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

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.

11 Responses to “Conrad Veidt: The Sound Years. Part 1 – The Last Company/Die letzte Kompagnie 1930”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Granted, he doesn’t have much to do apart from be intense, imposing, commanding and sombre.” Well for the most par that’s all he ever NEEDED to do. Wish the print were better as your description sounds quite interesting Fiona. I eagerly await your comments on Connie in “The Thief of Baghdad” starring my “role model” Sabu.

  2. There’s a way to go before we get to Thief, David!

  3. I’m glad your review is truly of CV’s entire sound career, including the German period. The surviving films may not be among the iconic meme-generators, but several are quite good and/or contain superb and unusual Connie performances.

    This film was a big hit in Germany, heralding Connie’s brief reign there as something like a conventional leading man. And Goebbels loved it! Although presumably also eventually banned it; maybe that explains the lack of a good print.

    It’s interesting, though I suppose not too surprising — film biz being film biz — that most of the principals involved in this “Prussian” film were Jewish, on the left, or both, while apart from Connie everyone involved in Die Andere Seite, definitely not loved by Goebbels, moved smoothly* into the Nazi film industry, and Wolfgang Liebeneiner became an important figure there.

    *Paul Otto’s smooth ride ended when someone addressed him as “Herr Schlesinger.” Knowing that his Jewish background had been discovered, he committed suicide with his wife. But that’s a comment for another blog posting.

  4. Since the English-language version has had a recentish screening, I presume it’s in better nick than this one, which keeps whiting out as if struck by anachronistic A-bombs. I wonder how the dubbing looks/sounds now?

  5. Hello Katya! Thank you so much for all the fascinating info. I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth into Die andere Seite / The Other Side, the German version of Journey’s End which is better than James Whale’s version of Journey’s End. I’m sure I read somewhere that after Connie became a naturalised British citizen he wanted to join the services, but was told he was a) too old (he was coming up for 50), and b) virtually blind on one eye, hence the monocle. But if he’d had his way, he really would have been on The Other Side.

    As for the dubbed version of The Last Company, I’d love to see it. I wonder where it is. If anyone knows, please get in touch.

  6. It’s interesting how different his screen persona becomes in the sound years. In many ways he becomes more of a conventional leading man but that probably also reflects the type of films that were being made during that period. I love German silent movies of the 20s but it is great when we finally get to hear Connie’s voice. It’s such a wonderful voice after all.

  7. Yes indeed Isa. He becomes slightly more ‘conventional’ due to the kind of product being made, but the mature Veidt was probably more attractive than the younger version. By his mid thirties onwards and a few years later, with the arrival of sound, he becomes almost a completely different person. It’s almost like he had to grow into that face. As for the voice, well it’s just unique. If he’d lived longer and had a bigger public profile, he would have been an impressionist’s dream. Peter Lorre’s voice still gets referenced decades after his death.

  8. Concurrent with the transition to sound he lost the skeletal skinniness that had been his hallmark and became merely lean. Regarding the former physique: in addition to his having always been freakishly thin by his own account, factor in illness during the war and then perhaps the British naval blockade that outlasted the war by quite a while (really not quite cricket) — add cocaine and stir.

    I feel that Peter Lorre’s voice has transcended the man and is now a being unto itself. See for example: Firesign Theater’s “Rocky Rococo.”

  9. Not just cocaine from what I’ve heard. He liked alcohol and speed. I’ve read a fan theory that he may have had ADHD, and through my own research he seems to fit the bill quite well, in which case stimulants might have sometimes had a beneficial effect on a neuroatypical brain.

    Mix that up with a hereditary heart condition and it’s no wonder he dropped dead at 50. The Weimar partying lifestyle must have robbed so many people of decades of life. I was watching Waxworks the other week and I wondered if he ever partook of solid food!

    I’ve only recently been made aware of The Firesign Theatre, but they’re right up my street because they’re so massively influenced by Spike Milligan and The Goons.

    By all accounts Veidt himself had quite a Milliganesque sense of humour. “It’s not my fault. My screenwriter has an accent,” to jokingly explain away his own mispronunciation of English words written by Hungarian Emeric Pressburger, just blows my mind!

  10. Mark Fuller Says:

    According to that year’s catalogue, the version of Die Letzte Kompagnie booked to be screened at Bologna in 2011 was the German version, the print coming from the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv. I wonder what happened, and where the dubbed print came from ? It wasn’t the BFI, they don’t have it.

  11. How mysterious Mark. Thanks for looking into that.

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