This is “a fictional short story based on religious disaffection and agnostic awakening, with that electric quality in Veidt’s performances playing a unique and powerful role”. It was written by the great Conrad Veidt fan, Heidi Andersen. Enjoy!
Wednesday 7:30 PM
In a svelte city of coffeehouses, bridges, and boulevards, there stands an old cinema with a tall, skinny electric sign that once blazed.
In the lobby there stand a popcorn machine, a rotating glass pizza baker, and a row of colorful candy dispensers. On the walls are glossy posters for Super Size Me and Fahrenheit 9/11.
It is 2004, but – as though it possesses a recalcitrant spirit of its own – the physical structure of the theater does not acknowledge this.
An adolescent girl sits in the back rows, cloaked in the shadow of the balcony. She sees looping wires that snake up the walls, past several missing panels. The high ceiling is lost in darkness, from which ageless red velvet curtains cascade to the floor: the sexy, elegant dress donned 80-some-odd years ago, and never relinquished. The gussied-up date that got stood up and never lost the scars.
Well-dressed guests, either seated or presently arriving, pointedly choose seats at least 10 feet from any strangers. They come single, or in pairs. An anomalous clutch of five students wears thick black glasses and stridently discusses Buster Keaton. If anyone looks at the girl, none of them stare.
That’s nice for a change. Probably for the best… could be someone I know.
She reconsiders the notion that anyone she knew would dare step into a place like this. She laughs to herself.
The darkness descends and covers everything. The UFA logo flickers across the screen and bodiless organ music leaps up. The girl can no longer see her own hands in her lap, but as a pinprick of light opens on a wintry, colorless garden, an onlooker would see the girl’s pale face turned up to the screen, her eyes glazing over with a growing sensation of wonder.
She came because of the playbill: The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. The tale of a sinister old man who travels the German countryside, showing off a fortune-telling somnambulist at town fairs, always leaving a string of murders in his wake. The girl had been delving deeply into Tim Burton’s oeuvre for months now, and in her ad hoc exploration of films that her matronly Mormon supervisors would certainly deem unfit for her tender eyes, Caligari was the next step.
In the garden, two men huddle on a bench; the young man whispers his tragic story to his gray elder. Without warning, the woman the young man had once hoped to make his wife glides past in a pure white sheath. Her eyes are deep, dead black pools; she sees nothing. The boy gazes at her with bated breath, his feverish eyes yearning at her. The tempest of his face and the pungency of his pure feeling – completely lost on the young woman – flow out of their celluloid prison, trapped there ninety unbridgeable years ago, straight into the Mormon girl’s heart.
In the little half-timbered village of Holstenwall, the houses and lampposts twist into tortuous shapes. Men in suits and derbies and women in coats and cloches clamor at the carnival, where a hunched man with lingering eyes cranks a hurdy-gurdy and feeds the vested monkey on his shoulder. The man who calls himself Caligari, with a cape and top hat and an unpleasant smile plastered across his face, waves innocent men and women into his tent, urging them to inquire of his sleeping man about their futures.
And then… those eyes: large, clear, piteous and pleading. The Mormon girl has never seen magnetic eyes before, and these are magnetic as no other pair has ever been. Vulnerable, feminine, empty of agency.
Poor little Cesare, wisps up from her subconscious like smoke. She thinks he is as beautiful as every man and woman that ever lived. When his silhouette against Alan’s bedroom wall stabs the shadow of the ill-fated student with a huge knife, the girl imagines the sleepwalker’s better half chained up in a deep, damp cellar… and guarded in the cigarette light by a jowly, bitter old schemer.
She is enamored of every wide-eyed stare, every gasp from black-painted lips cleft into statuesque faces, every trembling white hand… all beautiful artifacts from the lives of once-people, who now can only stare back from the grave and yearn for sound to come out of their mouths when they scream.
Wednesday 9:00 PM
She sat on the dingy bus, feeling sleepy and cold under the yellow fluorescent tube lighting. Outside, an amorphous black suburban landscape rolled past, the only significant lights belonging to nondescript strip malls. Her mind for the moment empty of interesting thoughts, the girl kept a side eye on the grizzled homeless man who sat too near to her. She kept a firm grip on the outward signs of her anxiety. When she stepped off the bus and began trekking home up vaulting hills of McMansions, she stared at uneven patches of darkness in the shrubbery and kept her ears open for rustling.
Trotting up the steps to her house, she retrieved the key from her pocket, and relaxed the first few levels of her frantic awareness.
The television quacked and the house smelled like Tex Mex. The fluorescent light from the kitchen was white and clean. She wanted to race up the pink-carpeted stairs, to swaddle herself in the warm envelopment of bed, and to think about the beautiful things she had seen. But first, she had to present herself.
Children squealed at the sound of the shutting door, and attacked the girl. Jaden and Jordan clamored at her waist for the mythical leftover cupcakes they were convinced she always possessed on Wednesday nights. Meanwhile, Jaylynn tugged at the doll in Jordan’s cruel grip. Out of the pure white kitchen of strip lighting and pine-upholstered cabinets swayed the girl’s mother, bouncing baby Jacob on her huge hip. The girl reflected with a sense of dread that her mother’s hips seemed to take up half her body.
“So, how was tonight? Did you-all do something fun?” the woman asked.
The girl had prepared for this.
“We put together care baskets and took them to a bunch of people: Sister England, Sister Wyeth, you know… and Sister Thompson…”
“Oh, good… she is such a sweet spirit,” the woman cooed.
Sister Thompson had Downs Syndrome. The girl had wondered before why the women on whom her mother dropped this verbal kiss were usually overweight or developmentally disabled.
Yet the woman kissed with none of the snidery from which the original comment had surely sprung, and with all the sincerity of recitation.
“…. We talked to them for a while,” the girl continued. “They told us we were lovely Daughters of God and bore witness to the peaceful spirit we brought into their homes.”
Her mother’s face broke into a smile, and her eyes got small and crinkly, like she was about to cry. She often looked like this.
“That’s wonderful. Did you have a good time?”
The girl thought seriously about this. She responded truthfully.
“Yeah, I guess. I think I made a break-through.”
Her mother’s spidery mascara eyes widened towards her daughter mechanically, and her bubblegum pink lips stretched thin in a you-go-girl smile. The daughter remembered this expression of her mother’s washing over her after she received her period for the first time.
“Wow. Keep up the good work, Jennifer. You’ll find your place with the girls eventually.”
Jennifer’s mother swiveled on her pelvic axis and swayed back to the kitchen to feed Jacob. Jennifer climbed the stairs to the warm dark of the second floor bedrooms, lowering all of her defensive awareness, and felt a bit sick.
An hour later, after removing her make-up and contact lenses, showering, and brushing her teeth as she had obediently done three times a day for every day of her life, she knelt by her bedside. She tried harder and harder to penetrate the dark void, to feel something – anything at all – call back to her.
“Dear Heavenly Father,” she whispered. “We thank thee for this day. We thank thee for our food and family and for keeping us safe as we traveled home today. We thank thee for sending us the Gospel… well, not really, but… yeah, I guess so. Heavenly Father… I lied to my mother. But only because she wouldn’t understand the truth…. or appreciate it. Do I have to repent for this?”
Jennifer scrunched her eyes even tighter, but saw only multicolored sparks in a muddy abyss. A chill ran up her spine, and she wanted to attribute it to the hand of the Holy Ghost, but as ever, she did not possess the confidence to conclude this.
How come everyone else always knows, and I can never tell? What did I do wrong? Maybe I was a coward in the pre-existence.
I better repent, just in case.
OK, Step 1: feel remorse. Do I feel remorse for skipping Church activities to go see a weird movie? Well, kind of, but only because I knew the whole time I was doing something wrong, something I wasn’t supposed to. That counts, right? Yeah, it should – does anybody else get this technical when they’re repenting? Step 2: confess to God. Well, I’m doing that right now. Step 3: ask God for forgiveness. Ditto. Step 4: confess to those you have wounded. Well, I can’t do that. She’d never let me out of the house. And why should I tell her? The fact that I didn’t go to mutual won’t hurt her if she doesn’t know.
But then how do I pass off this step?
The question grew large in the silence around her, like the weighty philosophical enquiry that it was.
If lying to her mother was a sin worthy of repentance, then why was repenting for it so hard? For crying out loud, repentance was a list of steps to pass off, like household chores. But it was easy to make her bed, empty the hamper, and vacuum the rec room… why was it so much harder to summon up remorse? To be a good girl and meekly give up her ticket to discovering something unusual…
…and insanely beautiful and worthwhile. Honestly, I feel like dancing, but nobody’s gonna get up and dance with me. I don’t get it.
Look at how screwy you are, Jen: you can’t even get yourself to do the right thing this time… ’cause the right thing doesn’t feel right. I guess I’m evil.
In the midst of her fevered reverie, Jennifer had ended up sprawled across her duvet. She scrambled under the covers and curled into fetal position. She closed her eyes to welcome the sweet sleep. To legions of teenage American girls, sleep is the only realm in which they may reclaim the personal authenticity of which puberty and the accompanying male gaze robbed them.
It was then she remembered that she hadn’t finished her prayer.
There is no way I’m leaving this warmth to kneel on the floor.
Gosh, Jen, you’re just racking up the unworthiness points tonight, aren’t you?
She contemplated her predicament for a long moment, before moving her lips softly while still in bed: “And I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”
Sunday 12:30 PM
In a small, square room, a circle of demure figures sat on metal folding chairs. Each clasped her hands in her small lap, or placed her palms on each thigh. Slim legs were shaved immaculately, and bare knees kissed each other chastely. They were a flurry of white cup-sleeved tops and powdery pink-and-blue skirts.
Sister McCall, Jennifer’s Mia Maids teacher, had just posed the following question as a thought exercise: who is a role model for you? Who do you admire?
Megan giggled her answer, like a guilty child, blushing and twisting her fingers. “My mom…”
“Yeah, my mom, I guess,” Carly acquiesced.
“Well, Orlando Bloom is pretty hot,” Kelsey drawled.
The circle of mice tittered nervously. A key buttress of Sister McCall’s grin buckled.
“But if we’re talking about ‘role models’…” Kelsey amended, “I guess it would be my mom. Yeah.”
All eyes flicked to Jennifer. The girls’ eyes and teeth, Sister McCall’s lips, and the dangling drops at the woman’s ears glistened at Jennifer under the blazing panel lighting. She felt like she was going under the knife and staring at the operating lamp above her.
Under such harsh light and scrutiny, Jennifer didn’t feel brave enough to break the commandments and lie, as she had done last night.
“I– I just found out about this actor named Conrad Veidt. He’s dead…”
At the mention of something so dark, Sister McCall’s and Megan’s faces moved into expressions that a little girl might make if someone ripped apart her favorite stuffed animal. Jennifer faltered; she’d caused them pain.
“…but he’s really great,” she finished lamely.
Sister McCall was now smiling brightly again, though her eyes blocked the smile’s upward progression. She valiantly held that face for a good long moment, as if baring her orthodontia-perfect teeth would scare the awkwardness of Jennifer’s presence away. Then, without further inquiry of the girl, Sister McCall’s face flicked back to the group, and the other girls’ laser eyes left Jennifer to examine her lacerations.
“Isn’t that interesting?” Sister McCall sang. “The people we admire most are often rock stars or actors or athletes!”
It occurred briefly to Jennifer that nobody had mentioned any rock stars or athletes.
“But you are all Daughters of God,” Sister McCall continued, “and He has placed special men on this earth to guide you on the path to heaven. God’s prophets have been through everything you girls are experiencing right now in these tender years of your life.”
Jennifer wanted to blush furiously and cry at the same time, because she hated when adults fondled her body with their words: their voices either 100 years old, greasy, and male… or wailing, 10 years old, and female. Inwardly, Jennifer cried madly that Sister McCall was a grown woman but so, so wrong.
“Listen to their counsel and you will be blessed,” Sister McCall admonished. “Now, don’t you think such great men are worthy of our admiration and attention?”
But they’re so dull! Jennifer blurted, but only within the safety of her unobserved mind. How could I possibly admire Gordon B. Hinckley or Boyd K. Packer over true artists?
I don’t remember anything after hearing them speak at General Conference… I’ve learned nothing from those old men… I’m so stupid.
But it’s not my fault! You know, I bet they personally trained their voices to be the most boring thing they could produce.
It feels so much better to go see Conrad do his magic in the dark, from beyond the grave. I guess it makes sense that temptation appeals more to me than doing the right thing. That’s pretty much what Satan’s famous for, right?
Why does doing the wrong thing feel so right? I think I could do it forever and eventually get rid of my feelings of guilt. If it’s truly wrong, then I shouldn’t be able to do that, right?
For the remainder of Sister McCall’s lesson, Jennifer was lost in dreams of red velvet curtains, mysterious worlds hidden in reels of black and white film, and the eyes of the magic man.
She planned her next visit to the cinema. This time, she thought she might walk into the coffeehouse across the street and order a drink. Maybe Satan himself would pop out of her mug and eat her. Or maybe, as she was beginning to suspect… it would just be an ordinary drink.
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.
Together we can fight for Conrad Veidt!
You could find the article also here
My dear Angel,
I wish you a very happy 120th birthday in Heaven! I want to thank you with all my heart for being such a special presence in my life. I am trying my best to keep you memory alive and be sure I will always fight for you, because you are the greatest actor in the world, a man of arts, and a very complex human being. You are the most fascinating, interesting and admirable personality I have ever worshiped. But, what is more to that, is that I love you for being the ideal image of my grandfather and I will always see you as Opa Connie. Thank you for all your support, all these years. Thank you for being so close to my heart and soul. God bless you, dearest Connie!
Thank you for being part of my life in such a special way. Thank you for being a kind, generous person, a real gentleman who helped the people in need. Thank you for being the greatest actor that the world of cinema has ever known, and for devoting yourself completely to each role, with all your heart, soul and mind. I will always love you as if you were my grandfather and I will always remember you with great joy and pure emotion. Even if while writing these words to you I have tears in my eyes, I am happy to know that you rest in peace now in Heaven, together with your darling daughter Viola and with all the people you cared for. God bless you, Opa Connie, and Happy Birthday!