily forget despite it being only in short scenes and snippets throughout the decades. Did he plan the murder of his wife with the help of his lover? Even if it was deliberate act of neglect the night she died. His role in The Mad Doctor certainly warmed him up for that one. Forgotten today, Martin Kosleck had you believe in evil, whether he was innocent or “a monster”.

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