Posted by Moira Finnie on January 26, 2011
“What are you?,” asks the blunt landlady when a new guest arrives unexpectedly on the doorstep of her boarding house in The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935). Filmgoers and filmmakers had been attempting to answer that question since they first spied this tall enigma in front of a camera, starting from the moment when Cesare the somnambulist opened his extraordinary eyes in the expressionist horror classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). “I am a wanderer,” Conrad Veidt’s nameless character replies quietly, reminding the viewer of his role as The Wandering Jew in an earlier Gaumont-British film, which marked what was roughly Veidt‘s one hundredth appearance on screen. “I live so out of the world,” he explains, further unsettling the chattering woman.
In truth, the cosmopolitan, German-born actor, whose birthday falls on Saturday, January 22nd, was very much “of the world,” involved in the tumult of his era, but able to hone his gifts to such a point of transcendence, he achieved an international stardom. He could illuminate humanity’s sinister side, but made viewers recognize the human being inside the often troubling characters he brought to life with such exquisite understanding. Ultimately, as Veidt’s friend and contemporary, producer Eric Pommer, once commented, “It is hard to say what was more to be admired in him, his artistry or his humanity.”
Some may recall Conrad Veidt (1893-1943) as a horror star comparable to Lon Chaney, thanks to films such as Caligari, The Hands of Orlac (1924), Waxworks (1924) and The Man Who Laughs (1928). Others may remember his roles as the evil Jaffar in the brilliant The Thief of Bagdad (1940) or the reviled Major Strasser in Casablanca (1943). The versatile Veidt certainly deserves to be remembered for more than his casting as a suave Nazi obstacle to Rick and Ilsa’s happiness. An unusually compelling actor in silent as well as sound films, he had appeared in French, Italian and Swedish movies in addition to a series of brilliant German Expressionist movies. These films documented the disquieting drift of modern life following the real life horrors of the First World War, fueled by the creative flourishing of the arts during the period of The Weimar Republic. Having studied with the influential Max Reinhardt, the range of Veidt’s expressiveness allowed him to portray exalted characters with an intelligent, aristocratic (albeit often malevolent) air as well as otherworldly, demonic creatures in the grip of unknowable forces.The actor had a dancer’s grace, deep-set blue eyes and an unsettling gaze, as well as a singularly gaunt, yet imposing physical and psychological presence. Despite the dark cast of his many roles, he was a star who could inspire empathy in viewers captivated by his nuanced portraits of tormented, damned and occasionally sardonically heroic individuals. Inevitably, he had been enticed to Hollywood for a time in the last half of the ’20s by an invitation from John Barrymore to appear as Louis XI opposite his Francois Villon in The Beloved Rogue (1927). The bravura streak in Veidt’s characterization of the spidery king won him considerable accolades, as did his poignant work as Gwynplaine in Victor Hugo’s story of the brutally scarred central character of The Man Who Laughs (1928).
According to Hungarian-born director Pál Fejös aka Paul Fejos, who worked with the actor in California on The Last Performance (1928) at Universal, Veidt “was a grand actor and it was fun to work with him,” a sentiment echoed by almost everyone who made a film with the cooperative and often playful person so at odds with a complex public image. Aware of the supremacy of the the box office and the gaudy vulgarity bred into Hollywood’s materialistic culture, Veidt still found solace in his work and his friendships with the circle of European and American friends who were then living in the movie capital during the last great flowering of the silent era. After the advent of sound and his German accent appeared to render him a character actor instead of a leading man, his transient existence began again, when he returned to Germany, (even as Universal was considering him for a particularly apt role as Count Dracula).
Eventually Veidt became a notable part of the diaspora that resulted from the Nazi takeover of his country in 1933, leading him to the United Kingdom, where he made a series of films for the rest of the decade. The real life role of a stranger was already well-known to him by the time that The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935) was made. This movie offered the 43-year-old actor a role that he later described as among his favorite, though the unusually eloquent restraint he employed in the part made it one of his most difficult and challenging roles. Once a famous play, the film was described by critics at its first release as “thoughtful, engrossing and delicately played picture” and was well-received by audiences in Britain and America. Forgotten since then, and now in the public domain, the film, which can be seen here and is available on DVD, and there was an excellent review of this movie by David Cairns at Mubi that sparked my interest in it. This role allowed Conrad Veidt to play a figure who has a touch of the divine, describing himself as “a stranger to you, and because of that, I am able to see you all more clearly than you see yourselves.”
Veidt may have found this project appealing because it offered the chance to work under the direction of his friend and fellow émigré, the Austrian poet, theatrical director and filmmaker Berthold Viertel (1885-1953), who had worked under F. W. Murnau. The film also allowed the two men to collaborate with other recent arrivals in Britain, cinematographer Curt Courant (Woman in the Moon, La bête humaine), and art director Oscar Werndorff, (The 39 Steps, Sabotage). Viertel, whose wife, the actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel (Queen Christina, The Painted Veil, Deep Valley) would host an intellectual salon in their Santa Monica home that attracted such diverse figures as Greta Garbo, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Conrad Veidt after they emigrated to America. The marriage of Berthold and Salka would end in divorce in 1947, (the impecunious Berthold was reportedly incapable of fidelity), though one of their three sons, Peter Viertel became a noted screenwriter.
The politically aware Berthold Viertel, whose last film as a director would be the unlikely paean to the necessity of imperialism, Rhodes (1936) featuring Walter Huston as the British Empire’s standard bearer in Africa, may have been a serious man, but his movies, The Adventures of a Ten Pound Note (1926) and Little Friend (1932) have a playful streak even when the subject being examined is serious. After working with him on the screenplay for the first Nova Pilbeam talkie, Little Friend (1932), British writer Christopher Isherwood wrote in his novella Prater Violet about a fictional director named Friedrich Bergmann from Vienna who described himself as “an old Jewish Socrates who preaches to the Youth. One day, they will give me the hemlock.” The description of the director, who sensed an affinity with the young man as they find themselves listening to a blowhard from the studio. “His head,” Isherwood wrote about Viertel, “was magnificent and massive as carved granite. The head of the Roman emperor, with dark, cold Asiatic eyes…The face was the face of an emperor, but the eyes were the dark, mocking eyes of his slave–the slave who ironically obeyed, watched, humored and judged the master who could never understand him; the slave upon whom the master depended utterly for his amusement, for his instruction, for the sanction of his power: the slave who wrote the fables of beast and men.” In reality Viertel was sensitive to the anti-Semitism and xenophobia he perceived in Britain and concerned that the U.K. did not understand (or care) about the implications of this for millions who were not able to leave Europe. That fear of the other found its way into the script, though the studio kept rushing him and his crew through their shooting schedule, thanks to the studio’s always precarious financial balancing act. The almost comic way that the Viertel character made that grandiose, self-mocking pronouncement of doom appears to have been typical of the sadly prescient Viertel as well, who in the next breath would explain to his young companion that ‘Do you know what film is?’ Bergmann cupped his hands, lovingly, as if around an exquisite flower: “The film is an infernal machine. Once it is ignited and set in motion it revolves with an enormous dynamism. It cannot pause. It cannot apologize. It cannot retract anything. It cannot wait for you to understand it. It simply ripens to its inevitable explosion.” In Isherwood‘s book, as so often in his life after leaving his European roots, the director found himself easily distracted–by the oncoming tragedy he saw emerging on the world stage, by women, by his concerns for others and himself. After seeing a few of his movies, it seems sad that The Passing of the Third Floor Back, which caught that odd 1930s mixture of tragi-comedy and even had the nerve to suggest that some higher power might be interested in the outcome, should be Viertel‘s next to last film.
Just as the influx of refugee European filmmakers such as Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak would hold a mirror up to American society in the next decade with their fresh social observations and expressionistic touches that we now term film noir, this small scale movie offers a gently moving critique of an insular island nation that needed awakening–even if that arousal comes in the form of a messenger whose mysterious ascetic German manner may be a reminder of the recent war and the one to come. In this essentially very British film made by outsiders, a mysterious, possibly supernatural figure described as “a traveler”played by Veidt, comes into a morally squalid household on Bloomsbury Square. His Christ-like gentleness gives the residents some perspective on their lives though the movie never indulges in soporific piety and no special effects are used to show off his power–just a brilliant actor’s ability to make a scene fascinating because of his presence.
The play that inspired the movie was a warhorse of British repertory companies from 1908 on. The premise was drawn from a story by the normally humorous Jerome K. Jerome, whose Three Men in a Boat still delights readers. This 1935 movie was the second screen adaptation of the tale, since legendary English actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson had appeared in the role of “The Stranger” in a silent film version in 1918. The original allegorical fantasy had a somber, sometimes heavy-handed Christian symbolism, featuring characters having dramatic epiphanies and mending their ways with a flourish. When the story was transferred to this Depression-era film by screenwriters Viertel, Michael Hogan, and Alma Reville (in one of Mrs. Hitchcock’s few projects without her husband in the ’30s), the overt message became a star vehicle for Veidt with other characters representative of types more than people, though a few are allowed to come touchingly to life. Several of the figures are given names that reflect something of their character, as in Everyman or another morality play–though here it is often the opposite quality designated by the names, such as Mr. Wright. The motley bunch found at Belle Vue on Bloomsbury Square seem a bit like rough sketches for Terence Ratigan’s characters in Separate Tables (1958); though their social snobbery and economic divisions are more vividly dramatized here–with the snobbish characters engaged in a peevish, non-stop, one-upsmanship prior to Veidt’s arrival. The movie begins with the words “London,” “The Big City” and a title card:
In this “wilderness of houses of which but few are homes” the people stew in their own psychological isolation and socially bleak if genteel hopelessness, preying on one another’s weaknesses in the hothouse atmosphere of the pretentious boarding house (you can almost smell the scent of cabbage and despair in the air). The film adaptation focused the story more subtly on the women of the film, whose positions in life reflect their precarious hold on a tenuous identity made more difficult by economic reality, the mean narrowness of a life with little future, and class tensions (Viertel had Marxist leanings). The venal landlady, Mrs. Sharpe (Mary Clare), reinforces the status quo, lording it over her servant girl Stasia (a radiant René Ray, who would leave acting to become the Countess of Midleton and a writer, denying the former reformatory girl even the pleasure of a flower growing above the kitchen sink. “If only there was one decent person in the world–but there isn’t,” Stasia cries after Mrs. Sharpe’s latest cruelty.
Others include a Miss Kite (Beatrix Lehmann), a frozen-faced secretary bitterly brooding about the alleged “tragedy of being on the wrong side of thirty” while using her intelligence to make caustic remarks at the expense of others. A Mrs. del Hooley, (Sara Allgood) is a socially pretentious Irish dowager, flicking away the coarseness around her, and mentioning her alleged aristocratic connections several times a day, (her second cousin by marriage was a Baronet!). There is also a retired Major Tomkin and his wife (John Turnbull and a subdued Cathleen Nesbitt, an actress who would become more beautiful with age). The middle-aged pair are conspiring to have their only child, a daughter (22-year-old Anna Lee) marry a sinister, well-to-do boarder, Mr. Wright, who was played by Frank Cellier, familiar as the sheriff in The 39 Steps. Cellier works overtime to suggest a self-made Beelzebub in this film, perhaps in a futile effort to match the magisterial Veidt’s screen presence. A “man of property,” Wright is actually a slum lord who spends his days assessing the weaknesses of his fellow boarders and shows an unappetizing interest in the teenage but increasingly compliant Stasia. Wright has some in debt to him, while enticing others into involvement with his various shifty schemes. The Tomkins’ motives for foisting this loveless match on their child is described as “family pride,” though it is actually so that the Major can avoid anything so sordid as getting a sales job, or having the landlady throw them into the street (or jail for writing a bad check). Anna Lee is futilely loved by fellow boarder Chris Penny, an ironically named nearly penurious architect (Ronald Ward), whose self-pity curdles his hopes of creating something substantial in life. The group is rounded out by Mr. Larkcom (Jack Livesey), a classical pianist eking out a living in a gramophone shop, selling cheap pop tunes and donning a mask of jauntiness.
The everyday pettiness that preoccupies all makes the close quarters stifling with discontentment, and even a moment of joy, much less contentment, seems an impossibility. The one character who does elude the stage roots of the story completely is–not surprisingly–Conrad Veidt. His unnamed stranger arrives after Stasia, in a moment of heartbreaking despair brought about after an excessive amount of abuse, cries out the that, “there isn’t a decent one among us. They’re not human that lot….What are we all living for? That’s what I’d like to know! What’s the good of us?” Hurtling toward the front door and promising that she is heading to the river to escape this desolate existence, the servant girl opens the door to find this strange man removing his hat. Framed beneath a church-like arch from the building across the street and seemingly standing under in a soft overhead glow, the sight of this serenely composed figure startles her, even as she tries to turn him away, though he is able to rent a small, grim cell of a room with a view of London’s chimneys and rooftops. His arrival, with echoes of Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927) and the William Holman Hunt painting of Christ as The Light of the World knocking at an overgrown door with no handle has a portentous symbolism that is implicit in his character’s every courtly gesture, which even in 1935 seems archaic yet majestically appealing. He also seems bemused. Veidt, who could find the humorous twist in the blandest dialogue or setting uses that skill in his scenes with the landlady, especially when he sees the bleak room on the third floor that has been described as
Perhaps the lack of evident miracles and even rudimentary special effects is responsible for this film’s obscurity today, though a few softly expressionist touches evident in the camera work frames Veidt in an archway with just a suggestion of a pool of light forming a nimbus around his head and shoulders but remains naturalistic. His only overt actions are not of the divine variety, but come in small, resonant gestures. One instance of this mysterious visitor’s power is evident in his phenomenally penetrating gaze, which is evident at a dinner meant to celebrate the loveless engagement of Anna Lee to the Frank Cellier character. Without saying a word, the masterful silent actor Veidt simply watches the soon-to-be bride intently, while listening to her groom expound on his own financial finesse. Eventually, just before she is to take the ring he brandishes, she finds herself unable to look away from the stranger, and rushes from the room, unable to go through with the sham love match. Anna Lee was then “the Quota Queen” of British movies made with American studio money held in Britain, but would go on to acclaim as Bronwyn in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and became a member of the unofficial John Ford Stock Company, as well as appearing as an actress in other American films and television for decades. She confessed in her autobiography that she “had always admired [Conrad Veidt's] work and was fascinated by his wonderfully dark, hypnotic eyes. When he looked at me, it was as though he saw right through into my very soul; it was not a comfortable feeling.” Despite her enjoyment in making The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935) the young actress “thought that Veidt was dreadfully miscast as ‘The Stranger.’” She believed that his character ought to have reflected the original play’s premise, presenting him as “a Christ-like figure who…changes the lives of his fellow boarders.” Perhaps in Lee‘s view he didn’t fit the typical casting for this role in the U.K., but the subtlety of Veidt‘s less obvious, nuanced portrayal of The Stranger might still engage the modern viewer.
The soft-spoken Veidt has an ambiguous mien that affects each person who encounters him, each of whom sense his dual nature. He is appealing, yet unknowable; human yet alien. Mr. Wright, who reminded me of a petulant yet dangerous Cockney Richard III, is Veidt’s physical and spiritual opposite, and yet they share this bond. Wright seems to be both evil incarnate one minute and in the next moment is a lonely middle aged man who doesn’t believe he’s lovable, but he can afford to buy it. The Stranger’s quiet observations of the residents and his small gestures of kindness–particularly taking the entire household on a boat trip to Margate on a Bank Holiday–don’t seem grandiose like divine intervention, but serendipity. This gesture seems as though it might change their lives, or at least give them a chance to breathe and a pleasant day to remember, though there are no guarantees. The trip appears to restore their capacity for compassion and renews the instinct to be a part of life, however imperfect. In one of the best scenes on the boat, Veidt listens in silence to Beatrix Lehmann talking about the pain of getting older, she slowly realizes the shallowness of her dreams–and her life. Lehmann, an actress best recalled today for her endearing professor on the Doctor Who program in the Tom Baker era of that long-running program, and as a scary Roman matron in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), had what one critic who saw her on stage described as a “shiversome power,” a quality she shared with Veidt.
In the next moment, startlingly, one character almost drowns, Miss Kite proves herself not so brittle or bitter, Mrs. Sharpe cries out Stasia’s name as though it were her child, and Mr. Larkcom shows a previously unknown tenderness. However, when Miss Kite is hailed a hero, the eye she seeks out in the crowd is that of Veidt, who nods yes without a word, while she, looking about twelve, shakes her head no, as if to say: I am still only me. Near the end of the day, Mr. Wright, buttonholing The Stranger speaks to him as though they are old opponents, who know each other well. “You’ve done your stuff. You know what I mean.” “Perhaps I do” he replies, but Veidt murmurs, “It’s not easy for them to find themselves. Their illusions are so strong.” Wright responds that “You mean the realities–it’s all lovely and rosy. Star and moonshine. You’ve got them all gooey and dripping with sentiment. That’s all right. Wait till the morning. Wait until they have to face a few cold facts in the light of day. I’ll give you best–tonight. My turn in the morning.” The confrontation below is between the two, showing their strengths and vulnerabilities in this scene, which begins just after The Stranger has interrupted Wright’s efforts to seduce Stasia. Throughout the rest of the film, Veidt has been the most relaxed character. In this sequence, the actor allows some of his intensity to show through as he and Wright confront one another:
The “other-worldly” aspect of the Stranger is not that of a Mr. Fix-It angel, à la Cary Grant‘s charming depiction of the unreal but magical”Dudley” in The Bishop’s Wife (1947). Veidt‘s unearthly visitor power is evanescent, only able to influence by his fleeting presence, accepting the frailties of these people and even offering understanding to the most warped of the boarders. If there are any cinematic descendants from this movie to other, more familiar films sharing a theme with The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935), it includes Strange Cargo (1940) with Ian Hunter’s saintly escaped convict, the denizens of London Made Me aka Dulcimer Street (1948), and An Inspector Calls (1954), both with the slightly sinister Alastair Sim (who may have been channeling a bit of Veidt) and Wings of Desire (1987), in which filmmaker Wim Wenders illuminates a spirit that lies just beneath the mundane surface of everyday life in that sublimely melancholy fairy tale. The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935) became a film that yielded a much broader audience and a large amount of correspondence from audience members moved by his performance. When asked about his views on acting, Veidt would sometimes describe himself as “a human wireless set which can pick up the waves radiated by other human persons. The actor,” he believed, “is an energy field who will facilitate the transformation of the picture by the spectators.” This lofty rhetoric may seem quite old-fashioned, but for the humanistic Veidt the role of The Stranger differed sharply from the earlier interpretations of the part. “In the silent film…a light shone behind the Stranger’s head. In this current production there is no such mumbo-jumbo. I am just a stranger, human, natural, benevolent. Yet I must convey to the audience my potentialities in my presence, and here [begins] my difficulty.While all of these movies made for unconventional fare, the 86-minute Veidt film may be the least well known, though it avoids cant, and features one of Veidt‘s most interesting performances–as he makes benevolence interesting. In accordance with the low key manner in which The Stranger had behaved throughout the film, at the end he leaves quietly, explaining to Stasia simply, “I came because you needed me.”
For Conrad Veidt, who made Britain his home throughout the ’30s, The Passing of the Third Floor Back was one the peaks of his early years outside of Germany. Veidt received letters from individuals thanking him for “restoring their faith.” The actor knew that a return to his native land was not possible under the then current regime, since he was married to a woman who was half-Jewish. Despite his refusal to work under the new order in Germany, Veidt continued to be courted by Josef Goebbels, who controlled the motion picture industry in Nazi Germany (according to Michael Powell’s autobiography). Veidt, who had served in the German army during WWI, appears to have been a man of conscience. His reluctance to align himself with the Nazi establishment led to his being attacked repeatedly in the racist newspaper Der Stürmer. His continuing position as a leading figure in the arts community in Germany was further jeopardized by the response of the Protestant-born actor to a racial questionnaire submitted to him by the authorities. On the line that asked race and religion, he scrawled the word “JUDE” across the document. Only a year before this production of The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935) a brief return visit to Germany had almost led to his permanent detention there under pressure to return.
He had left Germany to make Rome Express there in 1932, an international hit that was a kind of Grand Hotel on rail that influenced the “train” movies that followed it. Subsequent movies made in England by the actor included a World War One story, I Was a Spy (1932), which allowed Veidt to play an all-too-human German officer doing his job with some degree of restraint while losing The Great War–a storyline frowned on by those newly in control of the movie industry in Germany. As if to make his position quite clear to the Nazis, Veidt then chose to star in the film, The Wandering Jew (1933) and he signed to make the film Jew Süss, aka Power (1934) based on Lion Feuchtwanger‘s historical story of Jud Süss, the eighteenth century courtier at Württemberg. (The Nazis remade Jew Süss into a notorious example of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda in 1940). Returning to his native country to finish business connected to the last German movie of his career, The Legend of William Tell (1933), the Nazis attempted to detain Veidt in Germany to prevent him from taking the lead in Jew Süss by claiming that he was too ill to travel. Only the intervention of Veidt‘s wife, Lily Prager Veidt, producer Michael Balcon at Gaumont-British and heavy British diplomacy saved him.
Finally settled in Britain where he eventually became a citizen, Veidt was described by director Michael Powell as “one of the greatest names in European cinema, and one of the most romantic and magnetic men alive.” To those who worked in the struggling British film industry, “he was German cinema.” Conrad Veidt‘s gratitude toward his adopted country led him to put his personal fortune at the disposal of the British government when the Second World War began. The actor and his wife also sheltered children evacuated from hard-hit areas of London during the Blitz in their Hampstead home and supplied presents for those who were compelled to spend Christmas in the Underground stations during the bombing. Even when he eventually went to America in 1940 to complete The Thief of Bagdad (1940), he still sent funds back to them and was an active member of the European Film Fund, designed to help find work and homes for less fortunate refugees from the continent. His career in America, where he stayed at the request of the British authorities yielded some highly entertaining films and the all time classic, Casablanca, in which the actor played a stylish villain. Unfortunately, a heart attack on a Los Angeles area golf course when he was only 50 meant that he never lived to see the end of Nazism.
Recommended Sources online for Conrad Veidt:
The Conrad Veidt Society (under construction)
Sources for Blog:
Allen, Jerry C., Conrad Veidt: From Caligari to Casablanca, Boxwood Press, 1987.
Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and His Kind: 1929-1939, Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1976.
Isherwood, Christopher, Berg, James J., ed., Isherwood on Writing, U of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Isherwood, Christopher, Prater Violet, Random House, 1945.
Lee, Anna, Roisman Cooper, Barbara, Anna Lee: Memoir of a Career on General Hospital and in Film, McFarland, 200.7.
Powell, Michael, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, Faber, 2000
Richards, Jeffrey, Harper, Sue, “Thinking Forward and Up: The British Films of Conrad Veidt,” The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema 1929-39, I.B.Tauris, 2001.
Soister, John T., Battle, Pat Wilks, Conrad Veidt on Screen: A Comprehensive Illustrated Filmography, McFarland, 2002.
*Christopher Isherwood recounted a memorable moment he witnessed at British-Gaumont Studios in the early 1930s during the filming of Jew Süss:
“[Conrad Veidt] was a very famous German actor and probably one of the greatest of the early film actors. Everybody agreed that he was extraordinary as a film actor. This is just a description of the kind of actor he was. The character he was playing was a Jew who had been very wealthy in a medieval town; now, suddenly he’s brought to ruin and he’s going to be executed and he is in the cart on the way to the execution. Now they are going to shoot this scene in the studio and there sits Veidt in the cart. This is what I write about it [in Christopher and His Kind: 1929-1939 (Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1976):
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