Saturday, August 11, 2012

Nazi Agent (1942): Reflections on Working with Conrad Veidt

I am currently reading the book Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist edited by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle (St. Martin's Press, 1997), which features interviews with many Hollywood figures whose careers were touched by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations in the late '40s and '50s. Director Jules Dassin (Thieves' Highway, Rififi, Night and the City, Never on Sunday) was interviewed by film historian Patrick McGilligan for this collection.

In the book, McGilligan asked Dassin about his first cinematic efforts, most of which the director dismissed as "hopelessly superficial." After arriving in Hollywood in the early 1940s after experience with The Federal Theatre and Artef, a Yiddish theater group in New York, Jules Dassin was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The contrast between his former working conditions and that at the "Tiffany of movie studios" could not have been more dramatic.

The first film that Dassin was assigned to was a B movie that was a propaganda piece about a pair of identical twin brothers, one of whom, Baron Hugo Von Detner, was a prominent Nazi in the diplomatic service in the U.S. just before the war. The other brother was a gentle bibliophile called Otto Becker, who had left Germany when the Nazis came into power and became an American citizen. The "good" brother is  content with running a small antique book store and sharing his quarters above the shop with a sweet-voiced canary--who, significantly, stops singing one evening.

Click on the above image to see more about this book.

The reason for the silence becomes obvious when  Otto suddenly realizes he is not alone, but has been joined by his brother. The brother, cruelly using his brother's respectability and relatively low profile, begins to use the shop as a conduit for espionage. From this occasion spins a tangled tale of fifth columnists, blackmail, intrigue, just the hint of a bittersweet romance with MGM starlet Ann Ayars, and enough derring-do to fill a movie running only 83 minutes (this movie was clearly intended for one half of a double bill).

This movie was enhanced by an excellent supporting cast as well, especially among the antagonists, with Martin Kosleck as the Baron's aide (the poor man never got away from those Nazi roles), Marc Lawrence and Sidney Blackmer. Character actor William Tannen as Ludwig makes a warm-hearted person out of an underwritten role. The film is, not surprisingly, hinged on the humanity that Veidt breathes into the Baron as well as the gentle bookworm. In the midst of the war, the actor conveys the mixed feelings of the twin brothers, and perhaps his own mixed feelings about his former country (by this time Veidt was a British citizen. With the outbreak of war, he put his personal fortune at the disposal of the British government). As children, the twins in this film, they say, could only be identified correctly by looking for the book in one child's hand and the wooden sword in that of the more aggressive sibling. In case a viewer is thinking, "oh, no--not the evil twin's bit" in this movie, it would be helpful to remember the level of artistry of the leading man, which lifts the movie from a simple programmer in several scenes.
The tormented Baron with his gentle brother in the background in an excellent process shot from this MGM film.

The Baron is a Nazi, but he is never less than a human being as well. Veidt never allows him to slip into caricature, but does justice to his sensibility. Otto is staunchly loyal to his quiet life and his new country (even when it is revealed that he entered America illegally). Just as committed, but perhaps for more practical reasons (in the Baron's view), his brother has found that Nazism allows him to live according to his own sense of fitness. With some poignancy, the Nazi reveals to his brother that he has been able to restore their childhood home to its former splendor--thanks to the wealth that he gained access to through the Party. Touched to think of their former home, Otto is clearly moved, though a later revelation about a family friend's betrayal of his own father chills the beleaguered bookstore owner. It is only then that Otto is roused to action. Tired of living with the constant tension of his untenable position as an unwilling prisoner in his own life, the gentle brother and his dark doppelganger are finally forced to confront the evil between them. Otto's actions lead him on a remarkable adventure that I won't spoil for anyone who has yet to see this film.

Veidt as Otto, the gentle brother, appalled by what he has done.

 The ending is muted  but beautifully done by Veidt, (the man finds a way to make even his back eloquently expressive as he gazes out at New York harbor). The skill and restraint with which this is done blends sacrifice and heroism into something hard to forget. For the 21st century viewer this sequence is shot through with wistful regret that the actor did not live to see Nazism destroyed. Conrad Veidt died in 1943, a year and a half after filming this role.

Ann Ayars with Conrad Veidt.

Dassin regarded the plot as hackneyed and he found the well-oiled machine atmosphere of MGM discomfiting. The director said that he never met John Maheen, Jr., the man who wrote the script of his first movie, (along with Paul Gangelin & Lothar Mendes). The director was also disappointed that he never worked with the editor of the film. The smooth special effects in this film were quite impressive and credit should be given to cinematographer Harry Stradling and editor Frank E. Hull for this achievement. For Veidt, this marks the last time he would play a double role, which was a kind of theme about human nature throughout his career. Please see Der Januskopf (1920), Mysteries of India Part I: Truth (1921), Die Brüder Schellenberg (1926), and Der Student von Prag (1926) for other examples of this leitmotif in this accomplished actor's work.

In later years, Jules Dassin generally forbade the inclusion of his MGM films in any career retrospectives, which is a shame, because some of them, in particular his first movie at Metro, Nazi Agent (1942) and two charmers featuring Marsha Hunt, The Affairs of Martha (1942) charmer called A Letter for Evie (1946) are quite entertaining, if not world-shaking achievements in celluloid.

Below is some of what Dassin told McGilligan about his first days in Culver City:

Jules Dassin

[Jules Dassin told Patrick McGilligan:] "The first job I was ever offered at MGM--I never knew I'd be so thrilled--was a film with Conrad Veidt [Nazi Agent, 1941]. I remembered as a youth sitting in a theater in New York watching Conrad Veidt...This first job ws a typical MGM masterpiece, with Nazis and anti-Nazis, and Conrad Veidt playing two parts--the good German and the bad Nazi. I remember when I was introduced to Veidt. I had this problme of always looking very young, much younger than I was, even when I was young. I was brought to the executive office, and in came Veidt--a tall, tall, beautiful guy with these gray eyes. They said, 'This is your director.' And he looked down at me, said 'Nein,' turned and left.[Laughs] He was persuaded to try it for one day.

He was happy after one day?

I owed that happiness to a man named Harry Stradling. Harry was a great lighting cameraman--if somewhat inarticulate, nevertheless a brilliant artist. Fortunately, he knew Conrad Veidt. They had worked together in Europe. [Stradling had photographed Veidt previously in Dark Journey (1937) in Britain & The Men in Her Life (1941) at Columbia Pictures as well.] So there I was with Conrad Veidt, with Harry Stradling, and I knew nothing. And I had just that one day to prove I knew nothing.
Conrad Veidt as the "good" German, Otto Becker.

So I start with a shot--an insert of a glass. Then three or four such shots. And one simple long shot of Veidt reading a book. This gets met to about eleven o'clock. Harry Stradling asks, 'What's the next shot?' I just look at him dumbly. Veidt comes over. 'And now, Herr Director...and now?' For answer I say, 'Lunch.' He looks at his watch, then at me with a mixture of pity and scorn. He repeats, 'Lunch,' and goes.

Harry Stradling puts a friendly hand on my shoulder. I'm determined not to cry. 'Harry, I don't know what I'm doing. And this guy paralyzes me.' Harry, gently: 'Tell me what's the next scene.' I tell him: 'It's when he suddenly feels a presence. He looks up and there is his brother, the Nazi.' Harry says, 'Here's what you do. Lay down a long track. When Veidt realizes who it is, you rush into a big close-up.'
Conrad Veidt as the Nazi, Baron Hugo Von Detner

Veidt comes back from lunch. He looks down at the long track with interest. 'Ah?' I quote Harry word for word. Veidt says, 'Ah,' again--but this time it seems to mean, 'Perhaps I underestimated you.' We make the shot. Veidt is pleased. And I pass."
The film that was Jules Dassin's introduction to movies and to the gentle art of team work on film set begins below and can be seen in its entirety on youtube. This movie also appears on the TCM schedule occasionally.  

For more posts on Conrad Veidt on this blog, please click here.

Please click here to see upcoming Veidt movies scheduled to appear on Turner Classic Movies.


Caftan Woman said...

Somehow I never thought of Dassin in the position of a raw "rookie". This was very interesting and I must try to see "Nazi Agent" soon.

Anonymous said...

Veidt was famous for his ability to play dual roles or characters with dual personalities - like in "Hands of Orlac" where he starts out completely normal and turns into an absolute loony. He even played a Jeckyll and Hyde story, "Der Januskopf" which was so cleary a ripoff of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde that the filmakers were sued and lost.
He was one of the best villains because he could convey just how bad the villain was but also show very sympathetic parts of the character. In Thief of Bagdad, there is no doubt of his evil ambitions, yet he shows how much he truly loves the princess. (Even as a child, I always thought the princess was a fool to take the prince instead of Jaffar.) As the commandant in "I was a Spy" he is a proper Prussian officer, but also very human (and horny.)
And sometimes he just played a totally ruthless cad like in "Bella Donna" and "Rome Express". (But suave!)
I like your comment about Veidt even acting with his back. I was watching one of his early German talkies "Ich und Die Kaiserin" and in part of the story his face is bandaged and he conveyed everything with his hands.
Some of his best performances are his german films before he permanently left the country, such as Rasputin and a german version of "Journey's End". It would be nice if some of these early talkies became more available with subtitles for people who don't speak German. He made some musical comedies in Germany which are very cute - too bad he didn't do more comedy in english language films because he had a lot of charm there.

Moira Finnie said...

Thanks to both of you for your kind and informative remarks.

I also wish that more of Veidt's German language performances were available on DVD, though I must respectfully disagree about one point. Veidt never failed to gently inject what sly humor he could into his English-speaking roles (Rome Express, Dark Journey, The Spy in Black, Blackout, Escape, A Woman's Face, Whistling in the Dark, All Through the Night, The Men in Her Life, Casablanca, and Above Suspicion make me smile to remember them because of this skill).

I wrote about I Was a Spy (1932) some time ago, and found that he was so compelling in conveying his German commandant's humanity, he was far more attractive than the stolid Herbert Marshall as a romantic partner for Madeleine Carroll--even if he was the enemy. [Marshall can be a deft screen comedian, but for whatever reason he had about as much allure as John Halliday in his role in this Victor Saville film].

I agree about Veidt's appealing Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad. I liked the youthful John Justin, but felt far more empathy for the besotted figure Veidt played with such a subtle blend of longing and menace. You can enjoy another instance of Veidt's ability to be expressive despite being turned away from the camera in A Woman's Face when he unveils his true nature to Joan Crawford.


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