Conrad Veidt the demon of the silent screen..  


Scandal maker !
Conrad Veidt (1893 - 1943)

hen Professor Karl Brunner, (the official Censor in Berlin to whom Kurt Tucholsky dedicated his poem "The Trousers Sniffer") went to the cinema or theatre in the first or second decade of this century, a scandal was not very far off.

40 years after the event, the director Richard Oswald remembered the second showing - to a specially invited audience -- of his film Anders als die Anderen (Different from the Others) in Spring 1919. Among the audience were Minister Gustav Stresemann, and the doctor Friedrich Sauerbruch.
Oswald:

While the film was running - in the middle of the showing - a man stood up and called out 'when I see such filth ...' I (Oswald) stopped the film at once by raising my hand and calling out: 'If anyone assesses this film as "filth", Herr Professor Brunner, then he is himself that ...'

The subject of this verbal battle was the first film produced which polemicised against Paragraph 175. The story concerns a homosexual musician who becomes a victim of blackmail, gets caught up in the wheels of justice and in view of the social climate of intolerance and prejudice chooses suicide.
The film was produced with the active co-operation of Magnus Hirschfeld, who not only advised Richard Oswald, but himself played a role. As a doctor Hirschfeld delivers a lecture about the naturalness of homosexuality and compares the repression of it to the witch trials of the middles-ages. After the musician Paul Körner is buried he (Hirschfeld) demands:

As is fought for someone unjustly condemned to prison so must we fight to restore the rights and honour of the many thousands past, present and to come. Through science to justice.

But for those who were against the film science was not on the agenda. The discussion of the film was accompanied by much anti-Semitism, for Oswald, Hirschfeld and the actor who played the role of the blackmailer, were Jewish.

Anders als die Anderen was water on the mills of those who demanded a quick end to the absence of a censor in the Weimar Republic. Behind the loud campaign against the educational film were those who opposed the liberalisation and democratisation of society. The acceptance of the call to tolerance towards other ways of loving, would have meant accepting sex as a pleasure. Such an understanding would have put the institution of marriage in question since there sexuality is associated with reproduction and the maintenance of society. The ending of marriage as an institution was feared by just that section of the middle-strata of society threatened by "proletarianisation", where the family structure was frequently the basic economic unit.

A report on the film Anders als die Anderen by the Cologne "Association for the Protection of Respectability and good Behaviour" stated:

Neither spirit, nor backbone, nor strength were found in this lad. If you had given him a spade to dig a hole he would have fallen on his nose within two minutes - like a weak-kneed girl!

Even more direct were the demands of the Senior Teacher Franz H. Schönhuber:

One can state quite plainly: We must have the courage to demand relations with powerful, healthy (not burnt-out) loins, if our people are to renew the strength of which they have been robbed from our own resources . .. One means of doing that today - demanded by all who with any understanding - would be the re-introduction of censorship.


Conrad Veidt

The main actor in the film was Conrad Veidt. Born in Berlin on 22nd January 1893, his artistic career began in 1913 at the "Deutsche Theatre" of Max Reinhardt. In 1918 with the film Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (The diary of a lost one) began his co-operation with Richard Oswald who built up Veidt's career as a star of films which sought to educate on questions of disputed morality and custom.

His rise to become a star coincided with one of the most creative periods of German film history - expressionism in film. With the role of the sleep-walker in Robert Wienes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) his fame spread outside Germany and he was at the same time type-cast. Both his personal appearance, as well as his expressive acting which was rooted in the acting-style of the early twenties contributed to this .

In his early films Veidt embodied negative characters, among others Dr. Warren and Mr. O'Connel in Murnaus' film Janus-Head - a version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." He played the mad ruler Ivan the Terrible, who knew how to torture both physically and mentally, in Paul Lenis' film Das Wachsfigurenkabinett. This film of horror and violence, characteristic of the German films of the period 1919 - 1924 laid the foundation of Veidt's reputation as demon of the German silent films.

He was an elegant, seducer without scruples, whose women found happiness, and was himself on the path to destruction through illness brought on by pleasure. Such roles he played with extra-ordinary intensity, but his depiction of the wicked and reckless was aesthetic and didn't induce rejection and denunciation. One of the few characters he played outside his role-cliché was the musician Paul Körner in Anders als die Anderen.

Developments within German films in the second half of the 20's, including their aesthetic and content stagnation, led to Conrad Veidt receiving few interesting roles, and thus he turned to studios abroad. He worked from 1927 to 1929 in Hollywood.

In distinction to many other actors/actresses of the silent film era Veidt managed to switch to sound films without any great problems. The only surviving copy of his first German film (Die letzte Kompanie - 1929/30 - The last company) is in fact a version in the English language. Because of his good knowledge of English Veidt played in many English versions of German films for example F.P.1. - the English version of Hans Albers' "F.P.1 doesn't answer." Among the ten films he made in Germany between 1929 and 1933 none can be regarded as outstanding. An exception would be Robert Siodmaks quality whodunit, Der Mann der einen Mord beging - (The man who committed a murder) and Heinz Paul's anti-war film Die andere Seite (The other side). Veidt's depiction of Prince Metternich in the film Der Kongress tanzt (The Congress dances) makes the film worthy of being remembered.

In 1933 Veidt was on set in Britain making The Wandering Jew. Since he was already committed to it he came back once more to Germany to play Geßler in Ufa's William Tell. Then he returned to Britain to play Josef Süß Oppenheimer in Lothar Mendes film version of Feuchtwanger's Jüd Süß. Veidt was accepted as member of the Reichsfilmkammer (State Film Institute), but after his appearance in Jüd Süß the Nazi 'paper "Völkische Beobachter" (People's Observer) announced the ban on him on 23.11.1934. The sensitive artist rejected the Nazis - in addition his wife, Lilly, was in danger in Germany as a result of her Jewish origins. Veidt's acting talent and linguistic abilities made it possible for him to quickly become an actor "in demand". His name is also connected with one of the best known anti-Nazi films to come out of Hollywood, Casablanca, in which he played Major Strasser - Humphrey Bogart's opponent. The duel between the two men in Ricks Café is among the most famous scenes in film history. Veidt, however, didn't live to see the end of the war. At only 55 he died in Hollywood on 3rd April 1943.

In his book, Eric Pommer, like Veidt also in American exile - wrote "It is difficult to decide what was more remarkable about him, his artistic abilities or his humanity."

Among those who helped make Anders als die Anderen, Richard Oswald, Reinhold Schünzel and Magnus Hirschfeld were all refugees after 1933.

Dr. Almuth Püschel / trans. C. de la Motte-Sherman

 
 
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