The Good German: The Life and Legacy of Conrad Veidt

Guest blogger Caroline Shapiro writes:

Despite having 119 film credits to his name, German-born actor Conrad Veidt (1893-1943) too frequently gets overlooked as a character actor, one whose niche is too specific to interest the classic film community en masse. It is only when one probes deeper into these misconceptions of Veidt’s career that one finds just how versatile and successful a performer he really was. To some, he is remembered as a horror icon. To others, he serves as the prime figurehead of the German Expressionist era in film. To most of us in the United States, he is the quintessential Nazi bad guy. And to a few, he is known as a pioneer of early progressive filmmaking, a humanitarian hero who risked his life and career to fight for what he believed was right, and one of Adolf Hitler’s most vocal foes. How can someone who means so many different things to so many people be too obscure?

Hans Walter Conrad Veidt was born on January 22, 1893, in Potsdam, Brandenburg, Germany, though some sources say Berlin. He was first bitten by the drama bug as an adolescent, a secret he was forced to hide from his father but which was lovingly encouraged by his mother, who gave him money out of the house account to go to the theater. “After school I would line up in the gallery queue – one mark – and yearn over the performances of the greatest actors and actresses of their time,” Veidt recalled. “I saw every sort of play and opera. . . . Afterwards I would walk home the two miles from the west end to our suburb, because I had no money for the tram, and I would see myself playing all those parts, thrilling the world.” After studying under the tutelage of drama coach Albert Blumenreich, Veidt got his first big break when he was hired on by Max Reinhardt as a company extra at the renowned Deutsches Theater. Gradually his parts increased in prominence, and the critics began to take notice of Veidt’s considerable talent and unique stage presence.

After climbing to the top of the Berlin theater community, it was only natural that film producers would start to take an interest in the gaunt, gangly, altogether unusual-looking Veidt. His first film was 1916’s Der Weg des Todes (The Road of Death) alongside Carl de Vogt and Maria Carmi. He worked endlessly during the latter half of the ‘Teens, appearing in four films in 1917, eleven in 1918, and fourteen in 1919. One of these, Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), featured Veidt portraying what is quite possibly the first intentionally, explicitly, and unequivocally homosexual character in film history. The movie, co-written by director Richard Oswald and pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, was a condemnation of Paragraph 175, Germany’s deeply-flawed law forbidding homosexuality. While undeniably significant in the history of cinema, Veidt’s appearance in a film with such a progressive and radical social message was an early indication of his own strongly-held political beliefs and the lengths to which he would go to voice them.

The first role that brought Conrad Veidt to the world’s attention was as Cesare the murderous somnambulist (sleep-walker) in Robert Wiene‘s 1920 groundbreaking Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. By using exaggerated set pieces and backdrops, extreme lighting, and having the actors move about in a jerky and dancelike way, Caligari achieved a surreal and dreamlike effect never before seen in cinema, which would go on to play a huge influence on both horror and non-horror films alike. From the moment Cesare, dressed all in black with a shock of messy black hair, is revealed in his coffin and slowly, eerily opens his wide eyes, audiences were infatuated with Conrad Veidt. “This film was the turning point in my career,” Veidt recalled. “Everything I had done up till now, on the stage and the films, was building me up, but Caligari established me, and made my Continental reputation.”

Following his success in Caligari, Veidt quickly made a name for himself in the budding horror film industry. He gave particularly ghoulish and impressive performances in Waxworks and The Hands of Orlac, both from 1924. He became known as the “Demon of the Silver Screen” and at this point in time was one of the highest-paid film actors in Germany, second only to Emil Jannings. Sure enough, Hollywood came calling, in the form of a written invitation sent directly from one of America’s very own stage and screen legends: “I saw your picture Waxworks. You must play in my picture. King Louis XI. I cannot make the picture without you. – Yours sincerely, John Barrymore.”

The picture in question was 1926’s The Beloved Rogue, and Veidt, though speaking no English and reluctant to leave his wife and baby daughter behind, agreed to play the part and set sail for America. He was immediately and lovingly welcomed into the fold of the Hollywood German ex-pat community, being greeted at the train station by the likes of Paul Leni and Ernst Lubitsch. John Barrymore was there, too, dashing quickly from the set in his private car to escort Veidt back to the studio personally. Before filming of The Beloved Rogue was through, Veidt had standing offers of employment from three different Hollywood studios. Ultimately it was Universal who won the prize.

Perhaps Conrad Veidt’s greatest success in America during the late 1920s was the Paul Leni-directed horror melodrama The Man Who Laughs (1928). Adapted from a Victor Hugo novel, the film starred Veidt as Gwynplaine, a sensitive man with a hideous permanent ear-to-ear grin carved into his face, who catches the attention of a sadistic duchess while performing with a circus. By enduring the rigorous makeup process and successfully rendering the tenderest of emotions whilst hardly being able to move his facial muscles, Veidt proved himself a viable rival to horror icon Lon Chaney – but alas, as fate would have it, it was not to be. Along came sound, and with it went Veidt’s hopes of continuing his rise in Hollywood. His German accent at this time was simply too thick and too distracting for him to have any chance of getting the same starring roles he had previously been afforded back when movies were silent. The only choice, in Veidt’s mind, was to return to Germany.

He was welcomed back into the German film community with open arms, but his brief dalliance with Hollywood was not forgotten by all. Next it was the British film industry which came calling. Veidt felt at home in England – it was, after all, not quite as far from his wife and child as Hollywood – and began making films and taking lessons to improve his English. However, by the early 1930s tensions were mounting outside of the movie industry, and soon Veidt was forced to make a choice. Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s second-hand man in the rapidly-growing Nazi Party, thought of Veidt as a valuable asset to Germany and tried to convince him to sign an oath of loyalty to the new totalitarian government and make only pro-Aryan films. In exchange, Goebbels was even willing to offer an Aryan certificate to Lily Prager, Veidt’s half-Jewish wife. Veidt, who valued tolerance and liberalism above all else, refused Goebbels’ offer and instead signed on to play the lead role in the British adaptation of Jew Süss, a pro-Jewish historical novel by Lion Feuchtwanger. Goebbels was not pleased. He had Veidt placed under house arrest, and rumor has it there was even a plot by the Nazis to assassinate him. Veidt left Germany in 1933, knowing that he could never return. Upon emigrating, when required to fill out a form which asked his religious affiliation, Veidt wrote in “JEW.”

Veidt’s star continued to rise in his new home country of England. He made three films under the direction of Michael Powell: The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940). The last of these three, a color picture, won three Academy Awards: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Special Effects. Despite Veidt’s fame and success, his German accent strictly dictated the roles he was eligible to play. In the 1930s he mostly portrayed a spy; by the 1940s he was firmly entrenched in Nazi bad guy territory.

Veidt returned to America for 1940’s Escape starring Norma Shearer and Robert Taylor, in which he played a Nazi general. In 1941 he starred with Joan Crawford in A Woman’s Face. He then appeared in the comic action drama All Through the Night with Humphrey Bogart and close friend Peter Lorre. In 1942 he played a dual role in Nazi Agent, portraying identical twins – one a Nazi spy and the other an honest, hard-working German American who is loyal to the Allies, kills his own brother and then impersonates him in order to take down the rest of his nefarious espionage ring. It is worth noting that at the time Veidt was playing Axis spies and Nazis in Britain and America, practically all of his salary was going right back to the British war effort.

Then in 1942 came a little picture called Casablanca. Despite starring beside such illustrious names as Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains, it was Conrad Veidt who received the highest salary for his portrayal as the villainous Major Heinrich Strasser. “This role epitomizes the cruelty and the criminal instincts and murderous trickery of the typical Nazi,” Veidt said of Strasser. ”I know this man well. He is a man who turned fanatic and betrayed his friends, his homeland, and himself in his lust to be somebody and to get something for nothing.” Despite his virulent anti-Nazi stance, Veidt was more than happy to lend his sinister looks and frightening presence to the cause of making his own enemies look bad on screen. After all, who would know better how to portray a Nazi than a man who had so narrowly escaped becoming the victim of an assassination plot by them?

Finally in 1943 Veidt was once again allowed to play a good guy, a leader of the German resistance in Above Suspicion with Joan Crawford andFred MacMurray. Sadly, it was to be Veidt’s last role. Shortly after shooting had been completed, Conrad Veidt died suddenly on a Hollywood golf course, the victim of a heart attack. He was only fifty years old. After starring in Jew Süss and stepping off German soil forever in 1933, Veidt was declared persona non gratain his home country. No official announcement was made there of his death. His own daughter, now 18 and living in safety in Switzerland with her mother, had to hear of her beloved father’s death on the radio.

From the moment his expressive eyes opened wide in 1919’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt saw a world of beauty, ugliness, love, and hate. He used his position as an actor from a war-making country to fight for what he believed in – tolerance, justice, compassion – even if it meant espousing on screen exactly the opposite values. Every dollar Conrad Veidt made from playing Nazis went right back into fighting the Nazis. He was an incredible and unique talent and a brave soul, accomplishing much in the little time he was afforded on this earth. He should be remembered not only as a legendary actor, but as a humanitarian hero as well.

Caroline Shapiro is a writer and self-proclaimed “classic film nerd” born and raised in Los Angeles, but currently residing in Arizona. Since 2010, her blog Garbo Laughs has primarily focused on classic film reviews, old movie stars, and tributes to Golden Age Hollywood glamor. Garbo Laughs can also be found and followed on Facebook and Twitter.