Conrad Veidt on Screen by John T. Soister

by Harry H. Long

6 May 2003


Forgotten Master of Film Acting

It is difficult to imagine anyone other than the most devout film fan (or a book reviewer) reading Conrad Veidt on Screen from cover to cover. In a way that is understandable since this filmography is more designed as a reference tool for film scholars and dedicated fans of older movies than as a casual read. But it is also a pity since there are so many choice tidbits of filmmaking information scattered throughout Soister’s text. Soister also proves the best kind of historian by offering his best guess as to where the truth lies within conflicting accounts of films made eight or more decades ago; no one knew then that the films they were laboring on would even still be talked about later (much less dissected as art) so most accounts of the process were given years later and relied on the memory of the participants. Even contemporarily published accounts are not always strictly reliable; in the case of Manolescus Memoiren, a lost film from 1920, even Soister has to throw up his hands and simply print two wildly diverging versions of its plot from different contemporary sources. One expects disparate critical opinion but when synopses differ to the extent of seeming to describe quite different movies entirely research has its limitations.

One appreciates even more the material Soister has managed to collect when one considers how much material was lost during the Allied bombing of Germany during the latter part of World War II. Further Veidt after leaving the country worked actively against the Nazis, contributing his own savings to the British government, earmarking much of his income for British War Relief and portraying sympathetic Jews and slimy Nazis onscreen (in an interview on Casablanca he said of Major Strasser that the character was the type of person who made him leave his homeland). The Third Reich systematically purged “non-Aryan” films destroying prints and negatives in some cases. Veidt, having vexed Hitler’s regime, might have been subject to an attempt to eliminate his contribution to the German film industry—his “foreign” films were ultimately banned from exhibition and reviews which appeared in German publications after he fled are extraordinarily vicious—and some of Veidt’s films may have survived only by luck. Alas the actor never lived to see the Nazis defeated; he dropped dead of a heart attack while on the golf course before the war ended. He was only 50.

cover art

Conrad Veidt on Screen

John T. Soister

(McFarland & Company, Inc.)

But reading through a collection of plot synopses, contemporary reviews and behind-the-scenes factoids regarding the complete filmography of an actor they’ve possibly never heard of is not going to be most people’s cup of mocha java. The greater pity is that Veidt is not well known today though in the 1920s and 1930s he was considered in the same breath as Lon Chaney and John Barrymore. Though based in Germany until he managed to expatriate himself through a clever bit of one-upmanship on the part of British producer Michael Balcon, he was involved in films made throughout Europe, in Britain and in the United States, so widespread was the regard for his talent. Neither Chaney nor Barrymore managed that kind of intercontinental career but the comparison is not inapt since Veidt also excelled at intense, often demonic characters. He did essay a number of romantic leads but he is best remembered - and was most lauded in his day—for his villains.

He first came to wide acclaim for his role as the somnambulist serial killer in The Cabinet of Caligari but more casual film fans will remember him better as the evil magician Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad or the silkily sinister Strasser. His own favorite film was A Woman’s Face with Joan Crawford but quite possibly his greatest interpretation was as The Man Who Laughs, a film which is not easy to track down but which should be on the Must See list of anyone with claims to being a film lover. Equal time ought be granted to those who would bestow this accolade on his interpretation and the film of Rasputin, an even tougher title to find—and one of those lucky films that survives because its director smuggled it out of Germany with him when he fled.

It is sometimes frustrating to read a particularly interesting plot description or catch sight of a particularly compelling image in this book only to be brought up short with the realization that the film in question is considered lost. The description of Fucht, for instance, makes one wish more films by Robert Weine, Caligari’s director, were readily available, if only to assess the conflicting assessments of his talents. Such, unfortunately, is the fate of far too many films made before the sound era but, for reasons stated above, the problem is greater with German films. Soister, however, has seen all the rest represented in this book, something which might seem to be a prerequisite for anyone claiming the term Film Historian but is actually far from common. In the case of Soister’s work, though, the word “comprehensive” on the book cover means something.

For most of the book Soister maintains the impersonal style which has been established for such “films of” books, leaving commentary and criticism to others but beginning with 1933’s I Was a Spy he drops that and begins offering his own opinions. The book picks up at that point and one wishes he had done so from the start with the films he has seen. Certainly Soister is a good enough writer and possesses keen enough critical facility that when his voice does emerge one is suddenly aware that something vital has been missing before then.

Helping to give perspective to the rundown of films is an extended biographical essay by Pat Wilks Battle who is reported to be at work on a book length Veidt biography; capping the volume on a graceful note is an elegantly written appreciation of Veidt’s acting by Henry Nicolella. With the growing market for DVDs being fed in part by the increased interest of the world’s museums in restoring older films more and more of Veidt’s work is becoming available to the general public—new restorations of Caligari and Waxworks appeared in stores recently—and he may soon lose his forgotten man status. Soister’s book will no doubt be crucial in restoring his reputation and McFarland, long a specialist in publishing books on classic film topics, is to be congratulated for adding this title to their roster.

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