My Masquerade Ball Blog Hop post is here.
This is significantly expanded from the concluding section of a post I wrote in October 2015. The source material focused on Conrad Veidt’s strong anti-Nazi stance, not his overall life and career.
Hans Walter Conrad Veidt (22 January 1893–3 April 1943) was born in Berlin, to Lutheran parents Amalie Marie Gohtz and Phillip Heinrich Veidt. He attended the Sophien-Gymnasium until 1912, when he graduated last in his class, sans diploma.
In 1913, Conrad took up volunteer acting at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater, gradually moving up from bit parts to medium roles. His budding acting career was interrupted by WWI.
Conrad was sent to the brutal Eastern Front, where he caught jaundice and pneumonia. His poor health earned him a discharge in January 1917.
After recovering, Conrad resumed acting. Some of his films had a socially-conscious message and were quite ahead of their time, like Victims of Society, The Diary of a Lost, Dida Ibsen’s Story, Prostitution, and Different from the Others.
The lattermost is the world’s first known film to openly, positively depict homosexuality. Though it came out (no pun intended) after the abolition of film censorship, it was quickly banned after censorship returned in 1920.
In 1919, Conrad formed his own company, so he could choose his own roles. He acted, produced, and directed during this era.
His big break came in 1920, when he starred as creepy somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This first German Expressionist film made a huge international impact, though owing to lingering anti-German sentiment, many theatres didn’t immediately screen it.
Conrad went on to star in several other major German Expressionist films, such as Waxworks, Orlac’s Hands, and The Student of Prague (a remake of the 1913 original). He made dozens of films during this heyday of German Expressionist cinema, often typecast in eccentric, mischievous, or menacing roles.
In 1927, he was invited to Hollywood. Probably his best-known films from this period are The Beloved Rogue (with John Barrymore) and The Man Who Laughs (whose title character became the Joker’s genesis).
The arrival of sound compelled Conrad back to his native Germany. His thick German accent and poor English spelled the end of his Hollywood career, but he did wonderfully in sound films in his mother tongue.
Conrad wasn’t to stay in his homeland for long, since he strongly opposed Naziism and anti-Semitism. His new love, Ilona Prager (Lily), who soon became his third and final wife, was also Jewish.
When Conrad filled out a mandatory racial questionnaire, he falsely listed his “race” as Jewish. He stood in solidarity with his homeland’s beleaguered Jewish community, and couldn’t fling Lily to the wolves.
Goebbels, who wanted to keep this very successful actor in Germany, told Conrad to divorce Lily and declare support for the new régime. If he did this, Goebbels would give Lily false Aryan papers.
Not only did Conrad refuse to do either, he also took the lead in British film Jud Süß (NOT to be confused with the anti-Semitic German film of the same name). He knew this would end his German film career and possibly result in a death warrant.
Conrad was put under house arrest, and there were rumours of a Gestapo plot to murder him. He and Lily fled to England one week after their marriage, just ahead of the death squad’s arrival.
When Conrad finally became fluent in English, he began starring in anti-Nazi films. He also starred in several films in his third language, French.
Though he became a British subject in 1938, he returned to the U.S. in 1940. Before he left, he gave most of his fortune to the British government to help the war effort.
Conrad hoped his anti-Nazi films would inspire Americans to end their neutrality.
Since he knew he’d be typecast as a Nazi, due to his German accent, he put a clause in his contract specifying he only play villains. He didn’t want anyone to think Nazis were harmless or that he supported such a foul ideology.
Conrad died of a massive heart attack while playing golf at an L.A. country club. He was only fifty.
Conrad Veidt was more than just a great actor, but an incredible lion of a human being, representing the best of what we’re capable of.