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Veidt, Conrad (1893-1943)


Main image of Veidt, Conrad (1893-1943)

Probably best remembered as a leading exponent of Expressionist acting in The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari (Germany, 1919), or as the villainous Major Strasser in Casablanca (US, 1942), Conrad Veidt was one of the few émigré actors to achieve fame in England upon fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Gaunt-faced, with deep, piercing eyes, he brought an intensity to his performances that could be almost mesmeric.

Born in a working-class district of Berlin in 1893, he began his acting career at the age of 20 under Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theatre. After serving in the German army during WWI he made his film debut in The Spy (Der Spion, Germany, 1917), but it was not until his somnambulant role in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that he became an international success. Work followed in Italy and France, before a move to Hollywood to play Louis XI in The Beloved Rogue (US, 1927). After a memorable performance as a disfigured aristocrat in The Man Who Laughs (US, 1928) he returned to Germany for an English-language version of The Last Company (Germany, 1930).

Marriage to a Jew meant that his homeland was no longer safe, and from 1933 he based himself in England, making a string of films for Gaumont-British. These included impressive performances as a victim of religious persecution in Jew Süss (d. Lothar Mendes, 1934) and an enigmatic, Christ-like boarding house tenant in The Passing of the Third Floor Back (d. Berthold Vietel, 1935). He further demonstrated his versatility as a swashbuckling nobleman in Under the Red Robe (d. Victor Sjostrom, 1937) and a German spy in love with his French opposite, Vivien Leigh, in Dark Journey (d. Victor Saville, 1937).

After taking British citizenship in 1938, he worked with Powell and Pressburger in melodramas The Spy in Black (d. Michael Powell, 1939) and Contraband (d. Michael Powell, 1940). An active supporter of the war effort, he was persuaded to relocate to America after playing the evil vizier in Korda's The Thief of Baghdad (d. Ludwig Berger/Michael Powell/Tim Whelan, 1940). However, he continued to donate most of his US salary to the British government; somewhat ironically, given that the majority of the roles he was now offered were wicked Nazis. Less than a year after becoming the highest-paid actor in Casablanca, he fell victim to a fatal heart attack on a Los Angeles golf course.

Richard Hewett

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Thumbnail image of Contraband (1940)Contraband (1940)

Atmospheric wartime Powell and Pressburger spy thriller

Thumbnail image of Jew Süss (1934)Jew Süss (1934)

Adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger's novel about an ambitious Jew

Thumbnail image of Rome Express (1932)Rome Express (1932)

Delightful comedy-thriller set on a VIP-packed express train

Thumbnail image of Spy in Black, The (1939)Spy in Black, The (1939)

The first Powell and Pressburger film: a striking WWI story

Thumbnail image of Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)

Michael Powell co-directed Korda's lavish Arabian Nights fantasy

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