The Conrad Veidt Society

With Elisabeth Bergner in “Nju” (1924)

After the show we would go to a cafe, and drink coffee and look into each others eyes.  I thought life held nothing greater, more poignant, than those moments.  Then I would take her home in the train and we would walk through the forest.  Have you ever walked late at night through a forest when you are first in love?  It was the Spring, the nights were tender and exquisite.  We vowed we would love each other forever.  I took her home, resented the parting, and had to walk back through the forest alone.  That was in early 1914, that time so long ago, it seems, when the whole of Europe went up in flames.  I was a soldier, of course, but I was weak and delicate in those days.  Within six months I had been invalided out of the army, and drafted to a place called Libau, behind the Russian front.  There was a theatre there, with a very good little stage, and the authorities had established a sort of repertory company for the troops.  I believe we were pretty good. We did everything, Shakespeare and others - comedy, tragedy - playing one or two days, then changing the programme.  Swiftly we rehearsed and produced our little dramas and comedies while the tragedy of death was being played out just a little way off. At Libau I met again my forest girl.  We had, of course, written to each other in the way of lovers.  But the six months' separation had not strengthened the feeling between us.  We discovered that while we were still fond of each other, still able to be good friends as we are to this day, our violent love was finished.  We were both young.  We realised that we had mistaken, as so many young people do, romance, moonlight, propinquity, mutual interests and passion for love.

    In 1916 I was sent back to Berlin to the Reinhardt Theatre, I began to play small parts. My will to succeed was never stronger within me.  It was a kind of urgent drive which forced me forward, the impetus gathering strength as it progressed.  Too many people, I feel, think to themselves, "Oh. well, I've got a good job.  I haven't done what I want to, but life's too hard to struggle against.  I'll rest on my laurels."  That I have always refused to do.  For me, half the joy of achieving has been the struggle and the fight, the pitting myself against the world and all its competition - and winning.  So...... that is how it went on.  Mother was beginning to feel she had something to be proud of.  She came to every performance.  The night came when I was given the biggest part I had yet had - in an important play starring two famous actors, Werner Krauss and Paul Wegner.  I was a priest and had just about twelve lines to say.  But it was a gem of a part.  The critic of an important German newspaper damned my performance with the faintest praise and said it was too bad I was a copy of one of our great actors o that day.  He was an important critic, his word went for something.  So I thought, "All right, I am a flop."  Believe me, I was not discouraged.  In some curious way I was stimulated.  I felt I had to show them now. Then, a famous weekly paper critic, the most distinguished perhaps of them all, came to see the play.  He never attended an opening night because he thought the actors were never at their best.  On the second night he thought they were feeling the reaction of the excitement of the first night.  He chose the third night, by which time they would be in complete rhythm with the play.  He was ecstatic about me.  An actor remembers his first piece of published praise.  It is written on his heart.  He wrote: 'This is a very strange-looking young man, with a face you will never forget.  His eyes haunt.  He dominated the stage.  I forgot the others when he was on.  I hope his fate will not be to go on to the films, but, undoubtedly film producers will be rushing for his services.'

    That was way back in 1917, and this critic, a true man of the theatre, resented the films, felt they did not contribute anything to art and beauty.  That was the beginning.  I stayed in the Reinhardt Theatre, gradually becoming a star, playing bigger parts each time.  I was working with the greatest actors and actresses of my time learning something from one, something from another, moving with greatness or potential greatness, and perfecting my technique in the inspired atmosphere of that theatre with Max Reinhardt's personality dominating our lives and our work.

Conrad Veidt and Gussy Holl

Since my first love I had been too much absorbed in my art to pay very much attention to women.  I had never been, never could be, indifferent to them.  There were one or two gay functions, just the usual relationships between colleagues working together in the highly emotional and inspiring atmosphere of that theatre.  Until I met the woman who was to be my first wife.  That picture is very clear in my mind.  It was one morning after a matinee performance, an opening in which I had for the first time played a leading part.  I walked out into the sunshine, and there were the usual group of people standing talking in the square outside the theatre.  There was high, excited talk of the theatre, quick bursts of laughter, flattery, superlatives.  I drew deep breaths of this atmosphere.  I was feeling grand.  The world was mine.  I greeted friends and acquaintances.  I looked around.  Outstanding in that group was a tall, beautiful woman.  What do they say in love stories?  Their eyes met.  Ours did.  It was like a physical impact, something vital and quick, happening to us both.  And I knew, from that moment, that whatever happened between us, we might disagree, get on each others' nerves, quarrel, do each other harm, but we could never be indifferent.  Actually there was no question of disagreeing.  We met, we agreed, never got on each others' nerves, never quarreled, never did each other harm, and fell desperately, absolutely in love.  I must explain that at that time she was a famous personality in Berlin.  She was a brilliant 'chanteuse', perhaps the best-known cabaret artist of that day, at the height of her success.  For six months we were blindly in love. Of course, as is the way with working stage people, we found everything conspired to keep us from meeting each other.  I was working hard at the Max Reinhardt Theatre, if there were no morning performances there would be rehearsals all day until late afternoon.  The evening show began at six.  When my show was over, hers would begin.  However tired I was at the end of my day, I would dash along, wherever she was appearing, to watch her performance, for I was not only her lover, I was also a great admirer of her art.  Then, afterwards, we would try to snatch an hour together, over supper, both almost too tired to talk or think.  It was a restless courtship.  These snatched half-hours were beautiful, but we were not getting to know each other.  She had to go on tour to Munich.  I began work on my first film.  Work kept us apart. So it seemed desirable that we should get married.  And now I have to pause and look into my heart for the answer to the old question, 'Is it possible for two artists to marry and be happy together?'  Scores of happily married stage and film people answer it in one way;  scores of broken marriages tell another story.  You cannot generalise.  I think, myself, it is harder for two artists, both ambitious, both temperamental, both perhaps egotistical, to jog along equably in the necessarily restraining atmosphere of a double harness.  My wife and I should have been remarkably happy.  We had everything to make us so.  I was going steadily ahead, film producers asking for me, getting good work in theatres, she at the height of her career.  In many ways, she was the most remarkable woman I have ever known in my life.  She was beautiful and kind, with a rare intelligence and wit.  Moreover, she was helpful to me.  She guided and helped me in my work and made her own , which was none the less important secondary, So.... we were wonderfully happy for the first year, the year which I have always understood to be the hardest in most marriages.  Then, somehow, and I can never quite understand or explain why, things began to go wrong.  It is as if life, in giving everything with one hand, takes away with the other.  There was no concrete reason for it.  We were not jealous of each others' work, there was no question of other men or other women. We did not quarrel or fly into tempers. If anyone was to blame at all, it was me.  She was about as perfect as any wife could be.  But I had not learnt how to be a perfect husband.  I did not realise it at the time, but now, looking back, I see there was an event which had a devastating effect on me.  My mother died.

    After my mother died, I found, a little book of hers which recorded everything I had ever done, how I had done it, and how proud she was of her son Conrad.  I have tried to tell in some way what my mother and I meant to each other.  It is hard to express precisely what the bond was that existed between us.  It was not that my mothers' love was unduly possessive, nor that I deferred unduly to her wishes.  It was a bond which, when she died became infinitely stronger in an intangible form.  It affected my relations with my wife, as it did every contact I had with the material world.  Now, with a measure of detachment, I can see that I was possessed of what the psychologists would call the mother-complex.   



The Story of Conrad Veidt



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