The Conrad Veidt Society

"I thoroughly enjoyed working in films with Asta Nielsen.  Always while working in motion pictures I missed that sense of 'live' reaction with an audience that I felt while acting on a stage in a theater.  That most stimulating factor of the theater is lacking, namely, the interaction and fluidity of a living audience.  When I was in a play in a theater, and all was going well on stage, I felt that the audience and I were somehow joined into one.  This is much different in a film studio, standing in front of a camera.  But with Miss Nielsen, I could almost feel that I was on a real stage again.  She was an actress whose strong fluidity as a female stage partner made up for the lack of a public audience.  The right partner in a film is equal to half the audience."

  Another production in which Veidt appeared in 1920 was a version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” entitled DER JANUSKOPF: EINE TRAGODIE AM RANDE DER WIRKLICHEIT ("The Janus Head: A Tragedy on the Border of Reality").  Veidt was featured in the dual roles of "Dr. Warren" and "Mr. O'Connor."

  The name of the story and of the characters had to be changed to elude royalties, because the film was, unfortunately, an unauthorized version of the great book.   It was a quality production, having been scripted by Hans Janowitz, co-writer of CALIGARI, and featured an early performance of then-unknown Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi as the butler.

  Eleven years later, Lugosi would rise to fame, become forever typecast, and thoroughly chill audiences around the world in  DRACULA (1931).

  Also shown under the titles LOVE'S MOCKERY and SCHRECKEN, DER JANUSKOPF would later be ordered destroyed by a German court following a copyright lawsuit.  Rumors have persisted for years that a copy of DER JANUSKOPF survived the court's destruction order, yet to date there has been no confirmation of any such survival.  Film historians and fans of Veidt and Lugosi can only hope that some day, somewhere, a copy of this great lost film will be discovered.

  Over the next few years, Veidt became increasingly in demand, appearing in literally dozens of productions in Germany and abroad in other European countries.

  One film of note was DAS INDISCHE GRABMAL (1922) (The Indian Tomb) a grand spectacle set in India which was budgeted at over 20 million marks, an astronomical figure for the time.  Still surviving today, the film featured Conrad as a maharajah, along with all sorts of wild animals, beautiful scenery and some of the best supporting actors in Germany (Paul Richter, Lya de Putti, Erna Morena, Mia May).

  Also in 1922, Veidt wrote the screenplay, co-produced and directed LORD BYRON.  He also played the title role in the film, of which, sadly, no prints are known to exist.  In fact, the main surviving information on the film came from Veidt himself during the course of an interview with a magazine writer in the 1920s.

  It was also during this period, shortly after his divorce from Gussy Holl, that Conrad's despondency reached its depths.  He had been drinking more than usual and frequently visiting Berlin's notorious Friedrichstrasse, which was not far from the Reinhardt Theater.  Along Friedrichstrasse could be found low-lit cabarets, cheap amusement centers, bars, casinos and virtually every vice imaginable and unimaginable.  Conrad availed himself of many of the decadent pleasures of Friedtrichstrasse sufficiently so that his friends became increasingly worried.

  But within a few months, the despondent actor with a booming career and a slumping personal life was invited to a posh party at a mansion on Kurfurstendamm.  The host was a prominent and wealthy businessman who had invited the cream of Berlin's cultural and art world.  At the party, Veidt was introduced to Felicitas Radke, with whom he was immediately taken.

  In a short time, the two were seeing each other regularly.  To the relief of Conrad's friends, his depression had disappeared, his habits had moderated, and his visits to Friedrichstrasse had stopped.

  In early 1923, Conrad married Felicitas and for the next several years, the couple was extremely happy.  Felicitas, who came from an aristocratic old German family and had no connections with the entertainment industry, traveled frequently with her husband during the making of various films around Europe.

  The culmination of the Veidts' happiness was the birth, in the middle of August 1925, of their only child, Vera Viola Maria Veidt.  Viola, as she was called, would be the apple of her father's eye for the rest of his life.

  At the same time, Veidt's star would continue to rise in films, as he received progressively greater roles.  At this time, there was discussion of film offers from France, Sweden, Italy, England, Austria and even the United States.

  Following his marriage to Felicitas, Conrad made the first of two versions of a film on the famed mountaineer William Tell, in which he would be featured.  He had the rare chance to appear in both the silent and sound versions of the film, appearing both times as the tyrant Gesler.

  The first version was titled simply WILLIAM TELL, while the second,  made in 1934, was called THE LEGEND OF WILLIAM TELL.  The second version also featured Emmy Sonnemann, who later became the wife of Field Marshall Hermann Goering.

  Unfortunately neither version is said to have been all that good, although both were undoubtedly saved from mediocrity by Veidt's presence in the cast.

  As an aside, the Veidt family had its own encounter with the Goering household.  In 1933, Conrad's then-divorced wife, Felicitas, was living in an apartment on Kaiserdamm with her daughter Viola.  This was shortly before Conrad spirited them out of Germany to protect them from the increasing dangers of the Third Reich.  The Goering family had moved into a building across the street, bringing with it a large entourage, which included the Goerings' pet lion.  A short time later, Viola looked out a window and saw the pet lion walk out on the Goering balcony.  The creature put its huge front paws on the railing to peer into the street and inadvertently knocked several large flower pots off the railing, hitting the helmeted heads of two hapless SS guards below!

   Veidt also appeared in several other films in 1923, two of which provided him with memorable roles.  The first was as the composer and violinist Nicolo Paganini in PAGANINI (1923).  He also co-produced the film, of which, sadly, no print is known to exist.  In the second, he portrayed legendary and notorious Cesare Borgia in LUCREZIA BORGIA (1923) a fascinating film, a print of which still survives.

  1924 brought at least seven film appearances for Conrad, two of which number among the greatest silent classics: DER WACHSFIGURENKABINETT (The Waxworks) (1924) and ORLACS HANDE (The Hands of Orlac) (1924), produced by Caligari producer Robert Weine.

  In THE HANDS OF ORLAC, Veidt portrayed a pianist who has the hands of an executed strangler grafted onto his wrists following a horrible train accident.  Later, the hapless pianist apparently manifests a murderous urge to kill.  THE HANDS OF ORLAC was subsequently remade a number of times, including a 1935 version with Peter Lorre and Colin Clive, although the Veidt version is regarded as the best one.

  It is said that at the premiere of  ORLAC in a theatre in Vienna, many women fainted in horror, which soon created a serious enough disturbance that the film was temporarily stopped.  Veidt, who was in the audience, was asked by the manager to help calm the audience and actor agreed apprehensively to try.  Walking out on center stage, Veidt amazingly was able, through his presence and eloquence, to indeed calm the audience and the showing proceeded with no further difficulty.

  THE WAXWORKS was an anthology of three stories about figures in a wax museum and featured Veidt in a segment about the Russian despot Ivan the Terrible.  Veidt turned in an acclaimed performance as the crazed Russian ruler, who goes mad at the end of the segment when he is captured by enemies and made to believe he has been poisoned.  They place before him an hourglass with the name "Ivan" marked on it to emphasize the time he has left to live, and the ruler's sanity slips away from him as he turns the hourglass over and over in an attempt to stave off an imagined demise.

  Veidt's performance made such an impression that years later in 1946, the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein patterned the title role in his film after Veidt's handling of the role.

  His appearance in THE WAXWORKS caught the eye of none other than John Barrymore, who cabled Veidt a message which read in part,

  "You are one of the most talented men in the film world.  You don't know me but I want you to come to Hollywood.  Need you urgently for my picture THE BELOVED ROGUE.  Think you ideal for part of King Louis XI.  You must come.  I won’t make the picture without you."

  Conrad couldn't resist such an offer and accepted.  However, before he could go to America, he had other commitments to complete, several in other countries.

  During 1925, for example, he appeared in the french production LE COMTE KOSTIA (Count Kostia) (1925), in the title role.  That same year, he appeared in the swedish film INGMARSARVET (Ingmar's Inheritance) (1925) as the fanatical preacher Helgum, and the next year in the prestigious italian production ENRICO IV (Henry IV) (1926) in the title role.

  Also in the 1925-26 period he appeared in another great classic, THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE, in the title role.  THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE was the quintessential retelling of the Faustian story of the man who sells his soul to Satan in exchange for his heart's desire.  In this case, it was wealth and the hand of a woman whom he covets.

Conrad Veidt:
The Cinema's Master
of the Shadows


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