Saturday, December 4, 2021

What a Character! The Everlasting Imprint of Conrad Veidt

 Conrad Veidt packed nearly 120 film roles into his all too brief lifetime, but it was the last film released before his death that guaranteed him a special brand of eternal life, what could be called the “filmmortality” actors receive when they’ve had a key role in a timeless classic that goes on to greater and greater acclaim over the decades. For Veidt the film was Casablanca (1942) and the role was cold-as-marble Major Heinrich Strasser, Nazi commanding officer. The film opened wide in the US on the day after Veidt’s 50th birthday, and he lived long enough to see it achieve its early success. He was gone by the time Casablanca was nominated for eight Oscars and went on to win Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Veidt had enjoyed making the film but could not have imagined that the movie Warner Bros. had initially feared would fail would one day be universally beloved and frequently touted as the best studio film of Hollywood’s classic era.

Casablanca
Casablanca is a juggernaut of a classic and Veidt, blessed with a piercing gaze, striking features, a commanding bearing and bone-deep talent, is superb as the archetypal soulless Nazi. Yet, while the film and the role may have capped his career with an exclamation point it was not his only claim to filmmortality. There was also the silent masterpiece that made him an international star more than twenty years earlier. Unlike Casablanca, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is not a popular mainstream classic but it is, with its twisty scenario, surreal set design and disturbing performances, one of the most significant and influential German expressionist films in cinema history. It has also been called the first art film and the first horror film. In it, a lithe, spectral Veidt portrays Cesare, seen through most of the film as a somnambulist with little free will who commits murder under the spell of a mad Caligari. The film created a sensation on release and continues to be studied in film schools across the globe.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Casablanca represent high points in two distinct phases of Conrad Veidt’s career and life, his years in German silents during the Weimar era and his last years in Hollywood during the second world war. There was another phase between the two, the years of Hitler’s reign, when Veidt and his Jewish wife emigrated to England. Among the films he made during this British period, 1933 – 1940, was The Thief of Bagdad (1940), a film that brought Veidt yet another signature role. The big-budget, Technicolor fantasy/adventure highlights Veidt’s flair for villainy with his mesmerizing performance as wicked  sorcerer and grand vizier, Jaffar. His fierce, colorful turn as Jaffar would resonate over time so that when Disney produced the animated feature that would become the top-grossing film of 1992, Aladdin, the villain, Jafar, was modeled on Veidt’s characterization 50+ years earlier.

"Jaffar" in The Thief of Bagdad

German-born Conrad Veidt had become enamored of the stage in his youth and began as an actor while in his late teens with Max Reinhardt’s famed Deutsches Theater, Berlin’s official theater. He moved into film relatively quickly, rose to stardom and gained a level of international fame that brought an invitation to silent era Hollywood that he accepted. He would return to Germany with the advent of sound films only to be driven out forever by the rise of Hitler and his National Socialists.

A lesser man, a lesser artist, might’ve faded from the scene at this point, but Conrad Veidt was anything but “lesser.” He admitted  that driving ambition, will and luck were crucial to his success, but he also spoke of an unusual, deep-seated “power” within him that, he believed, “transmutes not only my inner but physical being when I am called upon to express myself on the stage or before the camera.” It was, he felt, “as though something within me presses a switch and my own consciousness merges into some other, greater, more vital being.” This mysterious internal process helps account for the fluidity of his performances as well as his uncanny magnetism.

From the macabre grotesques of his silent films to the cruel, cosmopolitan Nazis of his late career, it is for his more sinister roles that Conrad Veidt is best remembered. The mix of sophistication, charm and overt – or covert – danger he seemed to so effortlessly project onscreen put him in high demand for films in need of a formidable, even dominating villain, and there were many.

A Woman's Face
One of the most fascinating dark turns of his mature career came in A Woman’s Face, the 1941 MGM remake of an earlier Swedish film starring Ingrid Bergman. Veidt described his character, Torsten Barring, as “Lucifer in a tuxedo.” Barring is a cash-poor aristocrat/playboy who is not above finding the money to maintain his luxurious existence through theft, blackmail and even murder. Veidt, in an elegantly understated performance, offers a three-dimensional rendering of a debauched sophisticate of tantalizing charisma, unapologetic arrogance and no conscience. The scene in which he, voice soft and eyes glittering, conquers scarred and embittered Anna Holm (Joan Crawford) with his well-honed charm defines Torsten’s predatory nature and showcases Veidt’s seductive allure. It was one of his favorite roles.

Although he could be deliciously convincing as a villain, Veidt possessed the range and skill to play believably sympathetic characters. One of the better films of his British period was one of his last before decamping to the U.S. The wartime espionage drama Contraband (1940) was directed by Michael Powell with a screenplay by Emeric Pressburger. Veidt portrayed the captain of a neutral Danish freighter who becomes involved in a British agent’s (Valerie Hobson) assignment to track down a ring of German spies based in London. Not only did he have the opportunity to play a courageous lead on the right side of the war, but Veidt also got the girl in the end. It was while promoting this film in the U.S. that he was lured to Hollywood once more.

Above Suspicion
He would make eight films during his final three years in Hollywood. In the first of them, Escape (1940), Veidt would appear with monocle firmly in place in the role of a brutish Nazi official. In Whistling in the Dark (1941), a Red Skelton comedy, he played a cult leader. He portrayed a ballet instructor and mentor to Loretta Young’s fledgling ballerina in The Men in Her Life (1941). All Through the Night (1942), a Humphrey Bogart vehicle from Warners, featured Veidt as the ringleader of a gang of German saboteurs in New York. Nazi Agent (1942) brought the dual role of German-born twins who have emigrated to the U.S.; one is a loyal American, the other a Nazi. All those Nazis! Ironically, of course, Conrad Veidt was staunchly and actively anti-Nazi. He was vocal about his opposition to the Third Reich in interviews and public appearances, performed without pay in WWII-themed radio plays and was involved in the European Film Fund, an organization that assisted displaced European film folk.

Conrad Veidt’s final film, Above Suspicion (1943) was released a month after his passing in April 1943. It's not one of his signature films or even a very good film, but it did allow him to go out playing an anti-Nazi. The plot has newlyweds Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray in Austria on a spy mission. Veidt is the genteel and gallant Austrian freedom fighter who guides and looks out for them. The New York Times observed, “The late Conrad Veidt must have enjoyed this sabbatical from his portraits of thin-lipped villainy; here he plays a sort of underground Robin Hood...” Naturally, his character was cultured and urbane, but this time he was also heroic.

Veidt had been aware for some years that he had a heart condition but he kept this to himself so he could continue to work. Reports of the time have it that he and his wife attended a late-night party on the evening of April 2, 1943, and that on the morning of the 3rd he headed to the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles where he had an early golf date. Apparently he collapsed on the eighth hole.

Conrad Veidt departed Hollywood forever at age 50 nearly 80 years ago. He is known and admired among film buffs primarily thanks to Casablanca and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but his imprint extends beyond his roles in those two classics. Disney wasn’t alone in admiring Veidt’s performance in The Thief of Bagdad. Stop-motion animation virtuoso Ray Harryhausen had also taken note. He was a fan of the film and heavily influenced by it. Each of his three Sinbad films of the 1950s – 1970s featured a sorcerer figure inspired by Veidt's Jaffar, and some Harryhausen enthusiasts will say these characters were intended as homage. Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, credited Conrad Veidt’s look - the "rictus smile" - and performance in The Man Who Laughs (1928), a silent made when Veidt was under contract to Universal, as the inspiration for the Joker. The Joker, a major figure in the Batman cosmos, has been portrayed by several actors over several decades, from Cesar Romero on TV to Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger (Supporting Actor Oscar) and Jared Leto in the film franchise. Though linked to Batman's Joker and providing a potential origin story for him, the stand-alone film Joker (2019) was a psychological thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix in a Best Actor Oscar-winning performance as a comedian descending into madness. I suspect all of this would please Conrad Veidt very much.

~

 This is my contribution to the fabulous 10th Annual What a Character! blogathon. Click here for more!


 

 

14 comments:

  1. I didn't realize the connection between The Joker and The Man Who Laughs. Like you said, Conrad Veidt was extremely influential.

    Thanks for this tribute. It was great to learn more about this remarkable man.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To be honest, I was aware The Joker had something to do with a silent film and had sense of the poster image, but I didn't know more than that until recently.

      Delete
  2. Conrad Veidt would, in all likelihood, be pleased with his influential performances reaching through the decades. I like to think he would also be pleased with your tribute to the man and his work in this marvelous article.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope he would be pleased with my tribute and would understand that I could've written so much more - something more book-length.

      Delete
  3. Your post just sparkles like a crystal, my dear. Kind of like Jafar. Seriously, well done. I'm glad you mentioned "A' Woman's Face." Major league nasty man there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was actually "A Woman's Face" that inspired me to want to get to know more about Conrad Veidt. Such a performance..."Lucifer in a tuxedo," indeed.

      Delete
  4. This is a terrific, beautifully written essay on one of most talented and fascinating performers of his era. I always felt bad he got stuck playing so many Nazis, but since he knew the indignity and terror of their devouring his country, perhaps that helped him create such soulless characters on screen. A great entry into this blogathon, thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Jacqueline. I can see that your appreciation for Conrad Veidt is deep. I felt badly for him, too, for all those Nazi roles. I suspect, though, that his depictions of those cruel, ruthless brutes did as much in support of the Allied cause as his more direct work on behalf of the war effort off screen.

      Delete
  5. Conrad Veidt has always fascinated me. I agree with him, that he had "an unusual, deep-seated 'power' within him." It has always worked for me, time notwithstanding.

    Thank you so much for this information-packed tribute to Veidt. I see there are some films to add to my "must-see-Veidt" list!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought his comments about the sense of inner power and connection he experienced while acting were quite revealing - and self-aware. He will always fascinate me.

      Enjoy your continuing exploration of his films, Marianne!

      Delete
  6. I knew about Veidt influencing the Joker but the Jafar one is news to me. Thanks--this was great!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. And...I may not have said it outright, but Veidt also - obviously - heavily influenced the portrayal of Nazis on film.

      Delete
  7. Hi, Great write-up on Veidt, regarding both his personal and professional life. I've only seen a few of his performances, A Woman's Face and Casablanca, and find him mesmerizing. I'll explore his career more this winter, with your tribute as a reference point. Rick

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, and enjoy your exploration of Conrad Veidt, Rick. I hope you continue to be - as I am - mesmerized by him.

      Delete