Excerpts from works which mention Conrad Veidt. These excerpts are placed in chronological order (rather than by author).


Emeric Pressburger, The Life and Death of a Screenwriter by Kevin Macdonald. Faber and Faber, 1994

TIME PERIOD 1938-1940. Two excerpts.

First: Discussing the making of The Spy in Black.(Time period 1938)

Emeric altered the motivation and characterization (of the novel) to make the story both more complex and more psychologically compelling, as well as entirely inventing the chase aboard the St Magnus and the ironic finale in which the steamer with Veidt on board is sunk by his own U-boat.

In the novel the spy in black was a minister of the cloth. In the film the eponymous spy is a U-boat captain. The screenplay compounds the character of the minister with that of a governess into a single character called Miss Burnett, the schoolteacher.

Another significant alteration is to the character of the U-boat captain. Emeric makes him a sympathetic character, who is reluctant from the outset to be a spy. ... Significantly, he altered the captain's name to Captain Hardt - and the character is indeed shown to have plenty of heart. The importance of his romantic attachment to Miss Burnett is increased. She is caught between admiration for her magnetic and charming enemy and the rather limited apppeal of her husband Ashington.

This conflict does not arise in the novel, which ends with the girl rushing unselfconsciously into Ashington's arms for the final patriotic clinch.

The story had been turned from a simplistic thriller into an eloquent demonstration of the confusion of loyalties in war and the destruction that is the inevitable outcome of following orders to their logical conclusion. Emeric also added a great deal of humour, characteristically about both food (the restaurant with no food at the beginning) and a foreigner's difficulty with the English language. Asked years later what he was trying to do in the film, Emeric responded: 'Nothing. It was our very first picture. I did not have very much to do with choosing the subject. But of course I was young, bursting with all sorts of ideas, having difficulties putting all that I wanted to say into this one script. So there might be something, but it is not intentionally, of course.'...

The final script was something of a collaboration. Michael (Powell) recalled that he, Veidt and Hobson met Emeric every day for a fortnight or so in one of the comfortable rooms in the 'old house' at Denham, and fleshed out the scenes which Emeric had written in rough the night before. Hobson remembered the sessions well. Initially she was rather in awe of Veidt, and worried that Emeric and he would speak German together, which they very rarely did. Veidt still had difficulties pronouncing certain English words and Hobson light-heatedly ticked him off and corrected him. 'But it's not my fault, ' Veidt would joke, 'my scriptwriter has an accent!' Their personal jibes about pronunciation spilled over into the film, where there is a running joke about Captain Hardt's mispronunciation of 'butter'. ''

Second excerpt, about the filming of Contraband:

Another vehicle for Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, Contraband would, of course, be directed by Michael Powell. Veidt, in particular, was glad to be working with them again. He had found Emeric and Michael so sympathetic, both personally and professionally, that he discussed setting up a production company with them and the contracts with British National, who supplied the meagre 35,000 pound budget for "Contraband" were, in fact, signed by the three of them in partnership.

The propaganda element of Contraband was concerned with the activities of the contraband patrols which operated in all British ports, stopping and searching neutral vessels to ensure they were not carrying cargo destined for the enemy. It seems an oddly marginal choice for the first real propaganda feature of the war - an unexpected sabre to rattle. Perhaps the Ministry of Information saw it as a trial run.

Emeric's friendship with both Veidt and Hobson had its effect on the script. There are numerous personal touches. 'He wrote the film around the kind of things that Connie Veidt and I actually did,' said Hobson, 'we used to go out to dinner to this funny restaurant which they actually put into the film as The Three Vikings - they copied it almost exactly in the studio. I can't remember if the original had the same name, but they copied it almost to the Hay Petrie character as the dotty chef. It ws just down by the side of the Strand Palace Hotel, in Glasshouse Street. There were lots of other in-jokes like that.'

Veidt was frequently typecast as a sombre villain and, acording to Hobson, had greatly appreciated the opportunity to play a more humane and sympathetic role in The Spy in Black. 'He was always hoping to make himself attractive and kindly,' says Hobson. 'We mustn't forget that he was German, and at that time, with the war just starting, it was difficult for him. I think he always felt faintly embarrassed by the fact that he'd been a German star and had a very ripe German accent. Very cleverly Emeric made him not a German in Contraband. He was just as believable being a Dane, and that was charming.'

Captain Andersen (Conrad Veidt) of the Danish freighter Helvig is homeward bound with a vital cargo of medical supplies when he is waylaid by the contraband patrols. While waiting for clearance at anchorage off the southern English coast, two of his passengers, including the headstrong Mrs. Sorensen (Valerie Hobson - 'I knew she was trouble as soon as she came on the ship...not that I don't like trouble') jump ship. He follows them through the blackout to London where they are kidnapped by a cell of German spies operating from a basement in Soho. Andersen escapes and brings reinforcements in the shape of a battalion of Danish waiters and chefs from The Three Vikings restaurant. The next morning there is a deceptive appearance of normality on board the Helvig. Once again Mrs. Sorensen refuses to put on her lifebelt and is ordered to the captain's cabin. 'Drop that lifebelt!' commands Andersen, and they fall into each other's arms.

Hardly a masterpiece of originality, the story is a piece of consummate professionalism, an expert sugar-coating for a bitter pill of propaganda. It demonstrates just how at home Emeric was in the most English of Thirties genres, the comedy thriller, of which Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and The Thirty-Nine Steps are the best examples. The hideout beneath the cinema and nightblub, the character of Mr. Pigeon (a talent scout who reads Variety over breakfast), the cabaret singer who sounds like a man and the romance between an antagonistic, stubborn hero, and a troublesome, independent woman, are all characteristic of the genre. Similarly Hitchcockian is the way the plot progresses as a journey, or chase, where the characters find themselves in one peculiar set of surroundings after another, culminating in the Patriotic Plaster Products warehouse filled with busts of Chamberlain ('I always knew he was tougher than they said,' says Captain Andersen, as he coshes the chief spy over the head with one of the busts).

What does make Conraband unique is the blackout, a potent metaphor for the population's general confusion and loss of direction at the start of the war. Emeric had also foreseen the wonderful cinematic opportunities it provided for Michael. 'The filming of blackness does not disconcert Mr. Powell,' wrote the Liverpool Post, 'who realizes that more eerie and emotional effects can be got with studies of say, feet in torchlight - dragging, hurrying, spruce, down-at-heel - than with full daylight which, in camera view, leave so little to the powers of suggestion.' Again there was plenty of opportunity to pay subtle homage to Veidt's Germanic, expressionist heritage with chiaroscuro lighting and visual allusions to his classic films.

The virtual standstill in the British film industry at the beginning of the war meant that John Corfield, the film's producer, was able to provide Michael with the pick of British technicians - at a fraction of their normal salaries. Freddie Young - who had recently completed Pygmalion and Goodbye Mr. Chips - was the cameraman. The art director was Alfred Junge, who had come to England from Germany with Dupont in 1928 to design Moulin Rouge and Picadilly with their celebrated nightclub sequences; he reprised these on a minimal budget in Contraband. 'Alfred Junge is always under budget,' said Michael. 'Hitler could have used him for the invasion of England.'

The unit shot the exteriors at the contraband control port in Southgate in mid-December. By the 20th they were in London for the blackout sequences (shot at dusk - film stock was slow in those days). On 3 January Denham Studios were re-opened for the first time since The Lion Has Wings, for the interiors. The film was trade shown on 26 March 1940, less than six months after the outbreak of war.

Emeric and Michael had their first serious difference of opinion during the filming of Contraband Emeric had promised Miklos Rozsa - who had composed the music for The Spy in Black- that he would also be working on "Contraband". Rozsa recalls that Michael at first agreed to the suggestion, then changed his mind 'seemingly without reason'. Emeric protested but Michael, supported by Corfield, was adamant, according to Rozja. 'I felt we needed more English contributors,' he recalled in his autobiography. Emeric thought it was a 'simple act of bloody-mindedness'.

The public greeted Contraband with even more enthusiasm than The Spy in Black and it did brisk business. Some negative reaction came from the more discerning critics who - under the influence of the idea that documentaary film was socialy responsible and the only British genre untainted by Hollywood - felt that the fictional elements of the story suffered in comparison to the realistic, documentary sequences.

....Hobson and Veidt got on extremely well. 'He was the best-looking man that you could imagine,' she says, 'and very ungrand despite his reputation. I found him sweet and kind and funny and gentle.' Photographs of Veidt on the set show him studying the script, looking decidedly bookish in his cardigan and reading glasses. As an actor he was 'extremely professional and easy to work with'. The sense of ease with which he spoke belied a long struggle with the language. Like Anton Walbrook, the other great Germanic star of Powell/Pressburger films, he made up for lack of fluency with an exact control of tone and volume. Rober Morley, at one time Veidt's dialogue director, said, 'He was a master of delivering lines...He always spoke them very slowly when everyone else spoke rather fast, and soft when everyone spoke loudly'.

Hobson thought he was not particularly subtle as an actor but was rather 'a natural, a real screen actor'. In Britain at that time there was no such thing as a screen actor; talent was invariably drawn from the theatre. In contrast, Veidt, like Marlene Dietrich, knew a great deal about lighting and self-presentation on the screen. He always carried a little pocket mirror around with him in order to see how his face was lit and, it necessary, made recommendations to the cinematographer. It was the visual image that absorbed him. According to Hobson, 'he never bothered a great deal about his characterization...He trusted people to show his character to the best advantage and did just what he was told...He placed himself in Mick's hands and he couldn't have done better than that...I've made 63 films and he was by far my favourite director.'

These pages are under construction, and many more excerpts will be added. Help from Society members and the general public is requested. Don't assume that we 'must know' about such and such a reference. Email us with details! These excerpts are not intended to usurp the copyright of the published books. Readers are encouraged to find copies of these books to get the rest of the context.

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