The memorable roles of Conrad Veidt in silent films

Conrad Veidt in The Last Performance (1929)

This is an article that I wrote several weeks ago and that was published by Angie Schaffer, owner of the website http://www.thelittlejazzbaby.com/. Now I consider it as part of my tribute to Connie on the occasion of his 70th death anniversary.

Conrad Veidt (a.k.a. Connie) is, to me, the greatest German actor of all time – if not the greatest actor in the world! He is considered the Prince of the silent German cinema, but he did make several motion pictures around the world, too, in such countries like Great Britain, France, Italy and the USA. This year we celebrated Connie’s 120th birthday, and on April 3 we will remember, with deep sorrow, the difficult moment when he left us for good, 70 years ago. But his remarkable work is his legacy, despite the fact that half of his films are no longer available – at least not to the general public. Connie made 120 films throughout his long career, starting from the late 1910s, and ending in the beginning of the 1940s. 12 of them were made in Hollywood, including 4 silent films. As a great fan and collector of Conrad Veidt for several years, I managed to get over 55 of his splendid works of art and also some unique documentaries. Throughout his extensive career, he appeared in numerous memorable film roles, especially in the silent productions. One of them is the somnabulist Cesare, from the Expressionist masterpiece “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919/20). The enduring popularity of this film in each and every civilised corner of the world reflects the capacity of Conrad to attract the audiences even in modern times. “No matter what roles I play, I can’t get Caligari out of my system”, he used to say. Connie’s portrayal of Cesare is frightening, mesmerizing and stupendous at the same time. He controls all the scenes he is in, being close to or even better than Caligari himself, his master, played by Werner Krauss. Conrad is a very attractive and fascinating sinister character. He excels in such roles like Caligari’s Cesare, but also as another Cesare, even more cruel and dangerous: Cesare Borgia. In the film “Lucrezia Borgia” (1922), his performance is outstanding, as he overshadows the rest of the cast. Only Albert Bassermann stands up to Connie’s talent, playing the role of his father, Pope Alexander VI. The famous curse scene is one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in a silent production. Another kind of role that I enjoyed seeing Conrad in is the doppelgänger type, like in “The Student of Prague” (1926), which is his best silent film to me. The brothers he played in “Die Brüder Schellenberg” is another piece of artistry so brilliant because of Connie. It’s unimaginable to think of someone else than Conrad Veidt who could perform two different characters so well at the same time. The good and the bad brother or image in fact reflect the dual nature of Conrad’s own personality, just the way he wrote about himself in an article called “Ist er gut? Ist er böse?”. What is interesting and important to point out is the fact that Connie is so good at being bad. For instance, his portrayal of Ivan the Terrible in the masterpiece “Waxworks” (1924) was so great, that it earned him a contract in Hollywood, where he would make one of his most iconic films, “The Man Who Laughs” (1928). It is well known that his laughing face, his grin in the film was the source of inspiration for the Joker character from Batman. Gwynplaine, close to Cesare from Caligari, is the best remembered role of Conrad in his silent film career.

I also enjoyed immensely his performance as the evil magician torn between love and revenge, in the Hollywood production of “The Last Performance” (1929), his last film in America before the talkies came in and he returned to Germany. I want to mention here that a remarkable trait of Conrad’s personality and interpretation of the character is his vulnerability. He could never be completely good or bad. He becomes a ruthless man, a villain owing to a psychological distress or inner disturbance: an unshared love, an unfortunate life, a deep frustration, a denial of the world in which he was born etc. His character becomes bad – really bad, I might say – when he doesn’t get what he really wants – most of the times the girl of his dreams, who either rejects him or simply doesn’t care about him. Physically, Conrad was a commanding presence. He was very tall (1.91 m) and had the most magnetic and piercing blue eyes. His hands (just like his voice) were one of his numerous assets, and we could see how wonderfully he conveys all sorts of emotions through them – anger, love, hate, despair, uselessness – in “The Hands of Orlac” (1924), a horrifying thriller, but a gem of a film. Conrad’s large, bulging veins on the forehead and temples also contributed to his lively performance. Sometimes the energy and the strength he put in his roles would make one believe he could have killed himself during the act of creation, because he had a weak heart. But, above all, he wanted to become the character he played, he wanted to look, feel, behave and react like Cesare, Orlac, Balduin, Ivan, Erik and so many others. Because he played, indeed, a complexity of personalities, and owing to his good looks he was the perfect choice for the exotic roles, like in the outstanding German masterpiece “The Indian Tomb” (1921). He was also excellent in historical roles, like the ones in “Lucrezia Borgia” (1922), “Carlos and Elisabeth” (1923/24), “Waxworks” (1924) and “The Beloved Rogue” (1927). An interesting discovery to me was his film – considered officially lost – “Lady Hamilton” (1921). Here he portrays Lord Nelson, a man of honour, torn between the duty to his country and the burning love for his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton. The film has miraculously survived in a Russian archive and I am very grateful for having it, because it shows once again the fine artistic background of the German cinema, especially in the 20s, a period dominated by Conrad Veidt and his memorable and masterful productions that, to some extent, we, his fans and film goers, can still enjoy.

In the end, I want to express my appreciation towards Angela for inviting me to write on her wonderful website. She is doing a marvellous job here and I wish her all the best with her admirable work.

You could as well visit my two Conrad Veidt websites, with tons of high quality scans of my original collections, and also of contributions from fans of this magnificent actor from all over the world.

http://conradveidt.wordpress.com

http://www.conradveidtforever.wordpress.com/.

Together we can fight for Conrad Veidt!

Monique classique

You could find the article also here

http://www.thelittlejazzbaby.com/the-memorable-roles-of-conrad-veidt/

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