‘A face you will never forget’ – But apparently have: Love Letters To Conrad Veidt.

Conrad Veidt, breaking arms with one sweep of his eyelashes since 1893.

‘He was tall, lean, almost transparent. He had an extremely intellectual face. Above all, he was not handsome in the usual sense, only his eyes were beautiful and deeply sad. But he was interesting and whoever saw him would never forget his face.’ – Curt Riess

YouTube comment on The Thief Of Bagdad (1940).

‘First saw this on TV when I was about 5 years old. Still remember looking at Veidt and remarking: “He has pretty eyes.” My grandmother laughed and said, “She likes the villain. Should we be worried?”’

IMDB reviewer on A Woman’s Face (1941)

‘Even Conrad Veidt, Major Strasser from Casablanca is *sexy* here. I never would have thunk it. It’s a really revolting form of sexuality. Like the man who sells you heroin. Very bad.’

“That’s my fate. Always misunderstood.”

Conrad Veidt/Major Ellissen , F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1933)

I’m Fiona Watson, Mrs. Shadowplay.

On August the 17th, Eureka/Masters Of Cinema will be releasing The Man Who Laughs (1928). David and I contributed a video essay on the making of Paul Leni’s late silent masterpiece, but during the research process, I became more and more intrigued by its star, Conrad Veidt. I’d always liked him, on a superficial level, but what I was now learning was leading me down a wormhole towards fixation. (I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 52.)

This happens on a regular basis. I become obsessed with a certain subject then study it until it squeaks. Sometimes the process lasts months, others, years. My last ‘thing’ was octopuses. Intelligent, emotional, playful invertebrates. What’s not to like?! I hope this one doesn’t last years, although I have a horrible suspicion it will. Or should that be delightful suspicion? I’m not sure which. Well, Connie always did embody duality.

The odds are there will only be a pile of Fiona ash left at its conclusion. Y’know, like the end of Hammer’s first Dracula, but with Peter Cushing subbed out for Conrad Veidt, who, instead of two candlesticks, is brandishing his weird charisma up to my face as my legs dissolve and retract into my trousers. It’s rather unseemly for a middle-aged woman to be falling in love with a long-dead German film star but here we are. (We know a song about that, don’t we children?)

One thing that struck me forcefully was that the final edit of our video essay, The Face Deceives, still leaned quite heavily towards him being a ‘horror’ star and inspiration for The Joker, two hoary old clichés I’m passionate about dispelling.

I was moaning down the phone one day to one of my BFF about this state of affairs, when she came up with a genius suggestion. (I only associate with geniuses.) Why didn’t I write down everything I wanted to say, that I hadn’t said, in an article, or articles, on Shadowplay? David was agreeable (ANYTHING to get me writing again after a long period of inertia) and I hope the result will be affectionate, informative, and amusing.

So, I’ll be reviewing the ‘sound’ career (no Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or The Man Who Laughs here) of Connie while taking a sneaky peek at him as a person, and how that personhood informed his artistry. I’m still relatively new to this fandom and I certainly don’t want to annoy anyone who’s been in this for the long haul.

Speaking of which, I’d like to thank one exceptional woman, Monique classique (her online alias), a collector of memorabilia and fan of CV from Romania. She’s generously allowing me to use scans from her extensive collection, all out of her desire to see Veidt’s profile raised in the public consciousness.

And now it’s time to play a guessing game to which we already know the answer. Which uniquely gifted actor straddled both the silent and sound eras, performing in three different languages, and during his second American period (the first was during the silent era), in the early 1940s, while under contract to MGM, was receiving more female fan mail than Clark Gable, but who has faded almost completely into obscurity apart from three films? One released in 1920, the second in 1928, and the final one in 1942.

Early in his stage career, a critic had written he had a face you could never forget. In the case of the 1928 release, his face was ‘stolen’, transposed onto a comic book villain, and has imprinted itself onto the public consciousness with such force it has become iconic. And yet his real face and his work, both artistic and humanitarian, have been obscured by this grotesque modification.

Hans Walter Conrad Veidt aka Cesare The Somnambulist (The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, 1920), aka Gwynplaine  (The Man Who Laughs, 1928) aka Major Strasser (Casablanca, 1942), has been reduced to a pub quiz question invoking horror movies, Gothic romances, and Nazis.

Major Strasser is a supporting role. It doesn’t give Connie much wiggle room to do anything really interesting. In fact he jokingly complained that he felt he was stealing money from Warner Brothers because he was just showing up every day and sliding into a Nazi uniform.

Ultimately it’s explained by poor availability of his sound films in English, German and French. You can’t appreciate how versatile he was until you’ve seen the complete set of movies, not all of them good I admit, although he brings his ‘ineffable Connieness’ as writer David Ehrenstein says, to each and every one of them. The British Period in particular is crucial.

TV/Film Programmers, restorers and distributers could all be lending a hand here, bloggers and website moderators/owners are picking up the slack, but it’s not enough. It’s seen as too niche. Who gives a shit about some freaky German actor?

Well, as a matter of fact, a surprising number of people. People who’ve accidentally brushed up against the intense Veidt phenomenon and been unable to shake it off. He liked to talk about “doping” an audience, and that’s honestly what it feels like. You’re in the grip of some strange addiction, and you might, if you’re lucky, just never go to rehab.

Being magnificently grubby and severe in The Last Company/Die Letzte Kompagnie (1930) (have him washed and brought to my tent)

Right. Let’s deal with this from the get-go so we can move on. Conrad Veidt was bisexual. It’s on the record, from a number of sources, and yet a surprising number of people who have written about him deny him his identity.

A commentator on a review Mr Crayons/The Husband wrote, about The Passing Of The Third Floor Back said, ‘Although his character is Christ-like, I was struck by intense sexuality bubbling beneath the surface in his performance. I had read previously that Veidt held a strong attraction for members of both sexes. After watching this film I could understand why.’

Yes, I know he was married more than once and had a daughter, but sexuality is on a spectrum, and he probably shifted about on that spectrum throughout his life, finally settling down in his last decade. Michael Powell described his third-time lucky pairing with half Jewish business woman Lily Prager as the happiest marriage he’d ever seen.

My First Contact with Veidt was a still in The Gifford (a legendary tome on this blog), seen at about the age of twelve. It was from The Student Of Prague (1926) and showed Balduin/Veidt attempting to attack his split-off mirror image/soul with a tree branch.

I never forgot it. There was something intensely dynamic about the body language. Even in non-moving form and without that marvellous face fully visible, he still had the ability to compel you to look. And not just look but remember.

As I said before, his films often examined duality. He played twins and people separated from their reflections/souls, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Devil and Jesus Christ; gender reversal also crops up, with Veidt taking on traditionally feminine emotional and dramatic aspects. Naturally, mirrors also play prominent visual parts. He’s constantly moving back and forth through the looking glass.

In reality, he deployed a small hand mirror on set to check his lighting, sometimes making suggestions to cinematographers. “I bet they loved that,” said David wryly. Although I think it was a different kind of self-awareness and technical knowledge to Marlene Dietrich, who was reputed to be able to FEEL whether her lighting was right.

Marlene was reaching for perfection of her screen image; Veidt, I imagine, was checking how the lighting affected his face, from one expression to the next.

When we, the audience, look into the mirror, it’s possible to see aspects of ourselves in Conrad Veidt, as he stares back at us with those luminous, fathomless eyes.  He’s many things to many people; an LGBT rights pioneer, a proto-feminist, a heroic Nazi fighter, a Visionary, an Idealist, a Progressive, an Expressionist nightmare made flesh, and a Sex Symbol. He contains multitudes.

No wonder so many people want to ‘claim’ him for different reasons. So why this versatile, mesmerizing actor has faded from contemporary consciousness is a complete mystery to me. If he’s remembered at all it’s either because of The Man Who Laughs/Joker connection or his uncanny, silent Weimar roles.

But he was much more than that. And the elements that make up his appeal are so timeless, that I’m frankly astonished he doesn’t have hundreds of millions of fans worshipping at little Connie shrines.

Sound Connie is not just worlds, but multiverses away from Silent Connie. Remarkably, he managed to reinvent himself and metamorphosise from floppy-haired stick insect contortionist to mature leading man/character actor relatively smoothly, although there was a “squeaking horror” moment, probably involving the part-talkie Bride Number 68 aka Land Without Women (1929), the first German sound film.

As audio recording was perfected, Connie perfected his own transition from pantomime to more naturalistic performing, while still retaining the tools from his silent era kit box.

Connie looks for his woman in Land Without Women/ Das Land ohne Frauen (1929), an activity you’d think he’d realise was a complete waste of time with a title like that.

He compressed his wild physicality down to the size of a pin-prick, losing the flailing but retaining the emotional power. He’s a bit like The Black Hole of Acting. Super dense. Weaker actors performing next to him are in danger of being sucked into his Event Horizon.

He can either be terrifyingly still or smoothly elegant in his movements, a choreographer dancing through a part while looking entirely natural and spontaneous; his long fingered hands gracefully arcing through the air; carefully touching objects; or in a signature gesture, cupping the head of the person his gaze is focused on.

His face is one of the most expressive ever to have graced the silver screen, giving us access to individual thoughts with micromovements of the muscles. I know he’s best known for his villains, but I have to say, I like him best when he’s doing things most male actors don’t dare do, and that is crack himself open to reveal deep tenderness and sorrow. (I recently re-watched Marlon Brando in Last Tango In Paris and was reminded of Veidt’s emotional openness)

At the other end of the spectrum he can be amazingly playful, funny, perverse, sensual and, yes, sexy.

And he never lost the astonishing power of his eyes to telegraph emotion. There’s a miraculous moment in Hollywood B picture, Nazi Agent (1942), which freely borrows from his earlier twin film, The Two Brothers/ Die Brüder Schellenberg (1926), where his eyes change from a shocked adult’s to a horrified child’s.

They could also flash from Crazy Kubrick Stare to Wounded Lovelorn Adolescent to Tortured Soul in a nanosecond, liquifying into the softest, tenderest, most vulnerable eyes the cinema has ever seen in a man.

He’s like a six foot three, walking, 1980s Rob Bottin special effect except less extreme and grotesque. There’s something not quite real about him, and simultaneously he’s painfully tangible. I told you he was Duality Personified.

His smile could look murderously insane, or boyishly sweet. A broad, beaming smile like a sunrise. But with gappy teeth (If sunrises can have teeth). He didn’t actually get them fixed until quite late in his short life, and oddly they just added to what the French call Jolie Laide, literally Beautiful Ugly. In some shots in A Woman’s Face he looks like Inspector Clouseau turning into a big cat.

This leads me to believe that sometime in the late 1920s he’d invented and perfected the art of non-digital morphing. Simply by rearranging his molecular structure he could take on the aspect of The Most Beautiful Man In The World or a Nightmarish, Etiolated, Fanged, Teutonic Anomaly.

The most beautiful man in the world.

Something else.

There are also occasional echoes of his adolescent clumsiness, before he’d trained that ludicrously lanky body to be graceful and controlled. He once said of himself, “As a young man of 19 and 20, I was too tall and too thin. I had no flesh on my bones. My legs were always getting in the way. As for my hands, they were a terrible and constant problem. They dangled out of my sleeves, which seemed always too short.”

He trips over a bin in Contraband/Blackout (1940) and nearly falls over again getting out of shot! Similarly, he goes shouting and stomping around in F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1933) like a giant teenager who doesn’t know his own strength, and in one scene keeps jocularly slapping his old mucker, Sunshine, on the back with his huge hands until I feared for tiny, insectoid Donald Calthrop’s life.

With Donald Calthorp in F.P.1. Calthorp is a probable witness to The Incident Of The Dreaded DeTrousering on the set of Rome Express. He’s in it too.

It’s all weirdly endearing. Where was director Karl Hartl? Oh sorry, he was simultaneously shooting the German AND French language versions. Well, you can’t be everywhere. Actually, I think the hilarious oddness of this performance can be put down, in part, to lax direction and being thrown into a multi-lingual production and not having enough time to prepare.

God knows what else was going on. He’s also surrounded by non English speakers which would mess with his focus. His English is much better in the earlier, UK shot Rome Express (1932).

He took a seat-of-the-pants, crazily ardent attitude to performing in English in the early 1930s, mostly refusing a dialogue coach so he wouldn’t become a “parrot”. Bear in mind that he didn’t seriously start learning English until he was in his thirties. The result was electrifying but chaotic. Some of his directors seem terrified of him (and I don’t blame them) so he gets away with murder. AND taking his trousers off.

In one memorable on set moment during Rome Express, when he was only supposed to be taking off his jacket, director Walter Forde turned round for a couple of seconds and when he turned back again the trousers had come off too! The DeTrousering can be explained by a) his natural playfulness, and b) his boredom and frustration with a very one-dimensional role. Something he later admitted to in a startlingly honest interview.

Conrad Veidt contemplates taking his trousers off.

Vocally, Veidt’s performance as Captain Ellissen in the Floating Farago, F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer, (an early sci-fi film that’s basically about an aircraft carrier), veers between painfully and heroically squeezing out his lines, yelling incoherently in Berlinglish and occasionally dialling everything down to a curious melancholy (it’s also a love triangle). Although I have to say, I adore the impish way he says, “Would you like to daaance?” to Claire Lannartze, part owner of the titular piece of buoyant architecture.

His best moments are when he confesses to that bitch Ms Lannartze that his latest flying expedition failed and he was so ashamed he couldn’t return home immediately.

His face, when she enters a room, is a lovely study in surprise and hopefulness, almost boyish, a complete revelation coming from this gargantuan Teutonic thing. And all done without dialogue.

Amusingly, a commentator on YouTube had this to say about F.P.1, ‘Aaaaw. How could she not choose Connie?!’ I suspect this is a huge part of his appeal. You really, really want him to get the girl and he so rarely does.

Here he is, being in ‘lurve’ again in the terrible The Men In Her Life (1941). Loretta Young seems to marry him out of pity and gratitude in this film, which is frankly unacceptable.

Moments later he’s even more ‘in lurve’. Honestly, I think if someone looked at me with this much adoration I’d just dissolve into a viscous puddle at his feet, a feeling I resent.

His vocal delivery would markedly improve over his years spent living and working in the UK, and he would ultimately take up British citizenship in 1939, so revolted was he by the Nazi regime. A few years earlier he was actually ‘detained’ by the Nazis while fulfilling a contractual obligation in Germany because he was planning to make the anti-anti Semitic Jew Süss/Power (1934) and refused to budge despite threats, humiliation and sleep deprivation being forced upon him (this guy was FEARLESS).

It took Michael Balcon to extract him from a potentially fatal situation. Later on Goebbels would call him up at his Hampstead home and try and sweet talk him into coming back to Germany, but again he dug his heels in and refused to give up the Jewish woman he loved. All of this would make a fabulous movie; the major difficulty being it would be impossible to cast because they broke the mold.


Here is a graphic representation of Conrad Veidt’s approach to performing in English in F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer:

(and RIP to the God-like Tim Brooke-Taylor)

After Tim Brooke-Taylor died, I looked all over the place for this precise shot but couldn’t find it, so I created this GIF(t) to the world. This shot from the title sequence of The Goodies (BBC/ITV 1970 – 82) is the one that never failed to make me laugh, despite the fact I’d seen it a million times.

It just seemed to sum up the Timbo essence, and in a strange way, the Connie essence too. That insane enthusiasm and commitment to their art. And the drag of course. Always the drag. (If you’ve read about Con’s Weimar fun and games, you’ll know EXACTLY what I’m talking about.) Oh Timbo. Oh Connie. *weeps with laughter and sadness*

I like to think Connie would have loved this wonderfully surreal comedy show. The mind melting ending of The Baddies 1972 sees all three Goodies in hand to hand combat with robot doppelgängers. Automata and doubles are two things that recur in the Veidt filmography.

I’ve also read a fan theory that Veidt might have made a great, Germanic Dr Who, especially in relation to his role as the Baron De Kempelen, “very peculiar gentleman” and builder of automata in The Chess Player/Le joueur d’échecs 1938. Refreshingly, he’s a goodie in this film, albeit a strange one.

 Being Strange but Good.

Seriously, had Veidt lived longer and gone back to the UK, he might have been eligible for some kind of honour for his outstanding financial and personal contribution to the war effort, although I don’t know where he would have stood as someone who was a naturalised citizen. (I also have no doubt that he would have embraced television had he lived longer than 50) Astonishingly, he gave the British Government all his life savings before departing for America in 1940 to promote and distribute Contraband. 

He was then advised that staying and working in the US would be more useful for propaganda purposes, but he continued to make ridiculously generous donations and fostered his British doctor’s son to keep him safe. Basically he was being paid to play Nazis and a large percentage of that pay was sent back to the UK.

It must have been heart-breaking for an actor of his ability to be so straight-jacketed. He was a fan of Paul Muni and Charles Laughton and could easily have been their equal given the right parts, but he ended up playing second banana to Red Skelton in Whistling In The Dark (1941).

Luckily he got a brief blaze of glory in George Cukor’s melodrama A Woman’s Face 1941, his best Second Hollywood Period role, as megalomaniac playboy Torsten Barring. “I’m Lucifer in a tuxedo!” he declared delightedly. Connie exudes a darkly perverse sexuality and menace and plays beautifully against Joan Crawford in what is undoubtedly one of her best performances. The result was that MGM’s publicity department was snowed under with unexpected fan mail.

The attention seemed to surprise and gratify him too, when interviewed about it he said that when he looked in the mirror he certainly didn’t see a young Romeo. In the same interview he kept the female journalist entertained by jumping out of his seat and doing an impression of himself as a fat, bandy-legged baby. ‘It was a treat!’ she exclaimed.

Not many people seem to be aware of his absurdist sense of humour. During an interview given during his Silent Hollywood era, he self deprecatingly described himself as having been an “extra” in WWI because he was invalided out. When people met him in real life, this aspect of his personality always took them by surprise.

In casual interviews he’s constantly leaping out of chairs, ending his sentences with exclamation marks, doing silly voices and making faces. All of the fun and playfulness in The Spy In Black (1939) and Contraband (1940) comes from his collaboration on the screenplays with Hungarian Emeric Pressburger, and Brits Michael Powell, and Valerie Hobson.

When Hobson started correcting his pronunciation during these script sessions, they decided to incorporate it into the films. “It’s not my fault. My screenwriter has an accent,” he would jokingly complain.

Another result of these group efforts was that Hobson, a whip-smart, leggy brunette (who probably reminded Veidt of his wife) wasn’t backward in coming forward with ideas in which her character bosses his character around. The result? They both loved the dramatic and romantic tension it created, and began sparring with each other creatively, leading to the marvellous chemistry they have on screen.

Being chastised by Valerie Hobson during an epic flirtation session. Hobson – “Doesn’t all this belong in an evening school for grown ups?” Veidt – “It IS evening. And I’m grown up.”

George Cukor, director of A Woman’s Face, said of him, “He always looked like the wickedest man in the world, yet he was really very gay and funny.” Odd things would happen frequently in his life, and he would habitually refer to them as The Incident Of The Dreaded Something.

It could refer to The Incident Of The Dreaded Bat, when a small specimen of the creature got loose in a hotel he was staying at, or The Incident Of The Dreaded Owl, when, in the middle of the night, he caught his wife and his daughter firing off cap guns at a noisy member of the Strigiformes order that was keeping them awake.

This phraseology smacks of The Goon Show.  Examples of Goon Show titles include ‘The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler of Bexhill-On-Sea’ and ‘The Saga Of The Internal Mountain’. “It’s not my fault. My screenwriter has an accent,” is so Spike Milliganesque I’m almost rendered speechless.

Perhaps the reason he felt so self-confessedly, instantly at home in the UK was not just the strong sense of national unity he’d observed and admired, but the sharing of the daft, often surreal British sense of humour, which admittedly didn’t reach its radio apex until after WW2 was over and he’d tragically left us. At any rate, Veidt had comedy muscles he never got to flex properly.

Witness his poncey but pithy Prince Metternich in The Congress Dances (1931); Captain Hardt, the sheep-impersonating U-boat commander with the kinky obsession with Hobson’s silk stockings in The Spy In Black. Every time he mentions them he gets sent to bed with his motorbike (The motorbike is explained away as “camouflage”, although how he got it in and out of the sub and onto a Scottish island is a mystery).

The “That’s not my coat,” moment in the marvellously silly Contraband (which he co-produced) while conspicuously NOT looking at said coat; Captain Andersen’s silk stocking fetish AGAIN; and finally, the wry “Tell me, have you ever been put in irons, Mrs Sorensen?” to lifejacket refusenik Valerie Hobson from the same film. We won’t even talk about the ‘bondage’ scene in the Nazi lair… But I can show it to you! (Please see this film. It has the most wonderfully modern sexual politics.)

Oh, how I wish we could have had at least two more films concerning the continuing adventures of Captain and, now, Mrs Andersen (Hobson – “And did you ever try being married? That can be quite a big adventure.”). I can imagine them running about, giving the bad guys/gals fits, pausing occasionally to quip, tie each other up, and sexily squabble over who the dominant and submissive partner is in the relationship. Feel free to make up your own scenarios for this lovely couple and write them in the comments section.

And the voice! It had a strange, unearthly, beauty that could range from a loud, metallic clang, to a mocking purr, to a harsh rasp, and finally to a light, soft, sibilant caress, that often shook with emotion. Director Berthold Viertel (The Passing Of The Third Floor Back, 1935) said he used it like a musical instrument, modulating it for different effects.

Self-conscious about his accent when speaking English, he would articulate the words slowly and softly when everyone else was yelling to the back of the stalls in the early to mid-1930s; British talkies were still toddling away from stage-bound techniques even at this stage. This attention to detail helped with the clarity of his enunciation. But he could also boom like a bass drum if required.

Sent from heaven itself. And guess where the other guy comes from.

One of my favorite stories about him polishing up his English was an interview in which he describes listening intently to the radio, despite being warned by friends and colleagues that traditional BBC radio presenters’ accents were ridiculously pompous.

I love the idea of him tuning in to the 1930’s version of Gardener’s Question Time in order to improve his diction. This was as late as The Thief Of Bagdad, so he was still working on his pronunciation in his mid to late forties. But he was never going to sound like Tommy Handley no matter how hard he listened to ITMA.

“It’s that man again!” (Observe the way he comes into the cabin looking like a naughty schoolboy)

Another Veidt hallmark was his ability to project humanity (and if not humanity then understanding) into the most abject or downright evil characters. He said, “Each new villainous role presented a challenge to me – could I make such an unreal character real? No human being is a villain just for villainy’s sake. Something beyond his control relentlessly drives him on.”

He also played all his roles German, whether the characters were Swedish, Danish, or representatives of paradise; in the same way that Sean Connery plays all his roles Scottish, it matters not one jot that he can’t do accents. His own accent is all part of the appeal.

Salty, Danish, Sea-dog Captain Andersen will brook no insubordination on his ship. Especially not from Valerie Hobson.

Since he claimed to be much more at ease in the presence of women than men, it would have been fascinating to see Veidt directed by a woman, say, Ida Lupino, his co-star in one of the two radio versions of A Woman’s Face.

He said, “I prefer to talk with females. I do. I find it quite as stimulating and distinctly more comfortable. When it is said that females cannot be geniuses, that is no longer so. When men say things like ‘I bet it is a woman driving’ if something is wrong with the car ahead – no, no. These are old, worn out prejudices, they do not belong in Today.”

This interview took place in 1941. As an aside, Veidt also appeared in what has to be one of the first pro-choice movies ever made, Kreuzzug des Weibes/ The Women’s Crusade (1926), as well as the first sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality, Anders als die Andern/ Different From The Others (1919).

Many of his roles embodied the idea of The Outsider or The Other, and even his villainous roles are shot through with pathos. He could be a tortured Romantic (no on could angst as beautifully as Connie), or a conflicted Man Of Duty; an Anti-Hero; occasionally a Real Hero; a BDSM Playboy; a lovelorn wizard, the list goes on. But one thing remains constant, his essential humanity.

You’re aware of the many layers of emotional complexity he added to his often underwritten roles. And Emotion is key. Once you start watching a Connie film, it’s almost impossible NOT to connect with him. He sends out such strong waves of feeling, you’d have to lack a pulse not to respond and empathise. He completely belongs to Today. And that’s his secret weapon.

He’s so ALIVE on screen. 77 years after his death, you could almost reach out and touch him. And that physical action would vary from slapping him, firing a gun at him, wrapping your arms round him to comfort him, throwing him off a train, kissing him, or just holding hands and loosing yourself in THOSE EYES.

Back where we started. But worth repeating.

Over the coming months, I’ll be peering into the Magic Crystal from The Thief Of Bagdad to examine the Veidt Mystique and reviewing every one of the sound films currently available in chronological order. Please join me in helping resurrect the reputation of one of the greatest screen actors the world has ever known but has only seen and heard incompletely. And don’t shoot me if you fall in love with him. I’m just the messenger.

Credits and thanks –

All watermarked photographs and screencaps.

Monique classique blogs about Connie here and here.

YouTube clips.

A Woman’s Face from Veronique Laurent.

Contraband from quixotandovideos

The Passing Of The Third Floor Back from ConnieVeidt.

The Thief Of Bagdad from Deniz Azad.




39 Responses to “‘A face you will never forget’ – But apparently have: Love Letters To Conrad Veidt.”

  1. He is certainly the most interesting character in the thief of Baghdad

  2. Brava, Fiona! I love him so much.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Connie Veidt is most definitely AN AXIOM OF THE CINEMA!
    So glad you’re examining “The Thief of Bagdad” — which is a very important film for me because as a kid Sabu was the only person in the movies who looked like me and in this one he had The Best Part Ever! I trust you’ll not it was made on the run as Hitler was bombing the UK so everybody moved to the U.S. with the genie making his first appearance on the beach n Malibu. There were two children dedicated to fighting Hitler — Anne Frank and Sabu.

    Regarding faces I have a new book !

  4. This is great, and I look forward to forthcoming pieces on the sound films. For me, the key Connie Veidt films are THIEF OF BAGHDAD, CALIGARI (inevitably) and, pre-eminently, THE SPY IN BLACK, which even inspired an uncharacteristically accessible (and spoilery) poem from spiky obscurantist Geoffrey Hill. I’ve never really forgiven CASABLANCA for wasting him so comprehensively. Nice shout-out to that marvellous film CONTRABAND, whose relationship with SPY seems analogous to the two Robert Mitchum-Jane Greer films OUT OF THE PAST and THE BIG STEAL: the first film reveals an amazing chemistry between its often antagonistic leads which is exploited in a lighter, more romantic way by the second.

  5. Judy Dean Says:

    Lovely piece, Fiona. The syndrome you describe is all too familiar to me, having been through the same form of obsession with, in turn, Brando, Buster Keaton and John Barrymore. (With Keaton it reached the point where I became acknowledged as something of an expert – at least in UK.) Those passions are now spent but I still feel a degree of susceptibility. Don’t tempt me. By the way, if you read Antonia Quirke’s autobiography, you’ll find she’s a fellow sufferer.

  6. Fiona here, disguised as her own husband. Thank you so much for all the lovely comments. David, I’ll investigate your new book. sjmw, I’ll try and find that poem. And Judy, I’ll do some digging into Antonia Quirke’s autobiography. I’m so glad this loony article is going down well.

  7. FHDAHOH – Bloody hell Judy. Looks like I’ll have to buy that book!

  8. FHDAHOH – Can’t get access to the poem unless I subscribe to The Telegraph. Can you help me out sjmw?

  9. Fiona – Only someone Neuroatypical would connect Conrad Veidt with The Goons and The Goodies. Here’s that amazing episode with the evil, robot Goodies and a stray Dr Who (Patrick Troughton), essaying the role of Dr Wolfgang Adolfus Ratfink Von Petal, mad scientist and would-be Nice Person Of The Year. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6tpg27

  10. I read the Geoffrey Hill poem while browsing in a bookshop, but subsequently found it on the internet and took the precaution of copying it. Here it is. As previously advertised, spoiler alert.


    ‘Now pick up your motorbike and go to  bed.’


    Imperilled by a virgin’s lack of nous,
    and she a Presbyterian in love,
    too generous when encountering the world’s ways
    ex machina – motor so opportune,
    like clockwork, chauffeused by a butch young thug
    (her low Lugerian accent); gräfin in back
    dispensing chloroform out of her furs.
    (Changes in continuity my credit.)
    Slightly obtuse those Viking-blooded gaels,
    magnificent auxiliaries, who emerge
    snorting their cosmic roles as engineers
    with bears of cotton-waste and most chaste oaths.
    Caesar himself dictates the signal flags
    proud, choppy, flown at regulation height.


    Metaphysics of physics:  what is the secret
    that nothing turns on though around it
    everything circulates, the pull of this
    interminable grey light in focused seance?
    No intermission as the shock flotilla
    moves to a change of course with spray-clawed bows.
    Strike a good posture, comrade, time the reel.
    Playing myth-bound, pure spirit that you are,
    feign mind and soul like eerie Harpo Marx,
    wiped off the celluloid, all watches primed
    to set and match, a day saved by default
    just as I said it would be.  Gallant old tub
    founders with an immediate deep upsurge.
    Musical flotsam churns post-mortem Elgar.


    No, no, no.  Metaphysics of chemistry –
    mystery play of the synapses for Veidt
    and dominatrix Hobson.  But play it as
    convention’s act of war.  Is it possible
    to love two men at once?  I’d have said not
    but this confounds me and is worth the price.
    Passionate timing – saved by the torpedo.
    (Error in detail there; write me about it,
    you whacking bore.  I yield to my invention.)
    I’ve yielded to much else; and few are drawn
    well purged into senescence.  I should guess
    that Iron Cross (2nd Class) is their mistake.
    And what an exit-line – It was my own
    boat that sank us – splendid!  And valedictions.

  11. It’s a bit much, I know. Still, describing the young Mary Morris as a ‘butch young thug’ seems entirely appropriate.

  12. […] Conrad Veidt, breaking arms with one sweep of his eyelashes since 1893. ‘He was tall, lean, al… […]

  13. Fiona – That’s AMAZING sjmw. Thank you so much. ‘dominatrix Hobson’ – that’s right on the money!

  14. F – #AntoniaQuirke Antonia, I bought your book. How could I not. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B002RI9F9A/ref=docs-os-doi_0

  15. […] Conrad Veidt, breaking arms with one sweep of his eyelashes since 1893. ‘He was tall, lean, al… […]

  16. David Wingrove Says:

    What a simply marvellous piece this is! It conveys so much about Conrad Veidt while still making it clear there is a great deal more of him to left convey.

    But is THE MEN IN HER LIFE really that bad? I’ve never seen it but have read about in one of Jeanine Basinger’s books and it sounds intriguing. But unlike you I am a massive fan of Loretta Young.

    One of his late movies that is bad is ABOVE SUSPICION where he and Basil Rathbone both play villainous Nazis out to get Joan Crawford. Could they not at least have called that movie ATTACK OF THE KILLER CHEEKBONES? Then they might have been onto something.

  17. Judy Dean Says:

    David C, you beat me to it! Antonia’s book was published under two different titles in UK and USA. I mistakenly bought them both, and was about to offer to post one to you but you were too quick off the mark.

  18. F – Hah! and Thank You!

  19. F – Oh, Mr Wingrove. Connie is not a Nazi in Above Suspicion, he’s an Austrian freedom fighter who enjoys being stepped on in high heels. Hobbies – giving guided tours of torture chambers, dipping his finger in cake mix and doing the tango.

  20. FIONA HERE IN DISGUISE AS HER HUSBAND – Thank you for the kind offer Judy, but I snapped it up on Kindle.

  21. The banner day has finally arrived! I saw Fiona announce it on Twitter and — the very Internet trembled and collapsed. At my house, at least. Only briefly, but I was in a STATE.

    All ye obsessives who thought you’d trod these paths alone — take heart. Even the Geoffrey Hill poem is KNOWN. (And fucking amazing. Geoffrey Hill got it.)

  22. David Wingrove Says:

    That shows just how much attention I paid to ABOVE SUSPICION. I found the whole film distinctly dull…and Connie and Basil did not even have a love scene. Not even a coded or subliminal one! It was all a great missed opportunity.

  23. Chuck V. Says:

    Someone needs a cigarette…

  24. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    “Zowie”, as Joe E. Brown would say. What a terrific tribute.
    I regret I only have THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and CASABLANCA .
    I must remedy that. Great post.!

  25. An Above Suspicion anecdote with a source so obscured I’m not entirely sure I didn’t make it up: Somebody on the set asked Connie if he didn’t find the film’s plot a tad implausible. On the contrary said Connie (teutonically) — it reminded him of the adventures he and his wife had while helping his wife’s relatives get out of Austria.

    One of those relatives ended up in Mexico, became an actor there, and was in The Wild Bunch.

  26. FIONA’S VOICE ISSUING FROM INSIDE HER HUSBAND’S CAT AVATAR – Thank you Katya. You’re too kind. And that AS anecdote. Just wow! TY Charles. Chuck, if CV approached me with *that* look in his eyes, brandishing a cigarette at me, I’d scream and run for the hills. That’s his DeTrousering, stabby, throwing people out of windows, Rome Express Look. Not good. Also, I gave up smoking decades ago.

  27. Mark E Fuller Says:

    Glorious piece Fiona, so happy to see a goodly plug to the most underrated PnP film, Contraband, and my favourite British 30s film, Passing Of The Third Floor Back. I’m looking forward to your verdict on Die Andere Seite, the best version of Journey’s End, with Connie as Stanhope. Once you get used to the British soldiers clicking heels in salute, it, and he, is just terrific. Available on DVD from Amazon.de or drop me a line…….

  28. Mark E Fuller Says:

    Oh, and loved the Geoffrey Hill poem, which I had not come across before; do either you or SMJW know the collection from which it’s taken, Google is not being helpful……

  29. I didn’t recall the book I was browsing, but given that this happened about fifteen years ago and it was a new collection of poems, I narrowed it down to WITHOUT TITLE (Penguin, 2006). Google Books, helpful for a change, says that the poem is on pages 75-77 of this edition.

  30. Mark E Fuller Says:

    Thank you so much !!!

  31. IT’S ME, FIONA – It’s been my absolute pleasure Mark.

  32. FIONA – Sorry Mark. You were typing at sjmw, not me. But sjmw is a indeed a wonder for coming up with that info.

  33. Simon Kane Says:

    This was brilliant. Thank you.


  35. Clara West Says:

    Excellent article, looking forward to to next installment.
    U.S. film makers basically wasted this wonderful artist!

  36. CAN YOU SEE ME, FIONA, PEERING OUT OF A CAT’S EYES? – Thank you Clara. Yes, America wasted him. But he also had difficulties in the UK. His best films are with Powell and Pressburger and Viertel. In the US Cukor was a good match for him too. Cukor reshot the ending of ‘Escape’ to great effect, so he must have been very happy to work with him on A Woman’s Face. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATQfiR9HBnw

  37. Ah-ha, I found it. This is an excerpt from an article about Angelo Rossitto which I originally posted here 10(!) years ago in the comments to David’s entry about The Beloved Rogue.

    “Angelo appeared with the great profile in THE BELOVED ROGUE (1927), which also starred the legendary Conrad Veidt. Angelo revealed that when the two great actors met on the set for the first time Barrymore said to the German star of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) “I find I can usually seduce most women using only the hypnotic quality of my voice but in these silent films they are drawn to my profile. Conrad Veidt looked at Barrymore for a moment and replied “Well I just fuck them with my face.” The two actors became great friends from that moment on and made a remarkable film together.”

    Unfortunately — it doesn’t really add up if we believe that Connie didn’t speak English at this time. But he did speak French well. So maybe they were all speaking French. And Connie knew how to say “fuck them with my face” in French. That must be it.

  38. FEE HERE – Bwa-ha-ha! Connie could speak English at that time but not fluently. Yes. That MUST be it. They were all speaking French! Barrymore ultimately rued the day he went after Veidt as a co-star, because when he saw the cut of Beloved Rogue, he ended up considerably ‘ensmallening’ Connie’s role because he was running away with the film. Well, ‘running’ might be pushing it. He was so tall he ending up playing King Louis XI in the Advanced Crouching Position.

  39. FEE BACK AGAIN with a theory that belongs to me, which is mine and is along the following lines. This is how it goes – When Valerie Hobson demands that they henceforth speak in English instead of German in The Spy In Black, and Connie replies, “And eat in English?” I put it to you that his line is an original Veidt improv. It’s very similar in tone to “It’s not my fault, my screenwriter has an accent.” So there we have it. Conrad Veidt. Unofficial member of The Goon Show and Facial Fornicator In French. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Radio/TheGoonShow

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