James Mason did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Colonel Brandt and David Warner did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Captain Kiesel in Cross of Iron.
One of the ways Cross of Iron stands out is the ample time it devotes to the characters played by James Mason and David Warner. Technically they only have very little to do with the ongoing battle of personalities between Sgt. Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) and Captain Stransky (Maximillian Schell), and technically they could have been fairly easily written out of the film. I am glad they weren't though as their scenes are some of the best moments in the film. Mason plays the highest ranking German officer in the vicinity. Mason is no stranger to playing disillusioned Nazi officers and his role is a bit like Rommel, if Rommel had far less power, and was made even worse for wear by the war. His level of disillusionment is no match for the Colonel second Captain Kiesel played by David Warner.
In almost every one of his scenes Warner's performance is a terrific personification of a true cynicism. What is so great about Warner's portrayal though is that there is not even a tremendous passion for the pessimism toward the war. Warner instead shows Kiesel as a man who barely seems to care so his cynical nature is merely part of that rather than some thing that propels him. Warner does not portray Captain Kiesel as trying to convince anyone else of his view at any moment, but rather reflects a man whose views are merely a forced part of his existence. Warner is able to tear through in each scene he is in the nonchalant despair, of sorts, that he espouses. Warner whole portrait of the officer who's basically given up on most things is just great fun to watch especially against Maximilian Schell's character who is still fervently into the war in hopes that he will earn his very own cross of iron.
Mason's performance is an interesting contrast in that Colonel Brandt probably has just as little regard for the war, but Brandt has more responsibilities than Kiesel does so he does not need to meet a few more demands. Mason is also great in portraying the state of his character who has lost all bluster, if he ever had it, by witnessing the slow demise of their already rotten "cause". Mason's also portrays a definite cynicism but he's a bit more quiet about it. Instead of letting it rule him as it does for Kiesel Mason shows Brandt to still completely do his best as an officer, but refuses to put on a false act. His reaction to hearing Stransky's desire for the cross is particularly enjoyable as Mason is so forthright in the Colonel complete disregard for the medal as he rather calmly states that the Captain can have one of his if he wants them so badly. Mason is so effective by being so natural in showing how the war has worn the passion out of Brandt.
Mason and Warner have a certain humorous quality in their scene with Schell as they both successful at giving two somehow completely different expressions of "You've got to be kidding me" with Warner more about his disregard and Mason portraying more like he's seen men like Stransky before so there's no reason to get to energetic about his dismay. Their performances go past just being an entertaining bit of two men who are done with foolish patriotism. What is so strong about both their performances is the emotionality that is still pervasive with their performances. Warner is very good in that he portrays that perhaps Kiesel is a step away from a breakdown as there is a intensity under the surface as though his disregard is his last defense mechanism against it. Mason is equally moving though in portraying just an honest sadness of a man who cares about his men deeply, but unfortunately can do little but wait for some sanity to arrive.
They both importantly show a more active side to both men in one scene where Stransky has made a claim for the Iron Cross by trying to take credit for a heroic act of a man who died in combat. To try to trap Stransky they ask Steiner for his testimony. Warner and Mason both bring a quite passion in these scenes as they show the two men finally getting a chance to do something worthwhile which is to oust the despicable Stransky. When Steiner refuses simply because he hates basically everything about the Nazis and does not care to oust Stransky using Nazi laws. Mason reaction is absolutely perfect as he basically shows a very subtle yet complete agreement in Brandt while he asks Steiner just to leave. Warner also excels in the moment in an emotional fidget of sorts as though Steiner's blunt statement has caused Kiesel a bit more pain since it directly forced him to recognize something he knows quite well himself, but tries to hide in his own way.
In their last scene Brandt recognizes that their nearing the end and decides to send Kiesel away despite his protests. Warner expresses the sudden devotion of Kiesel almost as a confusion to himself which fits his character so well. Mason carries himself with such genuine warmth though as Brandt tells Kiesel that he's one German worth saving after all. Mason keeps Brandt as a commander but suggests a underlying tenderness in the Colonel's words. In turn Warner's reaction is perfect as he shows Kiesel to be surprised but so touched by Brandt's words. It is a surprisingly heartfelt scene but Mason and Warner completely earn the moment. Both Mason and Warner make a strong impact throughout the film despite appearing in only few
scenes as they realize both men in such vivid detail. As I wrote in the beginning, Kiesel and Brandt can easily be seen as superfluous characters, but that is never the case due to the incredible work from these two great actors.