January 2023 marks the 80th anniversary of the release of the film classic Casablanca. The film had its world premiere at the Hollywood Theatre on Nov. 26, 1942, and was released nationally in the U.S. on Jan. 23, 1943.
In real life, Allied forces had liberated Casablanca from the Nazi collaborationist Vichy France regime on Nov. 11, 1942, and from Jan. 14-24, 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in the Moroccan city to plan the Allied strategy for the next phase of World War II.
So who was the biggest antifascist in the cast of Casablanca? It wasn’t any of the obvious suspects: Humphrey Bogart (who played Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund), or even Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo).
Instead, it was the German actor Conrad Veidt, who played Major Heinrich Strasser, one of the most villainous Nazis ever to appear on the silver screen—but in real life, was far from a bad guy.
Veidt was also the highest-paid member of the Casablanca cast, despite playing a supporting role, because he was on loan from MGM and not under contract to Warner Bro. under the studio system of the era.
In 1941, after settling in Hollywood for a second time, Veidt realized that he most likely would be typecast in Nazi roles, so he had his contract mandate that those Nazis must always be villains. After all, these were the people who had forced him to flee his homeland, never to return.
Veidt once described his role as Major Strasser as follows:
“This role epitomizes the cruelty, criminal instincts and murderous trickery of the typical Nazi. I know this man well. He is a man who turned fanatic and betrayed his friends, his homeland, and himself in his lust to be somebody and to get something for nothing.”
Off-screen, Veidt was a champion of tolerance, justice and compassion—the very opposite of what the Nazis stood for.
One of his first starring roles was in Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), in which Veidt played a successful violinist who falls in love with a male student. The 1919 film is considered the first pro-gay film ever made. It includes appearances by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Institute of Sexual Research, who speaks out against Paragraph 175, the German law that made homosexual acts between males a crime. The film was banned in 1920, and the Nazis later burned nearly all the prints; it’s only through surviving portions, hidden by Hirschfeld within reels of other films, that the landmark film lives on.
After World War II began, Veidt donated most of his earnings from playing Nazi villains on the screen to the British war effort.
In the late 1920s, Veidt was one of the biggest stars of the silent film era, mostly known for playing monsters and villains. He first gained international acclaim for his role as the murderous sleepwalker Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema directed by Robert Wiene. Film critic Roger Ebert called Caligari ”the first true horror movie.”
In 1926, John Barrymore invited Veidt to Hollywood for the first time, to co-star in the romantic adventure The Beloved Rogue, loosely based on the life of 15th-century French poet Francois Villon. Veidt played the role of King Louis XI.
Veidt enjoyed his biggest success in Hollywood in The Man Who Laughs, an adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel, which was directed by the expatriate German filmmaker Paul Leni. Veidt stars as a young aristocrat named Gwynplaine, who was kidnapped as a young boy and disfigured by his captors, which left him with his mouth frozen into a permanent grin.
An image of Veidt as Gwynplaine was the visual inspiration for DC Comics’ Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson to create the supervillain The Joker in the 1940 debut issue of the Batman comic book.
With Lon Chaney terminally ill with lung cancer, Universal Pictures head Carl Laemmle, a German expatriate, chose Veidt to play Dracula in a film to be directed by Leni, adapted from a successful Broadway play.
But Leni, who had worked with Veidt on several horror films, suddenly died in 1929. The film project was assigned to the American director Tod Browning.
And this, Veidt said, was when “the earthquake hit Hollywood. Not the real earthquake. Just the talkies.”
Veidt was an accomplished stage actor who had risen through the ranks of director Max Reinhardt’s renowned Deutsches Theater in Berlin before launching his film career. But he didn’t feel comfortable taking on the role of Dracula with his limited, heavily accented English. Veidt also was leery of working with Browning, who was an alcoholic.
So he turned down the role, which famously went to Bela Lugosi. Veidt returned to Germany to make more films in 1929, as the Weimar Republic was on its last legs and the Nazis were on the rise.
On Jan. 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Two months later, Veidt married his third wife, actress Ilona “Lilly” Prager, a Hungarian Jew. Prager was the co-owner of a Berlin cabaret which Veidt frequented.
Veidt described his love for Lilly In a 1934 interview for a British newspaper, The Sunday Dispatch.
“Lilli was the woman I had been seeking all my life. For her I was the man. In Lilli I found the miracle of a woman who had all to give that I sought, the perfect crystallisation in one lovely human being, of all my years of searching. ,,, Meeting Lilli was like coming home to an enchanted place one had always dreamed of, but never thought to reach. For her it was the same. Our marriage is not only flawless, it is a complete and logical union, as inevitable as daybreak after night, as harmonious and right as the words that exactly fit the music. My search is finished.”
Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, who unfortunately was a big film buff, presented actors with a “racial questionnaire” to determine their suitability to continue working in the Third Reich. Veidt wrote that he was Jude—a Jew—even though he was Protestant, in a show of solidarity with the victims of Nazi oppression.
But Goebbels wanted Germany’s most famous film star to continue appearing on screen under the new regime. Goebbels told Veidt that if he divorced Prager, he could continue to keep working on films in Germany, but Veidt refused to do so. Goebbels said he was even willing to give an Aryan certificate to Prager, but Veidt rejected that offer.
Just weeks after their wedding, the newlyweds emigrated to England. Veidt had been working hard on improving his English, and starred opposite Madeleine Carroll in the 1933 British film I Was a Spy, in which he played a World War I German officer duped by a female Belgian spy.
That same year, he had the lead role in the film The Wandering Jew, the tale of a Jew who is forced to wander the Earth for centuries because he rebuffed Jesus while he was carrying his cross. The film depicts Jews as the victims of unjustified persecution.
In late 1933, Veidt returned to Berlin to act as the Austrian villain in a Swiss-German film, William Tell. A featured actress in the film, Emma Sonnenmann, would marry Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief Hermann Goring two years later.
The Nazi regime was upset that Britain’s Gaumont Studio planned to star Veidt—who was still in Germany—in Jew Süss, a film based on a historical novel about a Jewish banker who was persecuted in 18th-century Germany.
German authorities briefly detained Veidt as a “guest of the state” in a hotel room. He was not physically abused, but was subject to verbal abuse from a Nazi officer who demanded that he turn down the Jew Süss role and provide the names of his associates in Germany. Veidt refused to do so. There were even rumors that Goebbels considered having Veidt killed.
Gaumont executives were told that Veidt was too ill to travel, but the studio managed to get a British doctor in to examine him and certify that he was healthy and fit to travel. The British Foreign Office joined the studio in pressuring the Nazi government to let Veidt return to England. The Nazi regime backed down and let him go to avoid an international incident; Veidt was declared persona non grata by the Nazi regime and never set foot in his native country again.
Veidt did go on to star in Jew Süss, a pro-Jewish film about the life of the 18th-century German Jewish banker Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, who was the chief financial adviser to the Duke of Wurttemberg. After the duke’s death, Oppenheimer was unjustly accused of various crimes and executed, refusing an offer to convert to Christianity.
This is not to be confused with the virulently anti-Semitic film Jud Süss, released in Nazi Germany in 1940 and made at Goebbels’ request. The cast included Werner Krauss, who appeared as the demonic Dr. Caligari in the horror film that made Veidt a star, but who later became a strong Nazi supporter. Stunningly, it won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award.
In Britain, Veidt’s film career once again flourished. He appeared opposite Vivien Leigh (Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara) in the 1937 spy film Dark Journey. He also made three noteworthy films with British director Michael Powell: The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940) and the Oscar-winning The Thief of Baghdad (1940).
Production of The Thief of Baghdad ultimately had to be completed in Hollywood after the outbreak of World War II. The film, the first to use the manual blue screen technique, was noted for its innovative special effects. Veidt played the Grand Vizier Jaffar, an evil magician—the inspiration for a film villain with the same name in Disney’s Aladdin.
Veidt and his wife had both become British citizens by the time World War II broke out on Sept. 1, 1939. Veidt vouched for an Austrian actor who risked deportation or internment as an enemy alien. That actor, Paul Henreid, who also was strongly anti-Nazi, was allowed to continue working on British films. And so in an unusual, real-life twist of fate, the future Major Strasser actually helped the future Victor Laszlo escape the Nazis.
Henreid would later be blacklisted in the 1950s after he joined other Hollywood actors in a protest in Washington, D.C. against the excesses of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Before leaving for the U.S. in 1940, Veidt made an interest-free loan of most of his personal fortune to help finance the British war effort. In the U.S., he promoted the U.S. release of Contraband, with the American profits intended to benefit the British fight against the Nazis.
MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer convinced Veidt to play a villainous Nazi general in the 1940 World War II drama Escape, opposite Robert Taylor and Norma Shearer. The studio then persuaded Veidt that he could better serve the British cause by staying in Hollywood and making films with anti-Nazi themes. The U.S. was neutral at the time with isolationists pressuring the government to stay out of the European war.
Off-screen Veidt became a symbol of anti-Nazi resistance, supporting the British, and later American, fight against Hitler. He helped raise money for the European Film Fund, which found work and housing for displaced European members—the supporting cast in Casablanca included a number of war refugees.
Veidt also donated money to buy gifts of tins of candy, packets of chocolate, and envelopes with British currency to cheer up several thousand children from needy families spending Christmas 1940 in London-area air raid shelters.
Veidt would make eight films from 1940-43 in Hollywood, mostly playing Nazi villains. These included a B-movie All Through the Night (1942), a comedy-gangster-spy thriller that starred Humphrey Bogart.
And then MGM granted Warner Bros.’ request to have Veidt appear as Major Strasser in Casablanca, which Ebert called “one of the most popular films ever made.” Veidt himself was thrilled to work with the Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz, as well as friends such as Henreid and Peter Lorre, another German expatriate.
Veidt would make only one more film, the spy thriller Above Suspicion, in which he played an anti-Nazi Austrian freedom fighter. His character helps a pair of newlyweds on their honeymoon in early 1939, played by Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford, who have been recruited by British intelligence to find a scientist who has developed a countermeasure against a new Nazi secret weapon.
Unfortunately, Veidt did not live to see the film’s premiere in May 1943. Veidt, just 50 years old, died of a heart attack on April 3, 1943, while playing golf, his favorite sport, at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles,
In Nazi Germany, there was no public announcement about the death of one of the country’s most famous film stars who was considered “an enemy of the state.”
Lilli Veidt died in 1980, and at her request her cremated remains were mixed with her husband’s into a single urn.
Conrad Veidt did not want to be buried in Germany. After a long and convoluted journey, the urn containing the ashes of Lilli and Connie—as his loved ones called him— reached its final resting place on April 3, 1998, at the Golders Green Crematorium in London—some 55 years after the actor’s death.
And to close this tribute, my favorite scene from Casablanca.