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Sunday 22 April 2018

Obituary: Actor and charity worker Karlheinz Bohm

Actor who starred as the psychopath in Peeping Tom and later devoted his life to charity work for Ethiopia

CONTROVERSIAL: Karlheinz Bohm played the psychopathic cameraman in Peeping Tom. Photo: Everett Collection/REX
CONTROVERSIAL: Karlheinz Bohm played the psychopathic cameraman in Peeping Tom. Photo: Everett Collection/REX

KARLHEINZ Bohm, who has died aged 86, was an Austrian actor celebrated for playing a very English psychopath – the cameraman-killer in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom; for the last 30 years of his life he dedicated himself to saving lives as the head of an organisation that raises money for humanitarian causes in Ethiopia.

Bohm always considered the latter work to be far more important than his acting. But to cinema audiences he will be remembered for performances in some 45 films, notably alongside a 16-year-old Romy Schneider in the Sissi (1955) trilogy about Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Bohm played Emperor Franz Joseph I and described his relationship with his co-star as "collegial". The pair, who met again five years later when Romy Schneider was living in Paris, eventually became close friends.

Bohm also liked to recall dancing with Marilyn Monroe, when the pair met at an event in Hollywood thrown by her psychoanalyst. "She wore a huge pair of sunglasses. I said: 'Why don't you take off your sunglasses?' She said: 'Am I asking you to get undressed?' Then we danced. Miss Monroe, glasses on, was beautiful."

In his most famous acting role, however, Karlheinz Bohm's attitude to women was considerably more fraught and, controversially, violent. As the nervous, repressed cameraman in Peeping Tom (1960) he plays a killer who mounts a mirror above his lens, then kills women so that they can see their death pangs, which he records for his pleasure. Powell's film has been hailed as a creepy masterpiece which perfectly skewers the voyeuristic, complicit character of cinema audiences lapping up sexual and violent themes projected for their pleasure. At the time of its release, however, it was critically derided. Bohm recalled emerging from the premiere with Powell: "We were excited to see the reactions of the audience. We were absolutely puzzled, when they all left the theatre in silence, ignoring us completely." Unlike Powell, Bohm saw his career recover, thanks to an unlikely combination of Walt Disney and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Karlheinz Bohm was born on March 16, 1928, in Darmstadt, Germany, the only child of the celebrated conductor Karl Bohm and the soprano Thea Linhard. When he was 11 he went to boarding school in Switzerland. After the war, the family moved to Graz.

It was there that, after an argument with his parents one evening, he slashed his wrists with a razor blade. The housemaid found him, and he and his parents never spoke of it again. But his relationship with them continued to prove turbulent. Karlheinz took it upon himself to tell his father of his mother's indiscretions while the conductor was working at Bayreuth. "Until her deathbed, my mother never forgave me," he said. "Of course, that hurt me a great deal."

Despite this trauma, Karlheinz was keen to follow his parents' musical careers, only to fail his auditions as a pianist. Instead he studied English, and trained as an actor at the Burgtheater in Vienna. He took odd jobs on film sets and minor roles in theatre and on-screen. But then his big break arrived, with Sissi.

After the shock of Peeping Tom's mauling, Bohm turned to Hollywood. In 1962 he played Jakob Grimm in MGM's The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. Apparently cornering the market in famous-Germans-who-are-not -Nazis, he followed this role with a portrayal of Beethoven in the Walt Disney film The Magnificent Rebel. He could not escape Nazi roles altogether, however, playing a fascist sympathiser in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

He mixed feature and television roles and then, in the mid-Seventies, appeared in four films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Before they teamed up for first of these, Martha (1974), Bohm visited Fassbinder: "I was impressed by what he was doing, and wanted to work with him. But when I met him he did not even raise his head. Only when I finished speaking did he look at me briefly, muttering something. His arrogance annoyed me deeply." Fassbinder, however, was evidently more impressed. Days later, he sent Bohm the screenplay for Martha.

Bohm credited Fassbinder with "my political awakening", and on May 16, 1981, the actor's life changed completely. Appearing on a television show, he wagered on a whim that viewers would not stake a few pennies to help people in Sub-Saharan Africa. He was wrong. The money poured in and Bohm flew to Ethiopia with the equivalent of half a million pounds. That November he founded Menschen fur Menschen ("People for People"). Two years later he abandoned acting altogether and became a full-time development worker. The charity has since raised hundreds of millions of pounds.

Karlheinz Bohm, who died on May 29, was four times married, and had seven children. His wife of the last 23 years, Almaz, who is Ethiopian, survives him.

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