Golders Green Crematorium, 60 Hoop Ln, London NW11 7NL
Hans Walter Conrad Veidt (22 January 1893 – 3 April 1943) was a German actor best remembered for his roles in films such as Different from the Others (1919), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and The Man who Laughs (1928). Veidt appeared in Magnus Hirschfeld's film Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others, 1919), one of the earliest films to sympathetically portray homosexuality, although the characters in it do not end up happily. He had a leading role in Germany's first talking picture, Das Land ohne Frauen (Land Without Women, 1929).
After a successful career in German silent films, where he was one of the best-paid stars of UFA, he and his new Jewish wife Ilona Prager were forced to leave Germany in 1933 after the Nazis came to power. The couple settled in Britain, where he took British citizenship in 1939. He appeared in many British films, including The Thief of Bagdad (1940), before emigrating to the United States around 1941, which led to him being cast as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942).
Veidt was born in a bourgeois district of Berlin, in what was then the German Empire, to Amalie Marie Gohtz and Phillip Heinrich Veidt. (Some biographies wrongly state that he was born in Potsdam, probably on the basis of an early claim on his part.) His family was Lutheran.
In 1914, Veidt met actress Lucie Mannheim, with whom he began a relationship. Later in the year Veidt was conscripted into the German Army during World War I. In 1915, he was sent to the Eastern Front as a non-commissioned officer and took part in the Battle of Warsaw. He contracted jaundice and pneumonia, and had to be evacuated to a hospital on the Baltic Sea. While recuperating, he received a letter from Mannheim telling him that she had found work at a theatre in Libau. Intrigued, Veidt applied for the theatre as well. As his condition had not improved, the army allowed him to join the theatre so that he could entertain the troops. While performing at the theatre, he ended his relationship with Mannheim. In late 1916, he was re-examined by the Army and deemed unfit for service; he was given a full discharge in January 1917. Veidt returned to Berlin to pursue his acting career.
From 1916 until his death, Veidt appeared in more than 100 films. One of his earliest performances was as the murderous somnambulist Cesare in director Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a classic of German Expressionist cinema, with Werner Krauss and Lil Dagover. His starring role in The Man Who Laughs (1928), as a disfigured circus performer whose face is cut into a permanent grin, provided the (visual) inspiration for the Batman villain the Joker. Veidt starred in other silent horror films such as The Hands of Orlac (1924), also directed by Robert Wiene, The Student of Prague (1926) and Waxworks (1924), in which he played Ivan the Terrible.
Painting of Conrad Veidt by Milena Pavlović-Barili
He moved to Hollywood in the late 1920s and made a few films there, but the advent of talking pictures and his difficulty with speaking English led him to return to Germany. During this period, he lent his expertise to tutoring aspiring performers, one of whom was the later American character actress Lisa Golm.
Veidt fervently opposed the Nazi regime and later donated a major portion of his personal fortune to Britain to assist in the war effort. Soon after the Nazi Party took power in Germany, by March 1933, Joseph Goebbels was purging the film industry of anti-Nazi sympathizers and Jews, and so in 1933, a week after Veidt's marriage to Ilona Prager, a Jewish woman, the couple emigrated to Britain before any action could be taken against either of them.
Goebbels had imposed a "racial questionnaire" in which everyone employed in the German film industry had to declare their "race" to continue to work. When Veidt was filling in the questionnaire, he answered the question about what his Rasse (race) was by writing that he was a Jude (Jew). Veidt was not Jewish, but his wife was Jewish, and Veidt would not renounce the woman he loved. Additionally, Veidt, who was opposed to antisemitism, wanted to show solidarity with the German Jewish community, who were in the process of being stripped of their rights as German citizens in the spring of 1933. As one of Germany's most prominent actors, Veidt had been informed that if he was prepared to divorce his wife and declare his support for the new regime, he could continue to act in Germany. Several other leading actors who had been opposed to the Nazis before 1933 switched allegiances. In answering the questionnaire by stating he was a Jew, Veidt rendered himself unemployable in Germany, but stated this sacrifice was worth it as there was nothing in the world that would compel him to break with his wife. Upon hearing about what Veidt had done, Goebbels remarked that he would never act in Germany again.
After arriving in Britain, Veidt perfected his English and starred in the title roles of the original anti-Nazi versions of The Wandering Jew (1933) and Jew Süss (1934), the latter film was directed by the exiled German-born director Lothar Mendes and produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont-British. He naturalised as a British subject on 25 February 1939. By this point multi-lingual, Veidt made films in both French with expatriate French directors and in English, including three of his best-known roles for British director Michael Powell in The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940).
By 1941, he and Ilona had settled in Hollywood to assist in the British effort in making American films that might persuade the then-neutral and still isolationist US to join the war against the Nazis, who had conquered all of continental Europe and were bombing the United Kingdom at the time. Before leaving the United Kingdom, Veidt gave his life savings to the British government to help finance the war effort. Realizing that Hollywood would most likely typecast him in Nazi roles, he had his contract mandate that they must always be villains.
He starred in a few films, such as George Cukor's A Woman's Face (1941) where he received billing under Joan Crawford's and Nazi Agent (1942), in which he had a dual role as both an aristocratic German Nazi spy and as the man's twin brother, an anti-Nazi American. His best-known Hollywood role was as the sinister Major Heinrich Strasser in Casablanca (1942), a film which began pre-production before the United States entered World War II.
Conrad Veidt married three times: he first married Gussy Holl, a cabaret entertainer, on 18 June 1918. They divorced four years later. Gussy later married German actor Emil Jannings. Some sources say Veidt had a daughter named Ruth-Maria with Holl.
Veidt's second wife Felicitas Radke was from an aristocratic German family; they married in 1923. Their daughter, Vera Viola Maria, called Viola, was born on 10 August 1925. He last married Ilona Prager, a Hungarian Jew called Lily, in 1933; they remained together until his death.
Conrad Veidt died on 3 April 1943 of a massive heart attack while playing golf at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles with singer Arthur Fields and his personal physician, Dr. Bergman, who pronounced him dead on the scene. Veidt was 50 years old. In 1998, his ashes were placed in a niche of the columbarium at the Golders Green Crematorium in north London.
My published books:
BACK TO HOME PAGE