A Mesmerizing Talent: The Life And Career Of Conrad Veidt

“I only fell in love once with a movie actor. It was Conrad Veidt. His magnetism and his personality got me. His voice and gestures fascinated me. I hated him, feared him, loved him. When he died it seemed to me that a vital part of my imagination died too, and my world of dreams was bare.”

Quoted from one of the documents compiled in British Cinemas and Their Audiences by J.P. Mayer. 

He had a lean, chiseled face that could’ve belonged to a regal nobleman, a sickly poet, or a sinister villain. His blue eyes could burn with the fury of a madman, or grow wide and distant as if trying to forget terrible secrets. But they could become warm and friendly too, especially if you were chatting with this tall, distinguished man about his greatest passion: dramatic acting. “I must have the dramatic, the ecstatic,” he told an interviewer in 1928, “something with great mental force.”

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Known today for such horror classics as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Man Who Laughs, Hans Walter Conrad Veidt (nicknamed “Connie”) came from a quiet and sensible background. He was born on January 22, 1893 in Berlin to a middle-class, Protestant family, and his father was a former Royal Artillery sergeant who worked as a civil servant. As a boy, Veidt had initially dreamed of becoming a surgeon. He had been inspired by the time a heart surgeon had performed a risky operation on his father, saving his life against all odds, and then tactfully only charging the family the little they could afford to pay. Deeply impressed, young Veidt hoped to one day be just as honorable. One day, he would be–although not in the way he had anticipated.

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Said to be one of his boyhood photos.

After realizing the sheer amount of education it took to become a surgeon, Veidt became discouraged. Fortunately, he had another passion: acting. After delivering a fine monologue for an otherwise dismal school play, Veidt felt the stage was his destiny. He left school without a diploma to study the great actors of his time (which fortunately wasn’t a difficult task, considering the prominence of German theater in the 1910s). His mother was delighted, but his father was not pleased. Veidt later recalled him lamenting, “An actor is a gypsy, an outcast”–however, the young man had made up his mind.

The 6’3″, slender teenager took to dressing in “theatrical” clothes–complete with a cape and monocle–and hanging around theaters as often as possible, going to every performance he could. In time he was introduced to an actor who agreed to give him acting lessons for free. He threw himself into the lessons, so enthused that at times he’d forget to eat. After about ten lessons the ambitious Veidt decided to audition for no one less than Max Reinhardt himself, giant of the German theater and a huge influence on the development of German Expressionism. Although he later recalled Reinhardt gazing out of the window during his entire audition, he did get a contract as an extra for ten dollars a month. Veidt would later recall how thrilled he was, spending his first ten dollars entirely on business cards with gold lettering that proudly read, “Conrad Veidt, Member of the Deutsches Theater.”

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Before he could work his way up to speaking roles, however, World War I began. Veidt enlisted and was sent to the eastern front. After being in the Battle of Warsaw he fell ill with jaundice and pneumonia. Upon his recovery he was declared unfit for service and was allowed to join a theater that entertained the troops. In 1917 he was officially discharged and he immediately went back to Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater, eager to sharpen his skills. He later said, “My will to succeed was never stronger within me. It was kind of an urgent drive which forced me forward, the impetus gathering strength as it progressed.”

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Rehearsal of the Reinhardt production Oedipus in London.

That same year, Veidt’s father passed away. For the rest of his life, Veidt would grieve that his father had died too early to witness what a success his son would become. The key to that success was Veidt’s decision to start appearing in motion pictures, where he tended to have “exotic villain” roles due to his strong facial features (one early horror-type role was of Satan in Der nicht vom Weibe Geborene). He found it little trouble to act in films during the day and perform on the stage at night, where he was appearing in notable German Expressionist productions.

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Although surrounded by talent–including actors Emil Jannings, Ernest Lubitsch and F.W. Murnau–Veidt was still able to stand out. A famed theater critic mentioned him in a review that Veidt would quote the rest of his life:

Conrad Veidt…is a very strange-looking young man with a face you will never forget. His eyes haunt. He dominated the stage. I forgot the others when he was on. I hope his fate will not be to go on to films, but undoubtedly film producers will be rushing for his services.

Some of his most notable early film roles were for a series of Aufklärungfilme, or “enlightenment films,” which tackled such heavyweight subjects such as prostitution, STDs, and even homosexuality. The latter was presented in Anders als die Andern (or Different From the Others, 1919), in which Veidt gives a sensitive performance as a gay violinist who falls for his student. Around this same time he married his first wife, Gussy Holl.

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Then came the role that would forever cement his place in film history–even though it would be far from his only plum role: the somnambulist Cesare in the wildly Expressionistic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Wearing all-black, stretchy clothing and heavy makeup, Veidt’s gothic-looking Cesare has become one of the most iconic figures in the cinema. While he’s only in a few scenes, his intense, trance-like performance makes a big impact. It was the exact sort of role Veidt gravitated toward, for he enjoyed playing villains who still had humanity: “They are bad, because somebody has made them bad,” he would say of such characters. “Life has twisted them.”

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In 1922 his beloved mother would pass away, and first marriage came to an end. Despite these hardships he continued to hone his acting skills. His ties with the influential German Expressionist movement as well as his flair for villainous roles was further cemented by his work in The Hands of Orlac (1924), Ivan the Terrible (1924) and The Student of Prague (1926).

After marrying his second wife Felicitas, Veidt–always striving for perfection, always looking for the deeper meaning in his life–was now experiencing a happier marriage than his first and a growing reputation as one of Europe’s great actors. He achieved even greater happiness when his only daughter Viola was born in 1925. “Do not ask me how I behaved when my daughter was born,” he later said “Like a crazy man. Certainly I did not comport myself like a normal father.  You might have thought nobody had ever had a baby before.  I wanted to do the craziest, the most extravagant, the most useless things.”

Conrad Veidt baby viola

In the midst of this joy Veidt received a telegram from John Barrymore, inviting him to Hollywood to make a picture. The offer being too important to pass down, he reluctantly left his wife and child and sailed to New York. Upon seeing the vast, busy metropolis, he remembered thinking wryly, “Ah, now I am playing in ‘Caligari’ again.” Once in Hollywood (where he received a warm welcome), he acted in Barrymore’s film The Beloved Rogue (1927) to much critical acclaim. He would eventually send for his wife and child and they would live together in Beverly Hills.

He would only make a few pictures in Hollywood, including The Man Who Laughs (1928)a difficult role that required him to do much of the emotional acting with his eyes alone. (It’s said that the Joker was modeled on Veidt’s appearance.) The coming of talkies was tough on him, due to his thick German accent, so he decided to return to Germany and resume acting there–missing out on an offer to play the lead in Dracula.

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His marriage with Felicitas would end in 1932 (he would later say the failure of his first two marriages was due to having a psychological “mother complex”) and the following year he would wed Lily Prager, who he’d remain happily married to until his death. He would remain close to his beloved daughter and on good terms with his ex-wives.

But back in Germany Veidt was starting to find the rise of Nazism intolerable, especially since Lily was Jewish. He would make films in Britain, particularly the pro-Jewish The Wandering Jew (1933) and Jew Süss (1934), which brought him to the attention of the Gestapo, which imprisoned him for a time. Not long after marrying Lily he had to fill out the “racial questionnaire” imposed by Joseph Goebbels, where German actors had to state their ancestry in order to stay employed. Gentile Veidt deliberately wrote down “Jewish.” Soon after the couple left Germany for good.

After being in several British films he ended up back in Hollywood to play Vizier Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad (1940), after first donating his life savings to the WWII effort. He would continue to donate much of his earnings to the allied cause, even while being gradually typecast into aristocratic Nazi roles (he always insisted that they clearly be the villains). His popular appeal as a suave, attractive villain was such that an ad campaign proclaimed, “Women Fight For Conrad Veidt!”

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His second-to-last film was Casablanca (1942), where he played Major Strasser (and was the highest-paid actor in the film, despite having a supporting role). His last film would be Above Suspicion (1943), costarring Joan Crawford. A few months after shooting was complete, he would suffer a heart attack while playing golf at the Riviera Country Club. He was pronounced dead on the scene. Only 50 years old, he never saw the end of the war and victory of the Allies he had been so passionately supporting.

Yet he left behind a legacy every bit as honorable as that of the surgeon he had admired so long ago. Remembered for both the Weimar era Caligari, sometimes argued as prophetic of the Nazi regime to come, and WWII era Casablanca, with the theme of risking everything for the Allied cause, Veidt is forever linked with a time that he had personally witnessed. He was one of cinema’s finest actors, and a gentleman who was a hero behind the scenes.

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Sources:

Eisner, Lotte H. The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008.

Morin, Edgar. The Stars: An Account of the Star-System in Pictures. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1961.

Soister, John T. Conrad Veidt on Screen: A Comprehensive Illustrated Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2002.

Gebhart, Myrtle. “His Nickname Is ‘Connie’.” Picture-Play Magazine, December 28, 1928.

“The Story of Conrad Veidt” [Special section]. Sunday Dispatch, London, October 14–November 4, 1933.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conrad_Veidt

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19 thoughts on “A Mesmerizing Talent: The Life And Career Of Conrad Veidt

  1. Thanks for this well-researched and sober article–I really appreciate it when someone strives to get the facts right. There are several false factoids floating around about him, even including his birth name (I’ve seen his birth certificate in Lebensbilder and it’s definitely spelled with a C), that people keep replicating when they write about him–if they write about him at all. It’s refreshing to see people talk about the man’s entire career instead of all the endless Joker posts. He’s incredibly underappreciated as an actor and deserves to be more well-known, especially beyond his early silent horror films–he really came fully into his powers in the talkies, IMHO, and they’re the ones that are the hardest to find unless you’re really dedicated. I’ve tried to do my part by distributing my Veidt collection as far and as wide as I can, but what we really need are more subtitled DVD releases of his German talkies and his British films in particular. One can only hope articles such as these help spark more interest in his long and varied career.

    Again, thank you for this post!

    • Can you please share a link to the films you have of him? I am a such a fan but I’ve only seen him in Caligari, The Man Who Laughs and Casablanca. (although I have Orlacs Hände downloaded already, but haven’t watched it). Thanks in advance!

      • I can share my link, if the maintainer does not mind! Go to veidtveidtveidt dot tumblr dot com and click “Masterpost.” I’ve had to wrangle the links all over the place, so now the blog I’m posting updates to (the Tumblr one) is the main one to follow if you want to know what’s been added and/or changed, but the links themselves are on yet another blog over on LJ. A couple of friends and I have also been creating and editing subtitles for his German films, but we still need help with a couple of films as it’s gruelling, slow work. We haven’t got subs for The Chess Player yet (since none of us speaks French) either. So we’re always looking for people to help–even a transcription of the German/French dialogue would be a big help, a translation even better (it’s the creation/timing of the subtitles that’s the hardest part of the subtitling process). We’ve managed to create subs for Rasputin and Der Mann, Der Den Mord Beging and Der Schwarze Husar so far–all worth watching so people can get a good idea of his range. Rasputin’s more like a docu-drama and not that great a film, but his performance is always interesting even if the film might not be that good. Der Mann is a very bleak and depressing film, but his performance is incredibly subdued, subtle and intelligent and a world away from the staring, flailing (or hypersexed) creature he’s often seen as. Husar is great, frothy adventure fun–one of the rare times he got to play a hero.

    • You’re welcome, happy to oblige! It’s so true, Veidt is one of those actors who gets treated more like a trivia answer on Jeopardy (“This actor’s fixed grin was the inspiration for the Joker”). But he was considered one of the greatest talents on t he screen, a true artist–apparently he had the ability to get any sort of role he asked for, filmmakers were actually willing to listen to his ideas. I know a few of his talkies are on YouTube but it would always be good to see more. I’d love to see more of his German Expressionist films from the late ’10s/early ’20s, but I suspect a bunch of them are lost. Doubtless they wouldn’t have been carefully preserved throughout WWII, if you know what I mean.

      • I’ve shared the link to my collection above:) I’m always trying to convert more people to him, but if his films aren’t even available, it’s going to be difficult to get people into anyone, really. That’s why I started the blog. I’ve used various channels to fish out those obscure films nobody–even the archivists–don’t seem to care about anymore, but there are some amazing gems in there that are well worth discovering. The Student of Prague in particular–my file being a TV recording from Germany in the 90s that’s of a better quality than the DVDs available–is an absolutely amazing film and should be recognised right up there with Nosferatu and Caligari and all the other German Expressionist classics. That’s the one that really kicked off my Veidt obsession, and I am still slack-jawed at how unknown it is. A film curator friend of mine is trying to arrange a showing of it in London as soon as she can, to help make it more known.

        And yes! It’s astonishing how when you go back and read the old magazines–how he was really seen as *the* greatest actor on the screen, for decades, and just how popular he was. And now, hardly anyone knows him, or only knows the silent horror star and even the horror buffs don’t bother to check out his other films. It’s a crying shame, as I feel he perfected himself in the talkies, becoming an entirely different man–no longer the cursed, tormented victim of the silents, but one who exercised hypnotic, devastating, spiritual powers over others instead (not that I don’t love the silents, too, but it’s his talkies that are the most unknown and grossly underappreciated of all). In the Wandering Jew, he becomes this spiritualised, saintlike character in the end, absolutely glowing with an internal, holy light, and in The Passing of the Third Floor Back, he plays an angel (or possibly Christ–it’s deliberately left vague)–and definitely one with an Old Testament level of power and awe.

        Yet it’s just the demon most people know him as. I always get more reblogs and likes on Tumblr if I post gifs of him in his stereotypically pale and skeletal silent roles–all the goths wake up and reblog them with tags like “vampire”… but even if I post long flaily essays on the complexities of films like A Woman’s Face (which I consider his best talkie performance), hardly anyone cares. Or then I might get notes if I try the social issues angle and go on about those aspects of his life and work, of his fighting the Nazis, promoting gay rights, things like that. Granted, a part of that is due to the age of the target audience, the place being full of teenagers, but it’s also where fandom is, so that’s where I’m most active in my Veidt preaching.

        But, anyway, now I’m rambling–thanks again for this post. Here’s hoping it’ll spark at least a little more interest in the man and his career.

        • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, it’s very appreciated! Yes, it can be tough to “spread the good news,” but it’s always worth doing, because you never know just who you’re going to reach. If someone’s work strikes a deep chord with someone, it can have an amazing impact on their life (I can attest to that, as can you, I’m sure!).

          While researching this article I definitely noticed what a huge star Veidt was back in the day–a respected a distinguished star, too. He talked about how directors always let him have the types of roles he liked, which was pretty incredible if you think about it. Usually actors had to take what producers/directors decided to give them, even if they were big names. He seemed humble about this too, merely being pleased at how surprisingly obliging Hollywood directors could be. 😀

          I’ve only seen clips of the 1926 Student of Prague, and it looks incredible!

  2. Pointless trivia – I first heard the name Conrad Veidt as a sprog many (many) moons ago when the late great DJ Terry Wogan used to play a record of a creepy German sounding voice speaking to music, with the immortal opening line “Where the lighthouse shines across the bay…” 😛

    • 😀 I stumbled across that recording while researching this article! Apparently it got popular for awhile in the ’80s after someone called and requested it at a radio station.

      • It spooked me a little as I was just a kid and the recording was old and scratchy, and his European accent reminded me of Dracula so later when discovering classic horror films and saw Veidt’s pic from “Caligari” it spooked me out even more! 😮 😛

        • He would’ve made an excellent Dracula, too! Bela Lugosi should thank his lucky stars that Conrad turned down the role. 😉

  3. I have read many, and written a few, articles about Conrad Veidt but I have to give First Prize to your essay. Informative and charming, your essay whets the appetite of the reader to run out and see as many of Conny’s films as possible. Let me suggest that you post a link to this essay on the FB group, The Cabinet of Conrad Veidt. I’ve posted number of items there including some of his films.

    • Thank you so much, sir! It was an enjoyable article to research. I think what impressed me most was discovering just how passionate Veidt was about his acting. He never lost focus, always worked hard. Even if he wasn’t well-received it didn’t faze him–he knew this was what he was meant to do. I love that.

  4. “Contraband” (1940) is a wonderful film, and everybody should run right out at see it. It was Powell and Pressburger’s second collaboration, and Veidt is fantastic as the hero, a Danish sea captain.

  5. Love it! Thanks, Lea! That is a darn good article!
    I’ve always liked C.V. and it’s nice to find out more about him. That thing about the birth of his daughter was adorable. =)
    Photos and such from “Caligari”‘ are partially to blame for me getting interested in silents, so I am forever grateful to him for that one, for sure. But whenever I hear that Veidt is in a movie I’m curious about, it always ups my interest about a million percent. (Such has been the case with “The Beloved Rogue” recently.) =) Thanks again!

  6. Pingback: A Halloween Post Roundup! | Silent-ology

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