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Through a Glass Darkly

A biography of Conrad Veidt


As Balduin, the impecunious university student in Der Student von Prag, Conrad Veidt created a tragic hero who appealed to audiences around the world.

In order to obtain the riches needed to court a beautiful countess whom he loves, the impecunious student Balduin signs a pact with Scapinelli (Werner Krauss). Scapinelli will give Balduin 600,000 gold pieces, in return he may take anything he desires from Balduin's room.

Balduin glances around his poor furnishings, laughs almost hysterically, and signs the pact. But Scapinelli is the Devil, and he has only to gesture to cause Balduin's mirror reflection to step over the threshold and into existence in the world.

Balduin's mirror image exists to do the bidding of Scapinelli. He kills Balduin's opponent (his rival in love) in a duel - an opponent whom Balduin had promised to spare. Balduin now has no chance to win his countess, and is expelled from university as well.

Finally his mirror-image hounds Balduin into the desperation of returning to his old rooms where he has a pistol. His relentless pursuer slowly moves to stand before the mirror from which he came. Balduin fires, the doppelganger vanishes, the mirror shatters. Once more, Balduin is able to see his reflection. He scrabbles joyfully among the shards until he notices a dark patch on the breast of his white shirt. His aim with the pistol had been true. Slowly, Balduin slides down to lie in death below the shattered mirror.

The Student von Prag (first filmed by Paul Wegener in 1913) introduced to the screen 'a theme that was to become an obsession of the German cinema: a deep and fearful concern with the foundations of the self. By separating Balduin from his reflection and making both face each other, Wegener's film [and Veidt's] symbolized a specific kind of split personality. Instead of being unaware of his own duality, the panic-stricken Balduin realizes that he is in the grip of an antagonist who is nobody but himself.' (From Caligari to Hitler, A Psychological Study of the German Film, Siegfried Kracauer).

The subject of split personality resonates with most actors, who over the course of a career bring to life hundreds of characters that have little or no relationship to their own, real-life selves. Yet the movie-goers, the fans (or locusts, as Nathaniel West termed them) more often than not believe implicitly that who an actor portrays on the screen is who he is in real life, that each role is a facet of the real man (or woman's) personality.

Actors particularly enjoy playing a double role in a production. It gives them the opportunity to display their virtuosity (if any) in one film at one time, rather like an actor in repertory theater who can have the audience in tragic tears one night, and the very next night have them rolling in the aisles with laughter.

Conrad Veidt played dual roles in five films: Die Nacht auf Goldenhall (1919) which he directed and produced as well; Der Januskopf (1920); Die Bruder Schellenberg (1926); Der Student von Prag (1926); and Nazi Agent (1942). He played Carlos and Carlos' father in Carlos and Elisabeth (1924); and Gwynplaine and Gywnplaine's father in The Man Who Laughs (which are not the same as dual roles) He really showed his virtuosity by playing multiple roles in Satanas and Umheimliche Geschichten (1919). Did any of these 109 films appearances mirror Conrad Veidt as he truly was?

Part One

Hans Walter Conrad Veidt was born on January 22, 1893. He was born not in a hospital but at the apartmetn where his family lived. His father Philipp, a former army officer, was chancellery secretary of Berlin. His mother, Amalie, was a hausfrau. After his brother Karl died of scarlet fever when he was nine and Conrad seven, Amalie lavished all of her attention on her remaining son. The psychological impact of losing an elder brother was probably a great one, as was the effect of being incessantly spoiled by his mother to whom he was devoted, and treated coldly by an unemotional and undemonstrative father. In later life, Conrad would say that he never got to know his father. Philipp was a man who worked hard to provide for his family, and when he returned home wished only to be undisturbed. He had lofty plans for his son, but was disappointed in them. Conrad was a poor student, and would have had a hard time getting into University. But no matter - he should follow in his father's footsteps and go into the army. When Conrad announced (in 1912 at the age of 19) that he wanted to become an actor, the news was not received well. But Conrad's mother supported him as always, frequently giving him money to attend theater performances.

''All the time I spent in school or at home, or working at some boring job - that was not Life. That was mere dull existence. My real life began in the evening hours when I was at the Deutsches Theater. There, evening after evening, I stood, leaning on the gallery rail with my arms wide apart, staring down at the costumed and painted actors emoting on the stage. I was absolutely bewitched by the magic of the play transpiring on the stage below me. As I watched, enraptured by these talented actors, there slowly emerged in my mind one thought, one wish, one question: Can I do such stage acting too?''

Part Two

As a child, Conrad had never dreamed of being an actor. He was an average child with few ambitions, pampered by his mother. A memory of one day spent with her - riding by horse-drawn streetcar into downtown Berlin, having lunch at the (still extant) Aschinger's Restaurant, going to the flickering Kinotheater, and buying new shoes - remained with him fondly for the rest of his life.

Veidt was not a good student. It was not that he was unintelligent - he was perhaps too intelligent to prosper under the regimented instruction of the day. He was a daydreamer and a writer. After his father's life had been saved by a noted surgeon of the day - who asked in payment only what the Veidt's could afford - he had nursed a dream to become a doctor. But the kind of studying needed for a medical career appalled him, and he gave up on that dream. But he never forgot the kindness and generosity of Dr. Koerthe, and he would follow this man's example in later life.

At Hohenzollern High School, where he boarded during the week, to return to his family on weekends, he quite often had recess-time brawls with students who took exception to his lack of concentration in the classroom. Veidt gave as good as he got in these encounters, and was proud of the punishment he inflicted on his opponents. But, in the small class of thirteen students, Veidt finished last - in fact he never graduated. But it didn't matter. By his final year in high school Veidt had caught the acting bug. And once he had found this career field that mesmerized him completely, he was ambitious and had an iron will to succeed.

To be continued...

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