Conrad Veidt


A Cinema Career Cut Short

“What do you want? They’ll just say, ‘He’s only a movie actor!” — Conrad Veidt, to author and biographer Paul Ickes in the 1920s

Hans Walter Conrad Veidt was born in his parents’ residence at Tieckstraße 39 in a modest working-class neighborhood of Berlin on January 22, 1893. A little over 50 years later, on April 3, 1943, the avid golfer died of a heart attack while playing his favorite game on the Riviera Country Club golf course in Los Angeles.

Conrad Veidt 1941

Conrad Veidt in a 1941 Hollywood publicity photo.

If he had not died so prematurely at the age of 50, Conrad Veidt would likely be far more than just a minor footnote in Hollywood and cinema history today. Perhaps best known as the evil Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942), one of his last films, and as the villainous grand vizier in The Thief of Bagdad (1940)*, Veidt’s career was cut short before Hollywood could use his talents better than just having him portray the Nazi villains he so dispised.

*Walt Disney Pictures used Veidt’s character in The Thief of Bagdad as a model for Jafar in the animated feature Alladin (1992). (See a photo.)

Two Hollywood Eras
Unlike most of his compatriots and fellow exiles, Veidt had two different careers in Hollywood – first, during the silent era in the 1920s, and second, following the Nazi takeover of Germany and Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. He was an international star in the silent-film era, when language was no barrier for actors. He lived in Hollywood for several years, after being invited there by John Barrymore. His second Hollywood career came after he was forced into exile, first in England and later in California.

Although he died over 70 years ago, Veidt’s life story has yet to be fully and accurately documented, especially in English. Jerry C. Allen made a good start with his 1987 “affectionate tribute” to the German actor, Conrad Veidt: From Caligari to Casablanca, (updated in 1993). Although John Soister’s more recent Conrad Veidt on Screen (2002) contains a biography (by Pat Brattle), Allen’s 1993 book (now out of print) remains the only book-length biography of Veidt ever published in English. A German biography entitled Conrad Veidt: Lebensbilder (1993) is also no longer in print. Shorter publications and articles have appeared from time to time, but even recent editions of the respected Katz Film Encyclopedia and IMDb continue to state incorrectly that Veidt was born in Potsdam, south of Berlin.

Berlin street signs

This Berlin street sign marks the corner of today’s Tieckstraße, where Conrad Veidt was born, and Chausseestraße, a major Berlin thoroughfare. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Until Conrad Veidt: Lebensbilder was published in 1993 by the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, with its wealth of photos and commentary from Veidt’s time, the only books about the actor in German were dated 1927 and 1933 respectively. In part this is because Veidt was labeled a traitor and considered a non-person in Nazi-controlled Germany. Although highly respected elsewhere, he died in exile before the end of World War II and, but for a few devoted fans, was soon forgotten on both sides of the Atlantic.

That is an ironic fact when one realizes what a popular star Veidt had been in silents and talkies in a career spanning several decades. Contemporary movie fan magazines in Germany, England, and America documented his great popularity during the silent era and later, particularly in England and America. From about 1920 and continuing into the ’40s, Conrad Veidt was a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. At the time of his death in 1943, Veidt was better known than many other Hollywood stars of the time.

During the five decades between his birth in Berlin and his death in Los Angeles, Conrad Veidt enjoyed a varied acting career on both stage and screen. He had begun his illustrious acting career modestly in Berlin playing a minor role on the stage of Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater in 1913.

Veidt as Major Strasser

Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser in Casablanca.

Veidt spent most of his life in Berlin. As a boy, he spent parts of the summers in nearby Potsdam. As a young man he attended the Sophiengymnasium (secondary school) in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. (Ernst Lubitsch, later a famous Hollywood director, attended the same school. Lubitsch died only four years after his former schoolmate, also in Hollywood.) A poor student, Veidt completed his senior year in 1912 without receiving a diploma. (He was last in his class of 13.) But within a year of leaving school Veidt was able to finagle his way into appearing in Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma”; (“Der Arzt am Scheideweg”) at Berlin’s prestigious Deutsches Theater. He was soon a regular on Berlin’s stages, but his budding career was derailed by the outbreak of war in 1914.

World War I proved only a brief interruption in Veidt’s acting career. Although he was drafted into the German army at the end of December 1914 and soon sent to the eastern front, Veidt contracted jaundice and was put in a hospital. After his recovery he managed to get back into acting again, this time in the so-called “front theaters” in Tilsit and in Libau. The great variety of dramatic productions common in the front theaters proved to be good basic training for Veidt’s future thespian career. Veidt later praised his front-theater director in Libau, Josef Dischner, for his help and encouragement.

Conrad Veidt in FP1 Doesn't Answer

Conrad Veidt in the German film F.P.1 antwortet nicht (F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer) PHOTO: UFA

Veidt was declared “unfit for active duty” in 1916 and returned to his beloved Deutsches Theater and his mentor Max Reinhardt even before the war had ended. He was soon drawing the high praise of Berlin’s demanding theater critics, one of whom remarked: “God save him from the cinema!” But although Veidt continued to act on the stage throughout his life, the cinema would dominate his advancing career.

Attracted by better money, Veidt began work on his first film at the Neubabelsberg studios of Deutsche Bioscop at the end of 1916. Only three years later he landed a key role in what has come to be considered an expressionist classic (and one of the world’s first horror movies): The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) by German director Robert Wiene. Beginning what would eventually become a string of demonic roles in his career, Veidt played the zombie-like, sleep-walking murderer Cesare in that silent film.

It was not long before the name Conrad Veidt became familiar to movie audiences all over the world. Veidt eventually made over 100 movies in four major film capitals: Berlin, Paris, London, and Hollywood.

The Hollywood Years: A Tale of Two Eras

Conrad Veidt enjoyed two separate Hollywood sojourns. His first was in the late 1920s during the silent film era when he was invited to California to make a movie, and ended up making four by the time he returned to Germany in 1929. The second California stay began in 1940, when he and third wife Lilli traveled to America prior to the United States’ entry into World War II. Veidt’s final Hollywood career ended prematurely in 1943 with his death.

Veidt’s Last Name
Conrad Veidt’s last name is pronounced VITE in English and FITE in German. An ad campaign by his British studio in the 1930s featured the slogan: “Women fight for Veidt!”

1926-1929
In September 1926 Veidt, his wife Felizitas, daughter Viola (then barely one year old), and Viola’s nanny boarded the Cunard Line’s SS Mauretania and sailed for New York City. From there the Veidt party made the four-day cross-country train journey to Los Angeles. This strenuous trip was being taken because of an invitation from John Barrymore to join him in filming The Beloved Rogue for United Artists in Hollywood.

Veidt’s image of California — palm trees, flowers, and swimming pools — was shattered when at the end of this long journey his gaze fell upon “the most frightful, dismal railroad station in the world.” But his spirits soared when he was met by John Barrymore in full costume for his role in The Beloved Rogue, ushered to a waiting limousine, and was then zooming through Los Angeles with a motorcycle escort to the Ambassador Hotel — where he finally did find palm trees, flowers, and a swimming pool.

“My God, are you tall!” — John Barrymore to the six-foot-three Veidt upon his arrival in Los Angeles in 1926

Veidt had originally intended to make the one picture with Barrymore and then return to Germany, but he soon moved his family into a Spanish-style house in Beverly Hills (complete with butler, domestic staff — and palm trees) and stayed on to make more films. After considering several offers from various other studios, Veidt signed with Universal Studios, headed by Veidt’s fellow countryman, Carl Laemmle, who had been born near Stuttgart. Under contract at a very princely salary of $2,000 per week, Veidt made three pictures for Universal until the new phenomenon of talking pictures sent him back to Germany in 1929.

1940-1943
Before we can discuss Conrad Veidt’s Hollywood “exile” in the early ’40s, we must first go back to his time in England and his first genuine exile — more an expulsion — from Germany. After being forced out of his homeland in 1933, Veidt had been living and working in London, with only an occasional visit to France for film work there.

Conrad Veidt's former residence in Beverly Hills (1999)

Conrad Veidt and his wife Lily called this Beverly Hills house at 617 Camden Drive their home from 1940 to 1943. According to Jerry Allen’s Conrad Veidt: From Caligari to Casablanca, in the ’40s “the house was of white stucco, single story, with green wood trim and a high gabled roof.” PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

In a characteristic act of loyalty to his newly adopted country, in 1940 Conrad Veidt planned to make what he thought was to be a short visit to America to promote his film Contraband to raise money for the British cause. He could not have known that another important phase of his career awaited him in America and that he would never return to England while he was alive.

Although he was not Jewish, Veidt was anti-Nazi, and he fled Germany with his Jewish third wife — Ilona “Lilli” Barta Preger, originally from Hungary — for exile in England after Hitler’s takeover in 1933. Before leaving Germany, this time for good, Veidt had accepted the title role in the British production Jew Süss. In a bizarre international incident worthy of a Hollywood thriller, Veidt was detained in Germany by the Nazis following his work on the German film Wilhelm Tell. The Nazis had asked Veidt to turn down the British Jew Süss role. When he refused, German officialdom declared him “ill and unable to travel.” Veidt was forced to remain in Germany — a prisoner— until the Gaumont-British studio literally came to his rescue. Only after vigorous diplomatic protests by the British government and the studio, was Veidt able to rejoin his family in London and to take part in the filming of Jew Süss (directed by fellow German Lothar Mendes). The Nazis apparently relented in order to avoid a major scandal over Veidt’s detention once the “to ill to travel” story had become such an obvious lie.

Although we touch on it here but briefly, Conrad Veidt’s British film career lasted seven years, and the tall, thin actor with a pleasant German accent became one of Britain’s most popular actors of the 1930s. Working with British director Michael Powell and others, Veidt had a very successful career going in England. Indeed, it was almost by accident that Veidt went to Hollywood for a second — and last — time.

In April 1940, only a year after he had officially become a British subject, Veidt and his wife Lilli (they had wed in a civil ceremony in Berlin on March 30, 1933) boarded the SS Duchess of Bedford in Liverpool for an uneventful voyage to New York — despite rumors of German submarine danger. (Conrad’s daughter Viola was with her mother, Felizitas, in Switzerland at the time.)

Veidt carried with him a print of his film Contraband, intending for it to be edited and released in the U.S. under the title Blackout. The American proceeds from the production were intended to help finance the British war effort — the kind of patriotic gesture and financial sacrifice that Veidt willingly undertook more than once during the Allied struggle against Hitler.

While he was in New York making arrangements for Contraband, Veidt received a phone call from MGM head Louis B. Mayer who invited the German actor to play General von Kolb in the anti-Nazi movie Escape. Veidt apparently thought this would be a pleasant interlude in what was to be his brief Hollywood hiatus before returning to England.

Veidt and Lilli were soon on their way to the West Coast. It was not the first time Veidt had crossed the United States by train. Arriving in Los Angeles on the 13th of June 1940, Veidt was on the MGM set of Escape just four days later. Refusing Louis B. Mayer’s offers of a chauffeured limousine and a large dressing room, Veidt did make one stipulation in his new contract: his favorite Berliner Weiße beer must be available to him in Hollywood to help stave off his homesickness for the German capital. MGM made sure that the Berlin wheat beer was imported for Berlin’s famous native son.

Veidt was also pleased to discover that, besides his co-stars Norma Shearer and Robert Taylor, an old chum from his Deutsches Theater days, Albert Bassermann, also had a role in Escape. During his second Hollywood career Veidt would often act in films with fellow cinema exiles from Austria and Germany.

Veidt's US alien registration card

Conrad Veidt’s US Alien Registration Card bears his signature and thumb print. From the James Rathlesberger Collection at the Pacific Film Archive

Settling in as California residents, the Veidts soon bought a new house in Beverly Hills at 617 North Camden Drive. They would often get together with American and British friends as well as others in the exile community — a growing segment of the Hollywood community. Either at their own home or at the residences of friends, the Veidts would visit with people such as Basil Rathbone, Charles Boyer (and his British wife, Pat), Joe and Mia May (who were now Hollywood restaurant owners!), and the Austrian Paul Henreid (who appeared with Veidt in Casablanca).

Veidt’s success in Escape, including a National Board of Review acting award, inevitably led to more film offers. His next film was A Woman’s Face, a remake of a Swedish psychological thriller about a woman with a disfigured face who is accused of murder. In one of his better Hollywood roles, Veidt plays the film’s suave villain, Torsten Barring.

But Hollywood in the early 1940s was not always so wise in choosing roles for Veidt. Although he played other parts, Veidt became rather typecast in evil-Nazi roles in the anti-Nazi films so popular at the time. His greatest success as a nasty Nazi was as Major Strasser in Casablanca. And that was far preferable to disasters like Whistling in the Dark, in which Veidt had to gamely try to maintain his tongue-in-cheek dignity in a minor role opposite Red Skelton and Eve Arden in a farce that doesn’t seem very funny today — if it was even in 1941.

Veidt certificate

In 1942 the Motion Picture Relief Fund awarded Conrad Veidt this certificate for his generous services on behalf of the Fund. Courtesy Vivienne Phillips, Hendon, London.

Just as in England, Veidt proved to be a generous philanthropist in Hollywood as well. He and Lilli supported causes such as the European Film Fund (EFF), organized by Ernst Lubitsch, Salka Viertel, and Paul Kohner to aid the increasing number of refugees pouring into Hollywood from Nazi-controlled Europe. Veidt also offered his talent for other causes. One certificate he received (see photo) reads in part, “…for the unselfish service you contributed in behalf of your Motion Picture Relief Fund on the broadcast of April 19, 1942 over the Columbia Transcontinental Network from Hollywood.”

Conrad Veidt’s last film, Above Suspicion,, was released on April 28, 1943, exactly 25 days after his death. It is very much open to conjecture where his acting career might have gone had he lived longer. Would Hollywood have finally found more roles worthy of the actor who so much loved his craft? Would Veidt have stayed in Hollywood indefinitely?

Those are questions no one can answer. On April 3, 1943 Conrad Veidt, only 50 years old and at the top of his career, died suddenly and very unexpectedly on a golf course in the land of palm trees, flowers, and swimming pools that he had come to love.

More | Conrad Veidt’s Exile in Death

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