THE SECRET OF PERSONALITY
By CONRAD VEIDT
FILM WEEKLY, May 4, 1934
The popular German star, who is now an established British favourite, analyses one of the most misused words in the film enthusiast’s vocabulary.
If there is one subject under the sun that it is foolish for anybody, and above all an actor, to discuss, that subject is “personality”. The word is misused more than any two others in the film enthusiast’s vocabulary. Nobody knows quite what he means by it, and everybody at some time or another is credited with it.
If I try to tell you what it is, or what I think it is, I must talk a lot about myself, for it is only personal points of view that can be of any help in a discussion of this sort. I hope you will realise that and not accuse me of being abominably swollen-headed and trying to show off.
I have the ability – and it is a very uncomfortable gift at times – of sensing almost immediately I meet a person whether I shall get on well with him or not. It is a difficult thing to describe, and the only way in which I can explain it to you is by comparing it with the working of a wireless set of great sensitiveness and selectivity – a human wireless set which can pick up the waves radiated by other human persons. We all of us, in some way or another, transmit waves of thought and feeling. And most of us can, at any rate now and then, pick up the waves that have been sent out by other people.
You have probably experienced the strange coincidence of having made a remark to a friend at the very same time that he makes the identical remark to you – or of beginning to whistle a tune at the moment when your friend begins to whistle the same tune. Somehow, each of you has conveyed the same thought to the other at the identical instant. It is the same with out “intuitive” impressions of the people we come into contact with. Without any conscious rational process, we say to ourselves “So-and-so gives me a bad impression” or “Somehow I like that fellow a lot.”
Now I believe that, somewhere and somehow, the secret of personality lies in that unformulated and irrational impression that one human being makes upon another. The man with the greatest “personality” is the man who can send out the strongest waves and so create the most vivid impression. The man who has the clearest line of mental and emotional communication between himself and his neighbours.
So far so good.
But it is not good enough for the actor to impress his own personality on to his audience – that would mean that he would always have to play the same part, or at least the same character in different plays. He would always have to be himself – and all his material would have to be written specially for him on very limited lines.
Such a man would not be a great actor; and if actors were made from such material, then the best of them would be those who had formerly graduated as hypnotists.
The problem of the actor is not to project his own waves of feeling on to his audience, but to project the waves of someone not himself, someone entirely different, the man whom he is portraying.
Only Thing in Life
It is in coping with that problem that difficulties arise. In Jew Süss, for instance (I warned you that I should have to talk all about myself), the great tragic moment of the picture comes when Jew Süss, having spent all his life in the pursuit of power, discovers at the moment of his daughter’s death that the only thing in life worth while is love of one’s fellow beings. And in that moment he decides to revenge himself on the man who has destroyed the only creature in his life whom he ever really loved.
My difficulty in putting all that over was: first I had to forget myself as I am in everyday life and become as completely as I could the financier-politician of eighteenth-century Wurtemberg. Then I had to feel, as he felt, a great love for my (screen) daughter, Naemi. And finally I had to feel all the passionate sorrow and thirst for vengeance that Süss felt when he found his daughter dead.
I had, in fact, to become another person and to transmit not my own waves of feeling, but his.
It is possible to counterfeit such things. It is possible by the use of one’s experience and technique to “get away with” such passages, although you do no really enter into the character of the man you are portraying. Technically, you may be acting well, and nobody will be able to make any seriously damning criticism of your performance. But still there will be something lacking, something which the audience realises is unsatisfactory, although it may not be able to say just exactly what that is. And the fact of the matter will be that you are failing to play the part as it should be played because you are not living and feeling the part.
There is one actor in this country who is a perfect example of this point – Charles Laughton. He is an actor who so completely lives his part that nobody who has seen his Henry VIII will ever be able to realise without a struggle that the real Henry may not always have appeared as Laughton acted him. Laughton’s king was such a real creation that he came right through the screen and impressed us, not with Laughton’s thoughts and feeling, but with those of a sixteenth-century English king.
Putting Personality Across
Mention of Laughton’s success in that part brings me to the last and, for the film-actor, most important question in this matter of personality – putting personality across. The stage-actor’s job is comparatively easy. He has his audience in front of him, he is in direct contact with them as far as his waves of thought and feeling are concerned, and he can express himself (or rather his assumed self) directly to them.
With the film actor things are not so easy. The medium in which he works is a technical and mechanical one. He has to overcome the cold, dead barriers of camera and microphone and give the audience that sees his screen-shadow in the cinema the impression that he is there in flesh and blood reality and in direct contact with themselves.
To produce that effect, he has to forget not only his ordinary everyday self, but also his surroundings, the arc-lamps, the camera and the vicious-looking little sound-box above his head.
You may have noticed that some stage actors, men of very great personality in the theatre, have failed in their earlier pictures to convey to their audiences the necessary impression of reality in their characterizations – they have seemed a little wooden and unreal.
“Where is the Camera?”
If you watch them working on the set, you will frequently hear them asking “where is the microphone?” or “where is the camera?” That, although they have not realised it, is the reason why they are failing to do themselves justice. They are conscious of the technical side of picture-making, and while they remain conscious of those technical details they can never give their best performance, they can never lose themselves in their assumed role. They may give a performance which is sound and satisfactory – but it will never be perfect.
By having their attention diverted to something outside the character they are portraying they have been frustrated in their attempt to express “personality” – which has nothing at all to do with the personal character of Mr. So-and-so the actor, but it is the name that we give to the waves of thought and feeling that reach us from the living persons whose identity the actor has completely assumed.