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Conrad Veidt - 8/23
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Conrad Veidt - 8/23

With his spare frame, high cheekbones and wide, thin-lipped mouth, Conrad Veidt seemed destined to play sinister roles, and to many filmgoers, he is primarily known for his two roles: Cesare, the sleep-walking killer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), and Nazi Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942). Before his role as Cesare, however, he had made dozens of screen appearances, and before Strasser he had played many sympathetic, even romantic, figures in German and British films.

Veidt studied under the legendary Max Reinhardt in Berlin's Deutsches Theater, before being drafted to serve in the WWI. Invalided out of the army due to jaundice, he found acting work in the front-line theaters organized by actress Lucie Mannheim. With his experience and the wartime shortage of talent, he was eventually asked to perform in motion pictures. In the light of his later career, it is ironic that his first role was in a 1917 film entitled "The Spy/Der Spion".

Although he did play tyrants and mad killers from Ivan the Terrible to Mr. Hyde in the German silent cinema, Veidt later portrayed Frederic Chopin, Lord Nelson and Don Carlos. In his British films he often portrayed German officers torn between their sense of duty and personal desires. His reputation for playing tormented characters was augmented by his role in "Anders Als Die Anderen/Different From the Others" (1919), a film that argued for reform of the harsh German laws regarding homosexuality.

Invited to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, where he starred in the superb semi-horror melodrama "The Man Who Laughs" (1928), Veidt returned with the advent of sound films to Germany, where his beautiful speaking voice consolidated his position. By 1930, Veidt had already worked in British co-productions and his unease at the looming Nazi political victory prompted him to emigrate to England. His marriage to a half-Jewish woman must have influenced his decision, although Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels tried to reassure him about her safety. The Nazis briefly tried to keep him in Germany under the pretext of poor health, until British producer Michael Balcon sent a British doctor to Berlin to retrieve him.

In England, Veidt starred in a number of fine films, including "I Was A Spy" (1933) Jew Suss (1934), Dark Journey (1937), and especially the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger thrillers "The Spy in Black" (1939) and Contraband (1940). Despite the nuances of character Veidt was able to impart to his roles as WWI German officers and spies, one critic lamented that "the man who is built by nature to petrify kings and emperors with a look, rot the marrow in their bones with a sibilant whisper," took roles the critic only saw as insubstantial.

Still, Veidt did receive top billing in the fantasy classic, The Thief of Baghdad (1940), adding immeasurably to his role as the demonic magician and grand vizier Jaffar. At this time, the British government persuaded him to go to Hollywood, since he would be protected from a German invasion and, like other British film personalities, he could help the war effort.

Of the eight films Veidt made in Hollywood before his death, Casablanca is the best known, but there was also Escape (1940), in which he and Norma Shearer made a dynamic pair as a German general and his American mistress. Veidt, an ardent anti-fascist, also shone in the well-done Nazi Agent (1942), in which he played two roles, that of a Nazi agent and his adversary. From the dashing leading actor who performed in some cutting-edge stage and silent film work, to the oddly mesmerizing mature lead who inspired the catchphrase "Women Fight for Conrad Veidt!" to the suave and supple character actor who transcended his typecasting as Nazis, Veidt left behind a legacy of unique and formidable artistry before his early death from a heart attack at age 50.

* Films in Bold will Air on TCM in August

Biographical data supplied by TCMdb

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