I tend to go through phases of interest, little fascinations or obsessions with individual facets of film, such as genre, era, actor, director, etc. I may watch a group of films by a certain director, watch an actor dally in diverse genres, obsess over a minor player’s career, or delve into a given style. This has led to such interests as my ongoing love of film noir, seeing almost all of George Cukor’s films, delving into the career of Ida Lupino, studying women in silent film, or learning about women filmmakers in Africa today.

Right now, I’m making my way through the many films of Conrad Veidt.

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As you may know, Veidt, born Hans Walter Conrad Veidt, was born in 1893 in Potstam and studied in Berlin. He made about 100 films in Germany, England, and the U.S. While he is best known for playing Nazis with monocles in Hollywood film, he in fact was an opponent of Nazism and fled the country with his Jewish wife (married the year Hitler came to power) after identifying himself as Jewish (which he was not).

Veidt’s early work was within examples of the beautiful intensity of German Expressionism within the silent films of Weimar Germany. He was the eerie somnambulist Cesare (pronounced Che-za-ray) in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but that was after he’d already had 30+ roles in other silent films! He is also well known as the tragic Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1928), featuring the surgically forced grin that inspired DC’s Joker.

For noir fans, Veidt is best known as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942), of course. He also had second billing the year before, as the fascistic villain of A Woman’s Face (1941), opposite Joan Crawford.

 

Veidt also starred in multiple dark war films that can be interpreted through a noir lens, such as Escape (1940), a tale of a young American (Robert Taylor) who comes to Nazi Germany, seeking information about his mother, an actress who is pending execution at a concentration camp (played by the amazing Alla Nazimova). Here, Veidt plays a WWI hero, General Kurt von Kolb, whose investment in the Nazis grows until he becomes a threat to the American as well as the widowed countess (played by Norma Shearer), whom he loves and controls until she chooses to resist. The final scene is gorgeously and noirishly intense.

Perhaps a pre-noir is Dark Journey (1937), in which Veidt plays opposite Vivien Leigh. He is a WWI German spy and she is a French double agent: can their romance survive? I’ve never seen Leigh better, and it’s a delight to see Veidt pour on the charm. (An early scene in which he feigns the role of carefree playboy is particularly awesome, as he claims to be able to predict what every girl will say after he has kissed her.)

At the moment, I’ve got the films Nazi Agent (1942) and his last film, Above Suspicion (1943), on my immediate to-see list. And there are dozens more extant! (If only the local nonprofit art cinema would show some on the big screen!)

I wish only that he hadn’t died so suddenly, at 50, of a heart attack while playing golf. He never saw Hitler defeated. But then, he didn’t see the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki either. At least he went quickly; we should all be so lucky.

Screened to date:

  • Cabinet of Dr Caligari 1920
  • Waxworks 1924 (as Ivan the Terrible)
  • The Man Who Laughs 1928
  • Jew Suss 1934 (not the Nazi antisemitic one!)
  • The Passing of the Third Floor Back 1935 (delightful British fantasy/comedy)
  • Dark Journey 1937
  • Escape 1940
  • A Woman’s Face 1941
  • All Through the Night 1942 (yet another Nazi)
  • Casablanca 1942
  • Nazi Agent 1942 (added 11/19/17)

Most of these can be found online (YouTube, ok.ru) or to rent, and there isn’t one I don’t recommend!

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Veidt as Ivan the Terrible (Waxworks), seeing his doomed fate in a magical hourglass.