"When Conrad Veidt takes a movie heroine in his arms, every woman in the audience knows that he is just as likely to choke her as kiss her. Yet there's probably not a woman in the audience who wouldn't gladly change places with the imperiled heroine."
Let's face it, you've met this guy. Or someone based on him.
Conrad Veidt (1893-1943) was a German actor and Trope Maker
extraordinaire. You might not know his name, but it's very likely you've met someone based on one of his characters
. In 1919, he rose to fame playing Cesare—yes, that Cesare
, the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
. He followed this with a successful career playing tortured and demonic characters in the silents and later, with the advent of talkies, romantic heroes, sinister playboys and Nazi officers (despite being a staunch anti-Nazi in real life). In addition to the aforementioned Cesare, he inspired the appearance of The Joker
(based on his mutilated Slasher Smile
in The Man Who Laughs
), the stereotypical Nazi Nobleman
, and played the very first Grand Vizier Jafar
on whom most subsequent evil Arabian Nights wizards were based.
Also, he was a certifiable Badass
in real life and spent his entire adult life campaigning for various human rights causes. In 1919, he starred in Different From The Others
, the world's very first LGBT rights film. He had a high opinion of women and also starred in an early pro-choice film. In the Thirties, he made two films sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, which earned him personal hate mail from Hitler himself and sugary phone calls from Goebbels, who tried to persuade him into making propaganda films for the Nazis instead. In 1934, in order to stop him from making one of the films, the Nazis imprisoned him and tortured him with abuse and sleep deprivation, but he wouldn't budge. He escaped into England with his Jewish wife and continued to make films there. After war broke out, he donated his entire fortune to the Allied war effort and spent thousands of pounds helping out war children during the Blitz. In 1940, he left for Hollywood again and in a twist of irony, got repeatedly cast as Nazis. However, he accepted the parts exactly because he felt they were good propaganda against the Nazis, and sometimes donated his entire salary from the films to the British government. He personally helped several other European actors, including his Casablanca
co-star Paul Henreid escape to the UK and the US by pulling strings and supporting them financially. Ironically, his character in Casablanca
is not only a Nazi, but a Nazi specifically determined to stopping Paul Henreid's character from escaping.
At the age of 50, he died suddenly of a massive heart attack
on a Los Angeles golf course. The tropes he manifested, however, will live on...
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Having often been cast as smouldering villains, Veidt received mountains of fanmail from female admirers.
- Ambiguous Gender: During the silent era and the heyday of gender-bending Weimar cabaret culture, Veidt was famous for being somewhat sexually ambiguous and continued to have an androgynous aura to the end of his life. One 1920s director playfully complained he had a hard time finding leading ladies to act opposite someone as pretty as Veidt. As a consequence, a lot of Veidt's characters tend to inspire Ho Yay readings. Whether or not the Ho Yay was intentional is a different matter entirely, especially since the cad characters of yesteryear can come across as camp today.
- Anti-Villain: Usually type I. Jaffar is a Noble Demon through and through, Karl von Marwitz and Captain Hardt are portrayed as heroic in British films despite both of them being German officers.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: One of the most common types he was cast as. Audiences relished him as Nazi barons, mad counts and lascivious marquises, some of them more sinister than others.
- A Taste of the Lash: He wields some sort of whipping implement (or gets whipped) in at least a dozen movies. Whether or not this was intentional Fetish Fuel, some of his movies could get pretty kinky.
- Bastard Boyfriend: In A Woman's Face and Escape, his characters' cruelty towards his girlfriends was eroticised through him manipulating and squeezing their hands, wrists and arms, at which the women would usually quiver, unable to resist him despite loathing him. Incidentally, George Cukor directed both (he was uncredited for Escape, but stepped in for some of Veidt's scenes).
- Byronic Hero: With his high cheekbones, Pretty Boy looks and eyes full of Weltschmerz, Veidt pretty much lived and breathed this trope in the silent era. The Student of Prague (the 1926 version) is a good example.
- The Casanova: Karl von Marwitz in Dark Journey, and going by the stories, in real life as well.
- Costume Porn: He appeared in some of the most lavishly costumed big-budget historical dramas of the time: Carlos and Elisabeth, Lucrezia Borgia, The Student of Prague and The Indian Tomb were huge spectacles of silent German cinema. When he moved to the UK, he starred in Jew Süss, which was one of the most expensively costumed movies ever made in Britain (and should not be confused with the Nazi propaganda film of the same name). In The Thief of Bagdad, his costumes are among the more historically accurate ones—he wears five layers of silks and velvets at one point and it took an hour for the costume department to pleat his turbans every morning.
- Creepy Long Fingers: Famous for them.
- Did Not Get the Girl: Especially when he was playing dashing heroes or otherwise honourable men. Usually this was done to prove how noble or how tragic his character was (Carlos and Elisabeth, The Spy In Black, Der Mann der den Mord Beging). He actually had more of a chance of at least bedding the ladies when he played villains or otherwise morally ambivalent characters (A Woman's Face, I Was a Spy), even if they usually escaped his clutches by the end.
- Doppelgänger: Specialised in this. He played a pair of good/evil twin brothers in Die Brüder Schellenberg (Two Brothers) in 1926 and again in Nazi Agent in 1942. He was hounded by his own mirror image in The Student of Prague (1926) and also briefly doubled up for Carlos and Elisabeth and The Man Who Laughs, playing his characters' fathers.
- Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette: One of the first.
- Evil Hand: Veidt starred in The Hands of Orlac, one of the first examples of the trope, in 1924. A pianist gets the hands of a murderer grafted onto him after he loses his own in an accident.
- Excessive Evil Eyeshadow: Even for silent movie standards. Cesare pretty much originated the trope. In The Last Performance, the stage hypnotist Erik wears more eyeshadow than anyone else, seemingly even when he's at home.
- Gay Aesop: Different From The Others (1919), is the first known example in film.
- Gayngst: The cinematic Ur Example in Different From The Others, where Veidt plays the first explicitly-referred-to-as-homosexual (and the first sympathetic homosexual) character in movie history. Paul Körner is a musician who gets blackmailed for his homosexuality, convicted for it at court and ends up committing suicide.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: The bondage scene in Contraband. Torsten ogling two women dancing with each other in A Woman's Face.
- Goth: The granddaddy of all tortured gothbois. His silent film performances made him one of the greatest icons of the goth subculture. If you meet someone who knows who Conrad Veidt is, it's pretty likely they're a bit of a goth.
- Grand Vizier Jafar: The original, in the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad.
- Handsome Devil: Torsten Barring, Karl von Marwitz.
- High-Class Glass: Nearly blind in his right eye from a young age, Veidt thought he would never become a leading man if he had to wear spectacles. In order to look more dashing, he opted for a monocle instead. It soon became his trademark and helped him get roles as sinister aristocrats (although Veidt was from a middle-class family himself). Apparently he was so used to wearing the monocle it would never fall off even if he was bent double and howling with laughter.
- Hypnotic Eyes: Several instances, most notably Jaffar and Erik the Great. Oh, and Rasputin.
- Icy Blue Eyes: One of the most famous pairs of eyes in movie history, often used for great effect. Cesare's waking stare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is probably the most well-known example.
- The Joker: Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs. However, Gwynplaine is a sympathetic, tragic character and doesn't really have much in common with the supervillain—it was only his appearance Bob Kane adapted for the Joker.
- Kubrick Stare: Vigorously, and often. Immortalised in this portrait from 1929.
- Large Ham: Justified in the silents since everyone had to exaggerate their expressions and movements since they couldn't do dialogue. But in the talkies, he did have a habit of slipping into this at times, depending on how tight a rein the directors kept on him. Even he worried whether he was overacting in The Thief of Bagdad, but then the makers of the film were such fanboys of his German Expressionist work they specifically requested silent movie-style acting from him.
- Looks Like Cesare: Exactly What It Says on the Tin. He was Cesare.
- Mean Character, Nice Actor: One of the most shining examples of the trope. The man playing the swaggering Nazi officer in Casablanca and Escape personally helped his Jewish wife and her relatives escape from the clutches of the Nazis in his car under the cover of night and participated in a fund helping many, many European artists escape from persecution. Oh, and there's a persistent rumor that he identified himself as Jewish on work questionnaires. In Nazi Germany. Let's just let that sink in for a bit.
- Mistaken for Gay: Not so much within the narratives of the movies themselves, but Google reviews of, say, Casablanca and you'll have several wondering why Strasser is gay and whether that makes Casablanca a homophobic movie. Strasser isn't actually coded as gay—and in a movie with some blatant queer coding going on with the part of Captain Renault (who steals the entire movie and walks off with the hero in the end) it would've been pretty obvious if Strasser had been meant to be read as a Depraved Homosexual. Veidt was always quite androgynous and had a tendency to play just about everything in a very sensual, very sexual manner to the point of flamboyance. He was like that in real life and his bisexuality was pretty much an open secret, but that doesn't necessarily make his characters canonically gay. Not that the androgyny and the overwhelming Ho Yay aren't awesome, of course. There are reasons why this guy was a big gay icon in the Twenties and has quite a few queer fans today.
- Nazi Nobleman: Always elegant and fond of wearing a monocle in real life, Veidt was a natural casting choice and pretty much codified the stereotype.
- No Bisexuals: There are several accounts (from over three decades) of Veidt having had affairs with both women and men. Mostly, they either get violently dismissed by those who want to see him as a saint or then he gets claimed as completely gay by LGBT film historians with an axe to grind. Those who knew him described him as "heterosexual when sober, homosexual when drunk", or just as Anything That Moves.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Who cares if a Danish sea captain and a medieval Persian prime minister speak with thick German accents? Right?
- Officer and a Gentleman: Several roles, most notably in The Spy in Black, Dark Journey, I Was a Spy and Der Mann Der Den Mord Beging. Veidt often got cast as the type of character who sacrifices love because of honour and/or the common good.
- Ominous Walk: Veidt personally believed a character's walk was a key to deciphering his nature. He was particularly famous for his incredibly slow, catlike movements, used to great (and usually terrifying) effect in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Thief of Bagdad and A Woman's Face. (Incidentally, Christopher Lee says he based his Dracula glide on Veidt's way of moving.)
- The Pornomancer: Karl von Marwitz has to beat the ladies off with a stick. Torsten Barring leaves a party with three women, two of whom have just been dancing sensuously with each other. And then there was that time he played Russia's greatest love machine.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Torsten in the attic in A Woman's Face is particularly chilling and memorable.
- Slasher Smile: The Man Who Laughs.
- Sex Is Evil: Oh, so many characters. Torsten Barring in A Woman's Face is probably the best example. He's evil, but he's also so good in bed you could kill for him. Hot sex does that to a woman according to the 1940s.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: On screen and in real life. Often as the Man of Wealth and Taste variation when it was one of his villains—he described Torsten Barring as "Lucifer in a tuxedo".
- Silent Movie: Still mostly known for these.
- Smoking Is Glamorous: Even in an era where Everybody Smokes was the norm, Veidt characters always seemed to smoke in an incredibly sensualist and debauched manner. To the point where some people still wonder if Major Strasser was meant to be gay.
- Smug Snake: Again, Strasser.
- Tall, Dark and Handsome: Back when it was played straight. He was a major heart-throb back in the day.
- Tall, Dark and Snarky: Captain Hardt, Captain Andersen, Jaffar.
- Those Wacky Nazis: The pigeonhole he would be typecast into towards the end of his life. While a vehement anti-Nazi in real life, he accepted these roles solely because of propaganda reasons, to show the world what the Nazis truly were like. He refused to play Nazi characters if they were shown as sympathetic in any way, and would speak about his experiences with the real ones at the movies' press events.
"This role epitomizes the cruelty and the criminal instincts and murderous trickery of the typical Nazi," he said of Major Strasser (Casablanca). "I know this man well. He is a man who turned fanatic and betrayed his friends, his homeland, and himself in his lust to be somebody and to get something for nothing."
- Universal Horror: Starred in The Man Who Laughs and The Last Performance, Universal's last silent horrors.
- Wholesome Crossdresser: During his Berlin days, he was a regular at transvestite night spots such as the Eldorado and Silhouette. That, and apparently his first wife left him because of an incident with a Parisian dress.
- Zombie Gait: Again, Cesare was the Trope Maker.