Archive for Conrad Veidt

Veidt Shadows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2009 by dcairns


The 1924 original version of HANDS OF ORLAC, from Robert “CALIGARI” Weine, is too classy a film really to fit in with my demented quest to see all the films illustrated  in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, but it is in the book, and I did see it, thanks to regular Shadowplayer Guy Budziak. There are horror movies you should see as a kid, and when you see them as a grown-up, you wish you’d seen them earlier (for me, THE BLACK ROOM, CURSE OF THE GOLEM and the silent THE LOST WORLD might be examples), but I don’t think I would have appreciated the lugubrious tone and pace of this one as a kiddie.

It’s also good that I’m seeing it now, since I can connect the stylistic flourishes of German expressionism to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, a student of the German school. This week’s Hitch, NUMBER 17, is a particularly Teutonic crime tale.


Do you all know the story? Pianist Conrad Veidt plays Orlac, whose hands are smashed up in a train wreck, and is given the substitute extremities of a guillotined murderer. Strange stuff starts to happen, convincing Veidt that his paws retain the murderous proclivities of their previous owner. It’s all part of a fiendish plot by Fritz Kortner, the details of which are obscure enough to keep you guessing. For a while there, I thought that Kortner actually intended to make Veidt murder his own father, by convincing him that his hands were animated by malevolent will.  That plot, worthy of VERTIGO’s Gavin Elster in its twisted complexity, proves to not quite be the case.

Weine here achieves delirious effects without overtly contorted or theatrical sets, although the designs by Hans Rouc and Stefan Wessely are glossy, disconcerting and non-ergonomic. Fiona particularly relished Veidt’s weirdly low hospital bed, which actively compels everybody to loom over him. The best effects are a mixture of lighting (those deep dark jagged shadows, how we adore them!) and performance. Veidt is extraordinary, a floppy-haired stick insect, his brow furrowed into a taut brainscape of clenched convolutions. He does things in this film no actor has ever even thought of doing. I mean, he tries to throw his hands off! He tries to run away from them. Sometimes he literally holds them at arms’ length, as if they’re ablaze, or they smell really bad. At other times they try to crawl inside his face. At one point he looks set to moonwalk. “Michael Jackson!” Fiona cried. “It don’t matter if you’re black or Veidt,” I offered, lamely.


Alexandra Sorina is Mrs. Orlac, her eyes rolling about like electrified pearls, barely contained by the rings of kohl surrounding them. Actively demented before anything’seven  happened, she does the impossible and keeps pace with Veidt’s physical insanity.

And then there’s Kortner, who has a hard job, appearing as a diabolical villain in such eccentric company, but he has a brilliant strategy — rather than wholeheartedly adopting the contortions and gesticulations of the expressionist style, or merging into the more naturalistic, low-key approach of the supporting players, he alternates between the two, so that you never know what you’re going to get next. Kortner also deploys his astonishing face and body extremely well: he looks like a malignant, pugilistic baby.

Of course, the pachyderm in the parlour is Karl Freund’s Hollywood remake, MAD LOVE, an excellent horror movie (the version to see when you’re twelve) that substitutes a fast-moving parade of grotesquerie and nonsense for the glacial creep of the Weine. The silent movie has nothing that can compare withPeter Lorre’s appearance as the decapitated, reanimated murderer, with black rubber prosthetic forelimbs, fetishistic neck brace, and clockwork cackle, fore-runner to the wind-up Nazi in Del Toro’s HELLBOY.

Lorre, playing a dude, pretending to be another dude — the most balls-out horrific thing in any 30s horror movie.


But Kortner, deprived of Lorre’s snazzy costume, still does well, moving his plastic-bound arms as if they were stilts, somehow, convincing us that these are foreign appendages buckled to his lardy body. His clunkinessmakes a superb contrast with Veidt’s writhing and slinking.

It’s cinema as spastic ballet!*


*The phrase “spastic ballet” is copyright Arthur Penn, who used it to describe what he wanted from Beatty and Dunaway when they’re machine-gunned to death at the end of BONNIE AND CLYDE. But on take one, somehow Beatty didn’t get the signal, and while Faye Dunaway spectacularly died in slow motion behind him, Beatty just stood there with a faint, puzzled grin as bits of his head blew off. “I wish I’d kept that bit of film,” says Penn.

Vicious Roomers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2009 by dcairns

My new article for the Auteurs’ Notebook is up…

Found this movie particularly exciting. Here’s a snippet:

Forgot to say — please leave your comments over at the Auteurs’.


Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2009 by dcairns


I can imagine conversations between British moviegoers in 1933 probably went something like ~

“Darling, would you like to see the new talking pictograph at the Roxy Regal Odeon tonight?”

“Who’s in it?”

“That German chappie, Conrad Veidt.”

“What’s it about?”

“A floating platform.”

“Oh yes, let’s!”


For no silver screen devotee could resist the alluring combination of Conrad Veidt and floating platforms. Floating platforms were all the rage — with their large, flat surfaces, and their reliable buoyancy, they struck a deeply reassuring chord with a nation still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.

As for Veidt, something about his imposing height made him the perfect accompaniment to tales of floating platforms. As elegantly erect as a platform is sleek and low-lying, as heavily Germanic as a floating thing is light, he complimented the craze for floating platforms (schwimmender-Plattformverrücktheit) like no other actor. It was inevitable that producers would attempt to combine the appeal of the floating platform with that of Veidt.

And so was produced the epic F.P.1 – a.k.a. F.P.1 DOESN’T ANSWER, a.k.a. SECRETS OF F.P.1. (Floating Platform 1, naturally.) Following in the wake of E.A. Dupont’s Titanic flick, ATLANTIC  (“The ship… has one hour… to live!”), made in three seperate  versions with English, French and German casts, and anticipating Maurice Elvey’s transatlantic tunnel yarn THE TUNNEL, a terrifying look at the future of civil engineering which also predicted the horrors of television, SECRETS OF F.P.1 was another oceanic adventure of technological hubris. The sort-of science fictional idea is for an oceanic air-strip positioned in the Atlantic, equidistant between the four continents of Europe, Africa, and the two Americas, allowing planes to land and refuel in mid-journey. It’s an aircraft carrier, but a bit bigger, basically.


Of course, there’s industrial espionage, at the hands of shady and unidentified business interests. I was reminded of the sinister goings-on in Fritz Lang’s WOMAN ON THE MOON, although this wasn’t quite as exciting. After all, we’re not dealing with space travel here, just a big metal raft. It’s slightly less romantic than an oil rig, if anything. The slightly uninteresting concept of the film stems from the fertile lobes of Curt Siodmak, sci-fi writer and idiot brother of the more celebrated Robert.

Still, we get Francis L. Sullivan (I think the L stands for Large) in a bit part as a construction worker with the least convincing cockney accent on record, making me glad he played his club owner character in NIGHT AND THE CITY, years later, with an improbably upper-crust voice. And we get a musical number! Once the workmen are all aboard and the platform is ready, they all have a sing-song, and the plot, already foundering, comes to a dead stop. Amusingly, all the chorus have thick German accents (but all the workmen who have speaking parts are English) and it’s a little hard to make out what they’re singing. As far as I can tell, the lyrics are ~

“Where ze light-house shines across ze bay,

There’s a cottage shits while you’re astray,

She’ll put off for long ze winter day,

While grazing.

Listening to ze breakers on ze shore,

Comes zat tiny cottage whence we’ll snore,

Stand for ages with a Fred Lenore,

Star gazing.”

Something like that, anyway.

Allan Gray, the composer, was, despite his name, a German, but he made his home in Britain as the war approached and scored several great Powell and Pressburger films, from COLONEL BLIMP to AMOLAD.

In the very Germanic tradition of superhuman, supermasculine hero, Connie Veidt, as a fearless pilot, is dashing and a little stiff — I suspect his director, Karl Hartl, would have got a more relaxed performance from him in the German version, but for some reason that stars Hans (BARON MUNCHAUSEN) Albers. Peter Lorre plays the scruffy reporter in that one, a role that goes to Donald Calthrop in the Brit flick. Calthrop is immortalised in Matthew Sweet’s book Shepperton Babylon in an account of the “Film Studio Horror” in which a young starlet burned to death in Calthrop’s dressing room after a box of face powder spilled onto an electric fire. Meanwhile, in the French version, Charles Boyer takes the lead (now he’s my idea of a glamorous aviator). Haven’t seen those alternate films, but I love the idea of simultaneous multi-lingual versions, and am looking forward to comparing Hitchcock’s MURDER! with its German-language counterpart, MARY, even though the latter is said to be markedly inferior and of little interest. That’s just the way I roll.


I enjoyed this one for its sheer obscurity, and for the nice rooms designed by Erich Kettelhut, who worked on Fritz Lang’s first and last MABUSE films. FP1 is like Lang Lite, which is fine once in a while if you don’t feel up to the Real Thing.


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