Sipping Champagne and Smoking Cigarettes

If you’ve been paying attention to the tag trend on here then you will have noticed that Conrad Veidt is threatening to consume everything else. This has happened by accident, I started watching Weimar era films as research, which meant revisiting Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari starring Veidt as The Somnambulist. Then I learnt about Orlacs Hände, watched it and ended up kind of intrigued by him.

His acting in the early films is unusual, totally dedicated and all consuming; in Orlacs Hände there is no attempt to make his hands appear to have been transplanted, they are very clearly his own. The power of his acting has me believing that not only are his hands possessed, but that his flesh is crawling with the evil of the murderer whose hands he now bears. There are no special effects or make up to help him achieve this, just him and the incredible horror he conveys just by widening his eyes.

He’s most famous as The Somnambulist in Caligari and as Major Heinrich Strasser in Casablanca. Born Hans Walter Conrad Veidt on 22 January 1893 in a working class district of Berlin, he grew to love the theatre and began working as an actor in 1916, shortly after returning from the Eastern Front. He had contracted pneumonia and jaundice and was evacuated to hospital where he was treated, examined and deemed unfit to continue service.

He appeared in 112 professionally made pictures, 75 of these were made in Germany and many of these are now lost. He became the highest paid actor working at UFA studios, but it was ultimately playing Nazis that made him famous. These roles were somewhat contradictory to his personal life; a staunch anti-Nazi, he was watched by the Gestapo and frequently declared himself to be Jewish when the government performed racial and ethnic background checks. In 1933 he married a Jewish woman, Illona ‘Lily’ Prager, a week later on 6 April he emigrated to Britain. It’s rumoured that the Gestapo had planned to assassinate him and that Veidt had somehow managed to find out, accounting for his abrupt departure.

In 1938 he became a British citizen and continued his acting career. When war broke out he donated half of his estate to the British war effort, however, fearing a possible Nazi invasion of Britain and therefore further attempts on his life, he moved to America in 1940.

He continued to make films in Hollywood, his last being Above Suspicion in 1943. On 3 April, three days before his twentieth wedding anniversary, he died of a heart attack playing golf at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.

I don’t think this short biography really does him justice, but I hope it will give a little insight into why I find him such a fascinating figure.

If you’ve been paying attention to the tag trend you will have also noticed another name which continues to grow, that of Christopher Isherwood. He is quite simply my favourite writer, something which also happened quite by accident. As part of my ever growing obsession with Berlin, I decided to read Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin a couple of years ago. I was convinced that I didn’t really like them, they were interesting and a fabulous insight into Weimar Berlin, but I didn’t think they were great stories and I gave the books away. Months later I found that I still had these two books stuck in my head, they had, affected me, and I needed to read them again, and again, and again. Apparently I also needed to read more Isherwood and thus proclaim him probably the greatest writer of the twentieth century (this is in my opinion obviously and not a statement of fact, though I am prepared to argue.)

There are moments when I hate life, not for being one great big relentlessly unrewarding struggle, but for being the exact opposite, for the fact that every now and again there is evidence of a perfect moment. I hate Conrad Veidt and Christopher Isherwood precisely for this reason, because in 1929 something perfect happened and I’m too young and too much in the wrong country to have witnessed it.

It happened at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for the Science of Sexuality) at a men only costume ball. Isherwood went dressed as a street hustler, not any street hustler mind, he went as the hustler he was seeing at the time, borrowed his clothes and wore make up to make himself look younger. It worked so well that some of the men there genuinely thought that was his vocation. It’s not an unfair observation of a writer, the only difference is that instead of selling your body you do occasionally have to sell your soul. Once at the ball however, the great Isherwood observed that:

The respectability of the ball was open to doubt, but it did have one dazzling guest: Conrad Veidt. The great film star sat apart at his own table, impeccable in evening tails. He watched the dancing benevolently through his monocle as he sipped champagne and smoked a cigarette in a long holder. He seemed a supernatural figure, the guardian god of these festivities, who was graciously manifesting himself to his devotees. A few favoured ones approached and talked to him but without presuming to sit down

Christopher and His Kind by Christopher Isherwood

Here we have Christopher Isherwood, my favourite writer because he is the only person I have ever read whose work I can truly describe as being beautiful, in the same room, observing the kind of man who is as distracting off screen as he is on it. I believe the scene to have looked a little like this:

I imagine that whilst this representation of the event is true, it is the truth seen through the eyes of the kind of writer who could turn pyrite to gold. Veidt through Isherwood’s eyes is more than a well dressed man smoking a cigarette at a dismal ball, he is a god and everything he does, from that sip of champagne to the long holder fixed between his slender, manicured fingers reveals a magnificent deity. A tuxedoed god sitting upon a dais to receive the humble offerings of his worshippers. Isherwood was a truly great observational writer, if he wasn’t this passage wouldn’t have filled me with the kind of absolute hatred that comes with total, unquestioning admiration. Upon reading this passage, I have never wanted to be present at a single moment so much in my life as this one.

Interestingly though, Isherwood isn’t the only writer to have described Veidt as a supernatural figure. This poem by Max Kolpe (or Colpet) describes him as having people under a demonic spell:

Er hält dämonisch die Menschen im Bann
sogar noch als Wachsfigur.
Seine Stirne hört nicht auf, sie fängt nur an.
Er ist im Film der große Mann,
elegant und groß von Natur.

Er spielt sich selber an die Wand:
selbst sein Schatten hat noch Gesicht.
Jede Linie an ihm ist interessant,
nervös nur zuckt seine feine Hand,
die mehr als Blicke spricht.

Der Film bekommt durch ihn sein Profil;
keine Maske, die er scheut.
Er tastet sich somnambul bis ans Ziel
und unbewußt wird oft sein Spiel
Illustration zu Freud’.

Keiner verkörpert so gut wie er
den Intellektuellen und das Genie.
Und holten sie ihn auch über das Meer,
er findet stets wieder zu uns her,
er reist in Dämonie.

Conny Veidt by Max Kolpe

I could provide you with a translation of this, but it would be horrible so I’m not going to, but what I found so interesting about this poem is that Kolpe describes Veidt as naturally elegant, something that Isherwood also does. To Isherwood he is gracious and impeccable, to Kolpe he is elegant and great. They both portray intriguingly similar images of the same man. Certain characteristics are always going to come through, but we don’t all observe these in the same way. It fascinates me that the supernatural quality they both pick up on, they also both interpret differently, a ‘guardian god’ and a ‘demonic spell’ and yet both are complimentary descriptions.

I wonder who we would write about like this today, which star would so intrigue us that we would be moved to describe them so magnificently?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go away to sip some champagne and smoke some cigarettes, and when I’m done, I might just write about it.

(Thanks to aikainkauna for the gif images.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s