The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
Conrad Veidt is a bit of a departure, for this series has been focusing
women (an accidental bias) working in the United States (not an accidental
bias). Conrad had a thriving career in silent cinema – in Germany. His most
well-known films, however, were made in Hollywood long after the silents gave
way to the magic and possibilities of sound and dialogue. If you don’t know him
by name, you’ll realize by the end of this piece that you most definitely know
this man, who has appeared in some of the most acclaimed and popular films of
the Golden Age of Hollywood, and whose life is as exotic and full of intrigue as
are some of his best known films.
Conrad was born
in Potsdam, Germany (home today of the respected Potsdam International Film
Festival) on Jan 22, 1893. While a child, he went to the Sophiengymnasium in
Berlin but didn’t receive a diploma when he graduated in 1912 (he placed last of
13 students on the academic scale.) It seems his heart was already elsewhere, as
he began his stage career just one year later. Already under the tutelage of the
famous Max Reinhardt, he started performing on the stage in Germany, and quickly
and easily segued into films by 1917. Germany was truly on the vanguard of
artistic, experimental cinema – as with the former Soviet Union, Germany had a
well-developed and well-funded film studio (UFA), and its filmmakers were avidly
pursuing cinema as a unique art form.
It was a great
place for Conrad to be. He was extremely prolific in his first years making
films, and played fascinating roles from Chopin to Lucifer to Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde; in 1919 alone he made no less than 12 films before the one that forever
put him on the world stage and in the repertory of film schools internationally.
These films include Prostitution, Different from the Others,
Prince Cuckoo, Madness, Opium and Nocturne of Love;
many have since been released internationally. The roles ranged, and always he
brought to them his incredibly striking screen presence – his penetrating eyes
and almost vicious mouth are his trademarks today.
Just like in the
world of German painting, German cinema was preoccupied with Expressionism;
films that, through use of high contrast lighting, stagy and off-centre design,
and lurid themes, spoke to the post-War angst and liminality of Germany at the
time. No film better exemplifies this movement than The Cabinet of Dr.
Caligari (1919), which anyone studying the history of film as an art form of
social import should see. Conrad stars as a robotic and sinister somnambulist in
this lurid, garish and riveting film that encapsulates the best of what German
cinema was offering at the time.
He hadn’t yet
achieved international fame, however. He continued making films over the next
few years, and ultimately became recognized the world over for his The Student of Prague (1926). With this film he caught the attention of
Hollywood, and he moved there the following year. Hollywood had just caught on
to the aesthetic of German Expressionism, and was eager to capitalize on the man
who had helped make this film movement such a success. Conrad played King Louis
XI in The Beloved Rogue (1927), and also starred in Universal’s The
Man Who Laughs (1928) as a disfigured man in this Romantic-styled film. He
starred in one more film – appropriately titled The Last Performance – in
1929 before returning to Germany.
He returned at
an ill-fated time. His first wife, Ilona, was Jewish, and Conrad himself, when
filling out forms, always identified his ethnicity as “Juden” (Jewish). After
making several films in Germany, including Congress Dances (1931) and
Rasputin and Jew Suss (1933), he fled Germany for England with his
second wife, Felicitas (also Jewish) to escape the Nazis. A consummate actor, he
never gave up his craft despite the turmoil erupting in his midst. Some
highlights are The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935), Under the
Red Robe (1937) and The Spy in Black (1939) – these films very much
spoke to the fear surrounding the approaching war.
Then he was off
again, this time to Hollywood, and for good. In an instance of
extreme irony, he
would be typecast over and over as the evil Nazi, which he did play to
perfection in Casablanca (1942), probably his most enduring role (Dr.
Caligari aside, for you film buffs out there). He also played a sinister
black magician in The Thief of Baghdad (1940), and starred in numerous
other films during the war years: A Woman’s Face (1941), The Men in
Her Life (1941), Whistling in the Dark (1941) All Through the Night
(1942, with Humphrey Bogart) and The Nazi Agent (1942). His last film was
Under Suspicion (1943), for which he played a dashing and dangerous Count
wreaking havoc on a husband and his bride’s (Joan Crawford) honeymoon. He died
on April 3, 1943 of a heart attack while playing golf.
Conrad’s was a
cosmopolitan and arguably nomadic life. He never stopped performing though the
world was falling apart all around him; he became an integral part of German
Expressionism as well as Hollywood wartime cinema. He worked with the best
actors of his generation, and also missed out on a few great roles – notably,
Dracula, which went to Bela Lugosi in the famed 1931 film of the same name. He
was understandably typecast, with his smoldering looks, but made each role his
own – he even had the highest paying salary on Casablanca, which speaks
to his prestige and fame – and has left an enduring legacy in the history of
world cinema. It is another one of the ironies of his life that no one in his
own country heard about his death for years. An actor depicting Nazis in
America, he was black-listed by the Nazis at home, so no announcement was
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in
The Movie Profiles &
Premiums Newsletter. Tammy invites you to write her at
email@example.com with any questions or comments on her column.