The Conrad Veidt Society

Young Conrad Veidt (c. 1900)

I can see myself at school, a small anemic-looking boy, answering to the name of Conrad Veidt. going through the curriculum at the Hohenzollern high school, not particularly happy or unhappy, with no memories or highlights worth recording.  Except the incident of my father's serious illness, when I was about eight, which caused me distress, unusual, I believe in a boy so young.  Days passed and the doctor said that only a very special operation could save his life, so special that only one famous and expensive surgeon in Berlin could do it with success.  The surgeon came.  He was tall, dignified.  His manner was brusque.  I thought him wonderful.

     The operation was successful.  My father was restored to health.  The great surgeon came to see him.  My mother thanked him.  Then........" And now, Herr Doktor, what do we owe?"  He looked down at my mother. "What can you pay ?" he asked sharply.  My mother looked at my father and he back at her.  They knew that all they had was about 150 marks, then worth about £7.  The offer of such a small sum to a great surgeon whose fees ran into hundreds of pounds seemed almost an insult. We have only about one hundred and fifty marks, Doktor," said my father.  "All right.  Send it to me."  The great surgeon picked up his hat, said "Good day" and left the little house.  I know that he accepted that small sum out of respect and chivalry for my parents' feelings.  The man and his action had a great effect on me.  From that day I determined that I also would be a surgeon and go around healing the sick.  I would model my life on that of the great man who had saved my father's life.  But, as it turned out, I never became a surgeon.   I was appalled at the amount of study necessary in order to qualify in medicine, and gradually my desire was blunted by a keener - and secret - wish to become an actor.  At first I kept this to myself.  In those days, and in our middle-class minds, it was considered rather terrible to go on the stage.  But the secret gnawed at me, I could no longer keep it from mother, who at this stage was helping me through the turbulent waters of adolescence with a wisdom, understanding and advice that I believe must have been rare in those times.  Without father's knowledge she gave me money out of the house accounts to go to the theatre.  I went almost every night to Reinhardt's Deutsches Theatre, at that time the greatest stage in Europe. After school I would line up in the gallery queue - one mark- and yearn over the performances of the greatest actors and actresses of their time.  I saw every sort of play and opera.  It was a repertory season, and there was a different performance each night.  Afterwards I would walk home the two miles from the West end to our suburb, because I had no money for the tram, and I would see myself playing all those parts, thrilling the world.

    At the gallery entrance to the theatre there was a tall commissionaire with a long white beard. We began to get to know each other.  One night we talked.  I told him of my ambition.  He offered to take me to see an actor named Albert Blumenreich, who ran a school for stage aspirants in his spare time.  We went.  "This young fellow wants to become an actor," he said. Herr Blumenreich smiled and looked me over deliberately. "So," he said, " you want to be an actor;  what can you do?  Recite something to me.'  I knew 'Faust' by heart, and recited a few lines from the first act.  I over-acted, of course, but I put every ounce of feeling I had into the recital.

    Herr Blumenreich was silent for a few minutes.  "You will have to pay something for lessons," he said at last.  I knew then that I had impressed him, because my, commissionaire friend had told me that Blumenriech refused to take money from those without promise.  Alas! money was my great difficulty.  I had practically no pocket-money.  "How much ?"  I said.  "Ten marks a lesson." Ten marks! I had not that much money in the world.  I could not even pay for one lesson.  "Perhaps," amended Blumenreich, "I will take you for five marks a lesson."  But this was no good to me either.  I stood there unhappy, not knowing what to say.  "You cannot afford five marks," he said.  I shook my head.  He looked at me again.  "I will give you ten lessons...for nothing," he said.  "And if you show talent....then I will charge you nothing afterwards."  Would you have walked home on winged feet that night?

     There followed weeks of hard study at Herr Blumenreich's school.  I neglected my food and over-exerted myself in my keenness to learn how to act.  My teacher was pleased with me.  At the end of the ten free lessons he told me that if I worked hard I should definitely become an actor - maybe one day a great actor.... He came to me one day with news.  Max Reinhardt was going to hold an audition at the Deutsches Theatre, and Blumenreich had arranged for me to be present.  Now this was not an audition at which only students at dramatic schools would appear.  Actors and actresses from all over Germany would be there, hoping to catch the eye of Europe's greatest producer.  Reinhardt held the audition in a room at the back of the theatre.  I stood among the crowd of aspirants, my heart thudding against my thin ribs.  Reinhardt looked at us, his eyes lingering first on this man, this woman.  Finally it rested on me.  I must emphasise my strange appearance.  I was tall, my eyes burning, no body to speak of, all arms, legs and long dangling hands.  He turned to Blumenreich.  "Who is that?" he asked him."  His name is Veidt... Conrad Veidt," replied my tutor.  Reinhardt beckoned me forward.  I stood before him, "Your name is Conrad Veidt?" he said softly. "What can you do."  "'Faust'", Herr Reinhardt," I replied. So. 'Faust'! Well.  Recite the first monologue."  I took a deep breath, murmured a little prayer, and gave the rendering. Reinhardt watched me closely.  When I had finished he said to me, "Can you do the second part of the first monologue?"  I hesitated and looked at my tutor.  He shook his head at me behind Reinhardt's back.  He thought I would make a mess of it.  It is very difficult.  But I felt this was the moment that I had been waiting for in all my months of secret hopes and plans.  I said "Yes." I finished exhausted.  He said "Thank you," and turned to the next actor.

    Blumenriech followed me out of the room.  "That was brilliant, Conrad, superb," he said, himself as excited as me. "You have impressed Max Reinhardt. I am sure you are going to be a great actor."  He came to me later with a paper in his hand.  It was a contract for work as an extra at the Deutsches Theatre.  Fifty marks a month, about £2.10s. in English money. But I was an actor, an actor........

    And then, of course, like every young man who dreams of fame, I decided to live my own life.  If for the next few months I did not eat too often or too much, I was the happiest young man in Germany.  If my mother had been good and kind to me before, now her goodness and kindness were doubled, trebled.  She was unhappy about my leaving here but said no word of reproach. Her pride in me was boundless.  She helped me with money, she was always there when I was in a jam, she gave me that inspirational comfort an artist and egotist needs.  But, most important of all, she believed in me.  She used to come to the theatre almost every night, where I used to stand holding something or walking on, in the crowd, just to watch me.  She thought that I was already a great and important person,

    My father died.  It is still a deep regret to me this day that in choosing acting as my career I was forced to hurt him.   He died too early to see I had done the right, the only thing.  I was just a young man burningly ambitious, starting out on what I intended to be a great career, a little selfish, I suppose, and, of course, an egotist.  I went on with my life, accepting as a matter of course the profusion of good things my mother lavished on me from the richness of her beautiful nature. She was a rock.  Then I fell in love, properly in love, for the first time.  She was a young actress, also playing extras, also studying at the Reinhardt School.  She was very young, very lovely, and it was my first real romance. She lived outside Berlin, beyond a forest.


The Story of Conrad Veidt


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