Born Hans Walter Konrad Weidt in 1893 in Berlin, Germany, Veidt rose to fame as one of the highest paid actors in pre-war Germany, one of the most important figures of German Expressionism, and a key player in early Hollywood horror and British fantasy/action films. He will be forever remembered for his starring roles in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Man Who Laughs, along with parts in Waxworks, The Thief of Baghdad, Casablanca, and many more. He got his start in acting during the first World War, when he was drafted into the German army. He contracted pneumonia and while recuperating, began working at a theater with his then girlfriend, actress Lucie Mannheim (The 39 Steps). After his eventual discharge, he returned to Berlin to further train in acting with the famous Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater.
Beginning in 1916, Veidt starred in a number of German silent films, though the first to bring him fame was Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), where he starred as the somnambulist Cesare. This has gone on to become the most famous and iconic film of German Expressionism. It went on to influence early Hollywood horror films and the later noir genre. He appeared in other German Expressionist horror classics like Waxworks, Der Januskopf, The Student of Prague, and The Hands of Orlac. During this period he became one of the highest paid actors of Germany’s top studio, Ufa.
He rose to international fame and attracted the attention of directors and producers in the United States and Britain. John Barrymore tempted him to travel to England to appear in The Beloved Rouge (1926) and he stayed on in England to make a few more films and practice his English. By this time many members of the German film community, such as directors Paul Leni, Ernst Lubitsch, and Fritz Lang had emigrated to Britain or Hollywood. Soon Veidt temporarily moved to Hollywood to star in a number of Universal films, including Paul Leni’s classic, The Man Who Laughs (1928). He returned to Germany, but his time there was limited due to the rise of National Socialism.
Veidt was enormously outspoken against the Nazi regime. He took a stance by supporting Jewish and gay rights and even allegedly registered as a Jewish refugee at once point. One of his most important, though little seen pre-wars films is the tragic drama Anders als die Andern (1919, Different from the Others), where he boldly played a gay violinist in love with his student. Part of the purpose of this controversial film was to overturn German laws against same sex relationship. The stigma of this film followed him into the Nazi regime, though Joseph Goebbels attempted to win him over due to his fame. Due to his outspokenness, his Jewish wife, Ilona Preger, and threats made against Veidt’s life, the couple was forced to flee in 1933, where they emigrated to Great Britain and eventually the U.S. He donated much of his salary - particularly when he was forced to play Nazis - to the British war cause, determined to fight National Socialism up until his death.
In England he worked with the great director Michael Powell on The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940), and The Thief of Bagdad (1940), which won three Academy Awards. In Hollywood he was often type cast as a Nazi or a spy, and he was given roles like Nazi commander Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942), with another German expatriate, Peter Lorre, and as a spy alongside Humphrey Bogart in All Through the Night (1941). In Nazi Agent (1942), he was able to play twins, one an evil Nazi, and the other an honest immigrant who pretends to be a Nazi to wipe out as many spies as possible. His final, very fitting role was as the leader of the German resistance in Above Suspicion (1943) with Joan Crawford. Like several other figures of German Expressionism who emigrated to the U.S., such as directors Muranu and Leni, Veidt died young, suffering from a heart attack while golfing at age 50.
He will forever be remembered for his diverse, early roles in German Expressionist cinema and his later contributions to Hollywood and British film. This amazing actor also deserves to be remember for his great humanitarian effort and determination to fight for his beliefs, even at risk to his own life. If you want to learn more about Veidt, check out some of his amazing films - he was in well over a hundred - plus there is a biography and there are also a number of heartfelt fan pages worth checking out (even though some of them aren’t very professional looking).