Archive for September 7, 2020

Conrad Veidt: The Sound Years. Part 1 – The Last Company/Die letzte Kompagnie 1930

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2020 by dcairns

Hello. I’m Fiona Watson, Mrs Shadowplay, and I’m back to carry out my threat to review Conrad Veidt’s sound career, in chronological order, or at least, the order listed on the IMDB. Because there’s far more to him than the kohl-smeared, expressionist flailer of the Silent Era.

Unfortunately, I can’t review Land Without Women/Das Land ohne Frauen 1929, Connie’s (and Germany’s) very first sound film because it’s currently lost, as much of Connie’s output is. Could someone start making a REAL effort to find this stuff please? Apparently one of his ‘lost’ films, Storm Over Asia/Tempête sur l’Asie 1938, isn’t ‘lost’ at all, it’s just sitting in an archive. What bloody use is that?

Synopsis – in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic war, thirteen men of an army detachment are left alive after a battle. They decamp to a nearby windmill where they find a family. The young daughter, Dora (Karin Evans), becomes emotionally attached to Captain Burk (Veidt) as they resolve to take a last stand against the enemy in what is essentially a suicide mission. The family flee but Dora sneaks back to be with her beloved Captain.

This film is now in a lamentable condition. Watching it was like receiving a film via telepathy from a not very good psychic. Bad show I say! It has some historical importance and deserves a restoration, although I doubt that’s possible because other, cleaner elements probably don’t exist any more. We even have moments where the image completely whites out. You can’t repair what’s not there. 

The Last Company was part of a popular series of films celebrating Prussian history and derring-do, and it’s solid, with a magnificent (and very long) opening tracking shot over the bodies of dead soldiers in a muddy field, while crows caw ominously in the background. This is probably the most cinematic part of the film until we get to the action-packed, death-sodden ending, which is dynamically shot and edited.

What comes in between is mostly a chamber piece which gives away its stage origins. The storyline is pretty thin, but what impresses is the naturalness of the performances. Nothing seems forced or projected to the back of the stalls. These look and sound like real people.  There’s some humour and a hell of a lot of hearty, bawdy, soldierly singing. (At one point David asked me if it was a musical.) We even get overlapping dialogue; pretty bold for something shot in 1929/1930. 

According to an intriguing review in Variety from 1931, an English language version was shot, then dubbed with British accented voices to match the German actors’ lip movements. The writer felt that the dubbing was distracting and badly done. So apparently Connie’s voice remained unheard outside Germany at this stage, which is a great pity, because the original proves that he was no “squeaking horror” as he referred to earlier efforts to record him. His voice was beautiful, unusual and distinctive.

The Squeaking Horror role goes to his leading lady, Karin Evans (Dora), who may have had a perfectly acceptable speaking voice when you were standing next to her in real life, but who sounds like she’s been hiding behind the flour sacks of the mill, inhaling helium between takes. It’s most disconcerting. But what’s really diverting is how Connie has completely changed as a film actor.

(Sorry about the lack of subtitling here. Basically the situation that’s unfolding is that his men are packing up to leave. What they don’t know is that they CAN’T leave, because if they don’t stay and fight it could mean the deaths of thousands of their countrymen. Understandably, Connie looses his temper when they question his authority)

He seems to have almost immediately grasped the difference between silent and sound acting. His theatre training undoubtedly played a big part in this. At no time do you associate him with the wild, expressionistic contortions of Caligari or Orlac. He’s singled out in the Variety review as giving ‘an exceptionally fine performance’ despite the dubbing hindrance, and having seen the original German version, I wouldn’t disagree with that.

Granted, he doesn’t have much to do apart from be intense, imposing, commanding and sombre. He does that for about 80% of the film’s running time. The other 20% is given over to his tenderly chaste romance with the Squeaking Horror and his firm but compassionate leadership of his men. He’s certainly a striking figure, with his immense height and searchlight eyes beaming out of his soot-blackened face.

This dubbed version doesn’t seem to exist anymore unless it’s lurking about in a vault with Das Land ohne Frauen. What are the chances of that? Two Conrad Veidt Talkies in which a woman shows up in a male-dominated environment and throws a spanner in the works, in English and then in German. Not the same woman obviously. (Strike that. I’ve just discovered, via David Bordwell’s blog, that the dubbed version was shown in Bologna in 2011 as part of a Veidt season. He says it was part dubbed, part redone with the actors speaking English, so maybe people outside Germany DID hear his real voice)

Amusingly, when Die letzte Kompagnie was released in the States in its lip-flapped state, it was retitled Thirteen Men And A Girl, which sounds like a Deanna Durbin musical or a porn film. Imagine a mash up of 13 Men, Deanna and porn, dear reader, then defenestrate yourself out of shame! David suggests Debbie Does Deutschland as a more acceptable alternative, but I don’t think he should be encouraged in these efforts. 

Marlene Dietrich (chums with Veidt), filming The Blue Angel next door, popped onto the set of The Last Company for a chinwag and to show off her frilly knickers. I love the way German directors wore lab coats, like they were ‘film scientists’ or something. Allegedly, Veidt repaid the compliment and nipped over to the Blue Angel set to watch Emil Jannings (another chum) have apoplexy because the film was being stolen from under his nose by Dietrich. 

Sidebar – Jannings would eventually marry Veidt’s ex-wife, talented actor, singer and cabaret artiste, Gussy Holl; an extraordinary volte-face on Holl’s part. I suppose talent and charisma count for a lot, despite what shape they come in. 

Director Kurt/Curtis Bernhardt, like so many German film artists of Jewish heritage fleeing the Nazis, would end up having a Hollywood career. Not an exceptional one, but not too shabby either. He would occasionally explode into brilliance, particularly on the ‘women’s pictures’ he became famous for. In Payment On Demand (1951), a Bette Davis vehicle, he utilised extraordinary transparent sets, and he guided Joan Crawford, Jane Wyman, Joan Blondell and Eleanor Parker towards Oscar nominations.

Bernhardt would direct Veidt again in Der Mann, der den Mord beging/The Man Who Committed Murder 1931, the next film I’ll be tackling. Join me as we explore the little discussed Veidt sound filmography. 

Danke.