Karl Hartl occupies two special places in cinema history: one in the world at large as an artist of great stature during the mid-20th century, and the other in his native Austria as one of the country's most important filmmakers during that period, as well as one of its anti-Nazi patriots during World War II. His decision to stay in Germany (and then Austria) during the Hitler era kept him from gaining the recognition in America enjoyed by Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and other German and Austrian exiles, but it allowed him to make an important contribution to his homeland, as a patriot and quiet resistance leader during the dark years.
The son of Adolf Hartl and the former Cacilia Franziska Meister, Karl Hartl was born in Vienna in 1899, a product of a working-class background. He showed no artistic aspirations as a boy, but at age 16, in search for work, he chanced to visit the Sascha Film Factory (founded by Count Alexander "Sascha" Kolowrat just outside of Vienna) in the company of a friend, Gustav Ucicky. The studio was shorthanded during World War I and the two boys were hired -- Ucicky (who would later become a major director) to move camera equipment, and Hartl as a general gofer, what the British then referred to as a "tea-boy" (although he was officially credited as an assistant director). By 1919, he really was working as an assistant director, and happened to be assigned to work with the visiting Hungarian filmmaker Alexander Korda. The two became friends as Hartl assisted Korda in his productions of The Prince and the Pauper (1920), Masters of the Sea, A Vanished World, and Samson and Delilah (all 1922). Eventually, Hartl left Vienna for Berlin as Korda's assistant and four successful films followed, with the younger man promoted to executive producer. (His assistant was the husband of Marlene Dietrich, who was then a young extra appearing in one of the movies.)