Sometimes you see an actor in a horror film and that person just gets to you. Their acting alone makes them crawl out from the screen and whisper terrifying things in your ear. Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger, Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface, and Doug Bradley as Pinhead are just few that spring to mind.
But even rarer are those actors whose surpass a single character and become a name of their own. Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney. These are a handful of the kings of horror cinema. Conrad Veidt stands among them.
Conrad Veidt (pronounced like the word white starting with a v) was a German actor who starred in movies throughout the rise of the silent film and into the 1940s. During that time, there were a lot of top actors in horror films and in German cinema. Why does he stand out?
- He starred in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This 1920 German film was called “the first true horror film” by Roger Ebert. Veidt plays Cesare, a somnambulist who controlled by the devilish and diabolical Dr. Caligari. Somnambulism is a fancy word for sleepwalking, and Veidt somehow
manages to breath life and character into a someone who is, in effect, a zombie.
- He made hands scary long before Bruce Campbell cut off his hand in Evil Dead II. In the silent 1924 film The Hands of Orlac, Veidt played the leading roll as Orlac. His character is a famed musician who was brutally injured in an accident. A surgeon replaces his hands with those of a murderer, and Orlac’s hands seem to take on a life of their own. Veidt manages to bring true terror to his own hands and uses them to express a range of emotion throughout he film.
- He inspired the Joker. Conrad Veidt’s makeup and look in The Man Who Laughs inspired the creation of the Joker in the Batman comic book. In The Man Who Laughs, Veidt’s character has been surgically deformed and his face is permanently frozen in a terrifying smile.
- He worked against the Nazis. In real life, Conrad Veidt worked openly to oppose the Nazi regime. After Hitler came to power, he and his Jewish wife moved to England, where he starred in anti-Nazi films. He also donated a large part of his fortune to the British war effort. When he moved to America in 1941, he even made sure his contracts included a provision requiring that he play the villain if cast as a German. It is no surprise then to see him appear in Casablanca as Major Strasser, the film’s leading and utterly unlikable Nazi.
While Conrad Veidt was famous in his day – so famous that the Nazis tried to cut him a deal to keep him working in Germany – he has largely been forgotten with time. If you have not seen one of his movies, I highly recommend getting your hands on one and seeing his acting first hand.
With his silent films, a lot of them are available online. However, if you are going to watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, try to find a decent copy. The new Blu-ray edition fills in a lot of gaps and allows you to see the striking set design more clearly than free copies online.