My Twitter profile says I’m a “Conrad Veidt fanboy”. Yes! That’s true. I’ve been a fan going all the way back to my childhood, when he was a household name with my parents. It’s stuck with me ever since.
The more I learned about him, the more fascinated I became with his movies. Yet what’s absorbed me even more was the man behind the actor, and the intrigue involved with his life. But we’ll get to that shortly.
My parents became movie fans while growing up in Germany. They simply continued their love of the cinema when they arrived here.
I was about four when I started hearing his name after my folks had seen him as the lead in a British import called, “U-Boat 29”, its American title. Or “The Spy in Black” to the rest of the world.
By then Conrad Veidt had already been a big star in German films for two decades. Although he’d made other movies here, he was still relatively unknown until 1940 with the release of “The Thief of Baghdad”.
My parents always spoke fondly of him, and apparently knew him through their friends, the Natzlers. See Searching for the Natzlers.
While his name may not be familiar to many of you, if you’ve ever seen either of these two classic movies on late night TV, you’d recognize him instantly. He was the villain in both. The first and most famous was “Casablanca” with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in which he played the Nazi, Major Heinrich Strasser. Released in 1943, this is a movie that continues to return like clockwork on Turner Movie Classics.
The second – and my all time favorite – was the Korda Brothers’ 1940 epic fantasy, “The Thief of Baghdad” in which he was the villainous magician, “Jaffar”.
As one of the highest paid actors for UFA, the legendary German film studio, Veidt made nearly 120 films, 27 of them in English. His filmography goes all the way back to 1916. But he didn’t really reach stardom until his role in the 1920 silent movie classic, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, in which he played the Frankenstein-like somnambulist, “Cesare”.
But that begs the question – How was this famous German movie star connected to the Natzlers? Here’s where it gets intriguing and how I learned about it:
Back in 2004, 60 years after I lost track of the Natzlers, I found their daughter Marlies through the internet. Now 88 years old and very much alive, she was living about an hour south of us in the retirement community of Laguna Niguel.
Dr. Adolph and Hedwig Natzler were dear friends of my parents. Dr. Natzler was a highly renowned orthopedic surgeon in Germany, and already famous in this country for some of the advanced techniques that he developed.
I had three lovely visits with Marlies over the next few months. It was during the first visit that she gave me this picture and explained how Veidt was connected to her family.
In the photo, Conrad Veidt is having his portrait done by his dear friend, Hans Grohmann. As a long time family friend of the Natzlers, Grohmann was the active link between Veidt and her family. She said the photo was taken around 1932.
As an artist, Hans created a number of beautiful portraits of the Natzler family. Marlies showed me a charming one of her, probably age seven or eight, surrounded by her favorite dolls and Teddy Bears. She also showed me an excellent pen and ink sketch that Hans had done of her father.
He was the son of a Protestant Minister. Besides being an excellent artist, he was also a writer, journalist and an international correspondent, which required him to travel a great deal throughout Europe. His views were outspokenly anti Nazi, and he was gay.
Being a close friend of the German actor, Hans knew Veidt as “Connie.” The Natzlers also knew Connie through their friendship with Hans. The year was 1933. Their friendship would prove to be dangerous for all of them.
1933 was also an historical bench mark in the Nazis’ rise to power. In January, Adolph Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany. By then, Connie was already on the Nazi Black List, in part because of movies he’d already made against the wishes of the party. He further angered the regime when he married Lily Prager, a German Jew. They did not want the marriage to happen. Then, as if to tweak their collective noses, when he and Lily wanted to get out of Germany and move to England, he chose to fill out the emigration forms as a Jew, although he was not. His show of defiance angered the Nazis even more and complicated the newlywed’s departure.
Meanwhile, on a night when Hans had just returned home from a trip to France, he was picked up by the Nazi S.A., taken to the nearby woods, and summarily executed. Not satisfied with their act of savagery, the “Brownshirts” then called Hans’s mother and told her to come and pick up his body. The official cause of death was “Suicide”.
While the truth will never be known, there are some possible reasons for his murder. As a journalist, Hans was critical of the Nazis, plus he was gay, which was already against the law in Germany. But I find that explanation rather limited, because he really hadn’t done anything wrong. At least not enough to murder him. The Nazi’s had only been in power for a few of months and were just beginning to torment the Jews and liberals – and Hans wasn’t Jewish. On the other hand, Connie was on the world’s stage, and anything he did had tremendous impact on world opinion.
After I began writing this blog, I found the following quote in an article titled, “The Quiet Heroism of German Actor Conrad Veidt” by Barbara Peterson, which appeared in the Yahoo Contributor Network. It brought up a plausible reason for Grohmann’s murder:
“….Veidt made two movies, The Wandering Jew, and Jew Suss, sympathetic portrayals of Jews, a slap in the face to Josef Goebbels, Adolph Hitler, and the Nazi Party. Goebbels reacted swiftly, issuing press releases condemning the actor and his films as “payback” for his betrayal of his homeland. As a result, he was detained by the Gestapo and ordered killed for his anti-Nazi activities. But they had second thoughts and eventually allowed him to go free rather than risk an international incident.”
Assuming that this account is accurate, it’s conceivable that Grohmann’s murder was not only a warning to Connie, but could have been retribution for his persistent defiance in the face of what the Nazis demanded of him. He was already on their Blacklist. But if it’s true that Josef Goebbels was afraid of causing an international incident by assassinating their world famous star, then by choosing to murder his very close friend, they may have decided that this was their most effective alternative.
Dr. Natzler’s friendship with both Hans and Connie could also account for his own sudden departure from Germany. Adolph had suddenly received a warning from a friend that he was wanted by the Gestapo. He immediately gathered up his wife and daughter and hastily vacated his well established medical practice and their home in Mannheim and escaped to America. This was around the same time that Connie remarried and fled to England with his new wife.
But what had Adolph Natzler done against the Nazis that was serious enough to bring the Gestapo down on him? He was a respected physician with a large practice, a veteran of WWI, a surgeon in the German Army, and a family man with a Gentile wife and daughter. And his surgical innovations had brought only honor to Germany. His only problem was that he was a Jew.
Meanwhile, now that Veidt was in England permanently, he became an English citizen. He also continued to make movies there for the next seven years. Leading up to WWII he was known for donating large portions of his earnings to support anti Nazi causes – his way of aiding the fight against Hitler and the Third Reich.
Connie would never return to Germany. But when he first arrived in England, he made arrangements to have his former wife, Felicitas, and their young daughter, Viola, transported safely to Switzerland.
In 1939 he was in London filming “The Thief of Baghdad”. A short time later the”Blitz” began – the Luftwaffe’s massive air strikes on the city. By 1940 the entire movie company was forced to shift production to Hollywood. That marked Connie’s ultimate return to America.
His famous role as Major Strasser in “Casablanca” came two years later, in 1942. Connie made one more film here, “Above Suspicion”, with Joan Crawford and Fred McMurray in 1943. That was just before his very premature death, at age 50. He was playing golf at the Riveria Country Club when he died of a heart attack.
For more information about the life and career of Conrad Veidt, I invite you to check out these two extremely in depth websites by the very talented and knowledgable Monica Ilie: