His influence permeates pop culture, even though his name does not. From the fixed grin of Batman's arch-enemy the Joker, to the dark and lanky tousle-haired heroes of Tim Burton, everywhere we look, there's Conrad Veidt.
In Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), considered the first true horror film, Veidt plays Cesare, the Somnambulist. This hypnotized sleepwalker is revealed in a coffin-like box at a carnival in Germany by the film's title character who claims that Cesare can see the future.
The highly stylized angular and surreal sets, high-contrast lighting, and distorted shadows, mark Caligari as a prime example of German Expressionism in film. Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands in the Tim Burton film closely resembles Veidt's characterization; indeed, Burton built his career paying homage to the visual style.
The Hands of Orlac (1924), re-made in the US a decade later as Mad Love (a film which in turn inspired Orson Welles when making Citizen Kane), stars Veidt as a concert pianist who loses his hands in an accident and has the hands of a criminal grafted onto his wrists. This influential film is exceeded, however, by The Man Who Laughs (1928), which features Veidt in a role originally slated for Lon Chaney.
It was intended as a follow-up to the success of another Victor Hugo story, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), also starring Mary Philbin, who plays Christine in Chaney's greatest film, The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Yet at the last minute, Chaney withdrew from the picture and the role of Gwynplaine, The Laughing Man, went to Veidt.
Mutilated by Gypsies as a boy with a smile surgically cut into his living flesh, Gwynplaine entertains crowds at carnivals with an outer appearance which belies his feelings. This is the face that inspired Bob Kane when he created the Joker, the face of Comedy masking Tragedy. As Ray Bradbury noted, the film still works because it speaks to the shadows inside of us: "You are the person in agony, you are the person with the permanent smile."
Transitioning from silent films into talkies proved successful for Veidt because he used his voice as distinctively as he used his appearance. Nor did his distinctions stop there. Forced to leave Germany after he refused to play parts in Nazi propaganda films, Veidt made financial contributions to British war relief and starred in such movies as The Wandering Jew.
Born January 22, 1893 in Berlin, Veidt's first film of the 118 in his career, Der Weg des Todes, was released in 1916. He played Lucifer, Ivan the Terrible, Rasputin--all the best people. Veidt liked thunderstorms, but did not like pudding. His third wife, Lili, was the love of his life.
Ever seen the Disney movie Aladdin? That's a re-make of The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Not that Disney ever advertises the fact. They didn't even bother to change the names of most of the characters. Veidt plays the evil wizard Jaffar, and is much more effective than the character in the cartoon.
Released the day after he turned fifty, Casablanca (1943) includes Veidt as Major Strasser, the Nazi commander sent to capture Victor Laszlo. By this time, German Expressionism had morphed into film noir. Yet the influence of the style can be seen in the striking use of shadows and silhouettes by director Michael Curtiz.
Only a couple of months later, Veidt died of a heart attack while playing golf in Hollywood.
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