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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone


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1920's Conrad Veidt 5x7 Fan PhotoConrad Veidt is a bit of a departure, for this series has been focusing primarily on 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.

1930's Conrad Veidt Josetti Tobacco Card1934 Conrad Veidt Salem Tobacco CardHe 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 ever made.
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 with any questions or comments on her column.