Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, Movies, Silent film

Conrad Veidt

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.

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A night of hallucinations

Schatten – Eine Nächtliche Halluzination (Shadows—A Nocturnal Hallucination), known in the U.S. as Warning Shadows, released 16 October 1923 in Germany; 5 September 1924 in France; 27 April 1925 in Finland; 9 August 1927 in the U.S.; and 16 January 1928 in Portugal. Like just about all German films from the Twenties, it too is part of the most venerable German Expressionism canon.

The Expressionism kicks off with hands and the actors appearing across a silhouette screen as they’re introduced. I love how many silent and early sound films have credits with the actors in motion, not just as a list of names.

A 19th century count (prolific actor Fritz Kortner) and his wife (Ruth Weyher) hold a dinner party which four of her suitors attend. Not only are they fighting for her attention, they’re also fighting with one another. When the count spies on them behind a curtain, the shadows fool him into believing she’s being felt up by the suitors, though they haven’t touched her. Clearly, this marriage is in deep trouble.

A shadow-player (Alexander Granach) arrives and begins showing off his skills to those in attendance. He then hypnotizes everyone and gives them a vision of what might happen if the suitors don’t quit their amorous schemes, and if the count remains jealous.

This hypnotic vision speaks to their very real fears, obsessions, jealousies, and erotic desires, and heads in a more and more horrific trajectory. Or is it just a vision?

The shadow-play was designed, produced, and presented by silhouettist, painter, and graphic artist Ernest Moritz Engert (who was born in Japan).

Besides the obvious artistic, atmospheric use of light and shadows, this film is very artsy for its complete lack of intertitles. All we get are the credits introducing each character and her or his role. Even F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), which is famous for telling an entire story without intertitles, gives us the courtesy of one at the beginning of the Epilogue.

While I would’ve appreciated at least a few intertitles, for a basic grounding in exactly what’s going on, the story nevertheless flows very well without them. The total lack of intertitles also helps to create a very atmospheric, foreboding mood. So much of silent and early sound horror is more about the overall mood, not in-your-face screams. The mood is what creates the feeling of horror.

I wouldn’t recommend this as an ideal first or early silent, but for those who are long-established connoisseurs of the artform, it’s well-worth checking out. It was my 1,181st silent.

Posted in 1910s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A Doppelgänger in Prague

Released 22 August 1913, The Student of Prague (Der Student von Prag), a.k.a A Bargain with Satan, is loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839), Alfred de Musset’s poem “The December Night” (1835), and Faust.

In May 1820, we’re introduced to Vive Balduin (Paul Wegener, who played the title role in the Golem trilogy), the best swordsman and boldest student of Prague. Though his friends are enjoying themselves, Balduin is despondent. When an old man, Scapinelli (John Gottowt, né Isidor Gesang), joins his table, Balduin says he’s ruined, and begs the stranger to make him win the lottery, or find him a rich heiress.

Scapinelli agrees to help him, and they seal the deal with a handshake.

Meanwhile, Countess Margit (Grete Berger) and her fiancé go on a hunt, during which it’s revealed they’re cousins, and that Margit is only marrying him because her father desires it. She doesn’t love her fiancé at all.

Who should happen along but Balduin and Scapinelli, just in time for Balduin to save Margit from drowning! As Balduin carries her back to shore, Margit surreptitiously slips an amulet into his hand.

In his dorm, Balduin fences in front of the mirror, then admires the amulet. He accepts a bouquet from a flowergirl outside (Wegener’s real-life, much-younger wife Lyda Salmonova) before visiting Margit.

After this brief visit, Scapinelli comes to Balduin’s dorm and conjures up 100,000 pieces of gold, and a contract. Balduin can’t accept them unless he grants Scapinelli the right to take whatever he wants from that room.

Balduin happily signs, and tries to interest Scapinelli in the mirror. While Scapinelli is moving it from the wall, a Doppelgänger steps out, and all the trouble begins.

Act II begins with Balduin being invited to a ball given by the Governor, in the castle. Thanks to his newfound riches, he’s able to go in style, in a high-class carriage, pulled by bewigged coachmen.

Balduin tries to flirt with Margit during the ball, though she maintains a respectable public image when they’re not alone.

Also by the ball are the flowergirl and Doppelgänger. Soon after Balduin encounters the latter, he vanishes into thin air, and says he’s neither God nor demon, but Balduin’s brother whom he called by name.

In Margit’s salon, she reads a note from Balduin, entreating her to keep her promise and meet him tomorrow at 11:00 in the Jewish cemetery, the most discreet place in Prague. After Margit walks off, the flowergirl steals a handkerchief Balduin gave her.

Act III begins with Margit and Balduin’s meeting. Of course, both the flowergirl and Doppelgänger pop up and scheme to spoil things. The flowergirl gives the handkerchief to Margit’s fiancé, and the Doppelgänger appears by a tombstone.

Though Balduin is Prague’s best swordsman, Margit’s fiancé nevertheless challenges him to a duel. Her father visits Balduin and begs him not to kill the fiancé, since he’s his sister’s only child, his daughter’s fiancé, his heir, and “the last one to bear our name” (as though women are completely incapable of passing on family names!).

Balduin is on his way to the duel when he runs across who else but the Doppelgänger. This seems the answer to his problems, since his double can commit the act he dares not.

Act IV opens with a de Musset quote about how the Doppelgänger stalks him wherever he goes, constantly shadowing him, even when he tries to sleep. We learn Balduin is no longer admitted to the Count and Margit. Instead, he fills his life with hedonistic pleasures.

After refusing to play a card game against the Doppelgänger, Balduin goes to see Margit. Margit receives him joyfully, but their reunion ends in horror when the Doppelgänger appears.

And thus the final scene of greater and greater horror begins.

Like many horror films of this vintage, this isn’t something you can expect thrills and chills from. It’s more about creating a mood and building towards that final reel. A lot of 1910s features are also hit or miss for me. Feature-length film was in its genesis, in process of finding its voice. The storytelling often isn’t particularly sophisticated, and a dearth of intertitles creates confusion about who a character is and what exactly’s going on.

This film was remade in 1926 with Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss, and again in 1935 and 2004. The 1913 original is considered the very first German art film, and the world’s first indie film. It also deeply spoke to the alienation many Germans felt as their empire headed towards collapse, sparked interest in psychoanalysis, and set the stage for German Expressionism.

Posted in 1930s, holidays, Movies

A surrealistic Vampyre story

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr: The Dream of Allan Gray) isn’t the type of film the average person will immediately understand and fall in love with. Even I found it very strange, and I’ve watched a lot of avant-garde and experimental films!

The film is based upon Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872), a collection of five Gothic short stories.

Dreyer began planning Vampyr in 1929, a year after the release of his critically successful but financially disastrous La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Le Societé Générale des Films cancelled his contract after it bombed, and in return, he accused them of mutilating the film to avoid offending Catholics.

Dreyer sued them for breach of contract, and the lawsuit dragged on till autumn 1931. When he was finally at liberty to work again, he went outside the studio system.

Because the transition from silents to sound happened so quickly, without time to work out the kinks, filming was difficult. Dreyer wanted it to be silent, but it ended up with dialogue used very selectively, explanatory intertitles, and book pages.

In the early sound era, films were often reshot in other languages, with the actors phonetically memorizing their lines. Some were reshot with different actors. In Vampyr, dialogue was mouthed in French, German, and English, so the dubbing wouldn’t look fake.

Much of the dialogue is delivered off-screen or facing away from the camera, to make this process easier. The only actors who didn’t lip-synch were Sybille Schmitz and Nicolas de Gunzburg (billed as Julian West).

The only professional actors were Maurice Schutz (Lord of the Manor) and Sybille Schmitz (his daughter Léone). The others were recruited in trains, cafés, and shops.

Many of the crew members had worked with Dreyer on Jeanne d’Arc, such as art director Hermann Warm and cameraman Rudolph Maté.

Everything was shot on location, with many scenes in Courtempierre, France. Not only did this save money, but it also increased the surrealistic, dreamlike atmosphere. During filming, the château where much of the story transpires served as housing for cast and crew. Unhappily, it was cold and rat-infested.

The German version renamed the protagonist David and ordered certain graphic scenes censored. Other deleted scenes which don’t exist in any known surviving prints include a Vampyre recoiling against the shadow of a cross, and a ferryman guiding Allan and Gisèle with the help of children building a fire and singing.

Dreyer also prepared a Danish version for his native country, based on the German version, but the distributor couldn’t afford to finish the intertitles in that same style. The Danish distributor also wanted the book pages changed into regular intertitles, but Dreyer refused. He felt the book were as much an actor as the humans.

The German première was delayed by UFA (the main production company), since they wanted the American films Dracula and Frankenstein released first. By the Berlin première of 6 May 1932, the audience booed. In response, Dreyer cut several scenes.

The Paris première in September was the opening attraction for a new cinema on Boulevard Raspail.

A Vienna showing resulted in audiences demanding their money back. When this request was denied, a riot broke out, and cops put it down with night sticks.

By the Copenhagen première in May 1933, Dreyer was a no-show.

The U.S. version was titled Not Against the Flesh. A dubbed, heavily-edited version appeared on the roadshow circuit as Castle of Doom a few years later.

Not long afterwards, Dreyer had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a French mental hospital. He didn’t return to filmmaking till 1943, with Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag).

Critical reviews of this international box office flop ranged from negative to mixed. In the modern era, viewers, critics, and film scholars are much more positive. This isn’t a film you watch for the story, but rather the visuals and mood.

This is also one of those films you have to watch multiple times to really start understanding. Its many layers become more meaningful with each new viewing.

Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg), who’s become obsessed with the supernatural, is aimlessly wandering. One night, he comes to a strange inn, where his sleep is disrupted by an old man. The intruder leaves a package on the nightstand, with the note, “To be opened upon my death.”

In the morning, Allan wanders to a weird castle, which is full of more strange visions and characters. His next stop is a manor, where the old man from the inn lives. Allan sees what looks like a shadow shooting the old man, who dies after he and the servants rush to his aide.

The servants ask Allan to stay the night, and the old man’s younger daughter Gisèle tells Allan her sister Léone is very sick. At that moment, they see Léone walking outside. When they run to help her, she’s unconscious, with bite wounds on her neck.

After Léone is carried inside, Allan opens the package left on his nightstand. It’s an old book about the history of Vampyres, which further fuels Allan’s obsession. From his reading, he learns Léone is a Vampyric victim.

The creepy doctor convinces Allan to give Léone his blood, and Allan’s dreams and visions become even stranger and more urgent. Will he be able to save Léone and defeat the forces of evil stalking Courtempierre?

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A surrealistic, dreamlike story of obsession

Phantom, released 13 November 1922, is one of eleven currently-known, fully-surviving films of the great director F.W. Murnau. A film which he wrote but didn’t direct also survives in full.

Like most of his other films, Phantom too is in the German Expressionist style. It has a lyrical, poetic, dreamlike, surrealistic quality. This isn’t a true horror story, but about a phantom in the mind. Sometimes our obsessions and inner phantoms can be more haunting than any supernatural thrills and chills.

At the urging of his wife Marie, ex-con Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel) begins writing an account of his past crimes and misdeeds, in the hopes of purging his soul of those painful memories. We then enter flashback mode.

Lorenz’s mother thinks he spends too much time with books when he can’t afford them, but he insists they provide him with a world he otherwise can’t experience. His mother also is furious at her other son Hugo for working with his pawnbroker aunt Schwabe, whose morals she highly disapproves of.

Marie’s father disapproves of her relationship with Lorenz, and derides Lorenz as too much of a dreamer. When Lorenz comes for a visit, he shows Marie’s father, Hr. Starke, some of his poems.

Frau Lubota gets into a fight with her daughter Melanie when she announces she’s going to work. Frau  Lubota suspects she’s a hooker, confronting her with silky garments she suspects were either ill-gotten gifts or paid for with ill-gotten money. In response, Melanie moves out.

While walking to work, Lorenz is knocked over by a horse-drawn carriage. Though he’s unhurt, he becomes obsessed with Veronika, the woman in the carriage.

At the start of Act II, Hr. Starke highly praises Lorenz’s poems, and tells Marie he’s a lot more talented than he gave him credit for. In fact, Hr. Starke thinks he’s a genius, and decides to back Lorenz’s writing career by getting him a mentor and making him an honorary citizen. Gone are the days when Lorenz was a lowly town clerk.

Meanwhile, Lorenz visits Schwabe to break the happy news, at the same time the publisher meets Hr. Starke. He doesn’t share Hr. Starke’s glowing opinion at all, and refuses to publish Lorenz.

Schwabe urges Lorenz to get a new suit to make an impression in society, and sends her assistant Wigottschinski out to help him with picking out the suit. Afterwards, they get a drink to celebrate.

At the club, Lorenz recognizes Melanie, who becomes Wigottschinski’s girlfriend. Lorenz also learns Veronika is engaged, and begins hanging around her house. His obsession is so great, he comes to speak to her parents and begs for Veronika’s hand.

Since he can’t have Veronika, be begins courting her dead ringer and blowing his wallet on gifts. All the while, he relives the accident. His obsession is so great, he begins skipping work and behaving very scandalously in other ways.

Wigottschinski, who’s been swindling Schwabe to keep up Lorenz’s illusion of making a lot of money, can’t keep up his scheme forever. Schwabe gets wise to him, and demands a full payback in three days. If not, she’ll call the cops.

This sets even more trouble in motion, all while Lorenz continues to obsess over his phantom woman hitting him with her carriage.

While this film is beautifully-shot (including many tinted frames), with a lovely dreamlike mood and wonderful visuals, this isn’t a film I’d recommend as an ideal first silent. It’s definitely nowhere near the worst silent I’ve ever seen (that would probably be a toss-up between Leaves from Satan’s Book and Eyes of the Mummy Ma), but it’s not the type I see making enthusiastic converts.

It’s like a modern art house or indie film. There’s an obvious, eager audience, but one has to already be a big fan of that style to want to watch it.