(6/10) The earliest available feature film based on a modern sci-fi novel, this German 1932 melodrama concerns the then outlandish idea of a floating gas station for transatlantic flights. Filmed in three different languages with different casts, it’s not exactly a neglected masterpiece, but with talent like Curt Siodmak, Hans Albers, Charles Boyer, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt and Sybille Schmitz, it’s certainly a forgotten sci-fi gem.
F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer (F.P.1. Antwortet Nicht), 1932, Germany. Directed by: Karl Hartl. Written by Curt Siodmak, Walter Reisch. Based on novel by Siodmak. Starring: Hans Albers, Peter Lorre, Sybille Schmitz (Conrad Veidt, Charles Boyer). Produced by Eberhardt Klagemann, Erich Pommer. IMDb score: 6.2/6.3. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
This movie is curious, if not for anything else, then at least because it highlights one of the peculiar (and short-lived) practices of the early days of talking movies, namely the making of multilingual film versions. In the silent era language boundaries were practically non-existent in the film industry, since it was a fairly simple procedure to change the title cards depending on where the film was shown. This was of course one of the reasons as to why, for example, European movies, mainly French, completely dominated the American film industry in the early days of cinema – and as a result many influences from the vital and experimental European films scene quickly transplanted themselves to American film. It also opened up for a very collaborative European film industry, as actors, writers and directors could work freely in countries where they understood very little of the language. A cast consisting of Danish, British, French, Polish, Hungarian and Italian actors could all portray wholly German characters without anyone raising an eyebrow.
This all changed in 1928 when talking pictures made their debut. While much has been said, much of it complete rubbish, about how silent actors had trouble coping with talking pictures, the real victims of the sound era were producers, exporters and distributors of film. In few places was the coming of sound felt as sharply as in Germany and France, two film industries that had both taken turns at dominating the European film market. With one swift stroke, sound had effectively cut them off from huge chunks of their market. But of course, American studios were also affected, as much of their income stemmed both from European and, increasingly, Latin American markets, both domestically and internationally.
Of course, the studios still wanted to export their movies, but that meant finding some way to make them accessible in multiple languages. And as dubbing and subtitling were still in a very crude stage, the only solution was to film the same film multiple times in different languages, often completely replacing the cast. The most famous of these ”foreign language” American films is perhaps the Spanish-language version of Dracula (1931), which is often regarded as technically and artistically superior to the English version. This practise waned as dubbing became more efficient, and was practically disbanded in 1936.
In Europe the practice of making multiple-language films was mainly an affair between Germany, France and the UK. F.P.1. Antwortet Nicht (F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer), was a German concept, but it was also made into a French and English language version. I have not been able to find the French version, but have watched both the “original” German version and the English ditto. The films are, in essence, much the same, although the existing English print is
F.P.1. is one of those curious films that doesn’t feel like a sci-fi, because – for once – the filmmakers actually got something right about the future (well, almost). The sci-fi element of this film is simply an aircraft carrier. Only in the film it is not a warship carrying jets, but a stationary gas station, repair shop, diner and motel in the middle of the Atlantic. The fascination with aviation was still extremely high in 1932, despite the fact that the airplane as such was already 30 years old. But still only a handful of daredevils in specialised planes had been able to make non-stop transatlantic flights. The only practical way to fly from Europe to America was to stop along the way for rest, refuelling and maybe even to switch planes – and these were still mainly mail flights, rather than passenger flights. For example, getting from New York to Berlin meant first stopping at Newfoundland, then the Azores, then Ireland and finally mainland Europe. So a giant gas station smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, say on a line between New York and London, wasn’t a bad idea as such, at least not to the film engineers. Of course, as history has proven, the actual real-life engineers thought it was a better idea to simply make better planes, something the filmmakers – or rather author Curt Siodmak – failed to take into consideration.
If the name Curt Siodmak (at the time still spelling his name Kurt) rings a bell, it is probably because you are a fan of old Universal horror films. Polish-born Siodmak was the man who created The Wolf Man (1941), and with that film script basically also the werewolf as we know it today – but we’ll catch up on that later. F.P.1. Antwortet Nicht, published in 1932, was Siodmak’s first highly successful novel, and his breakthrough as a screenwriter, as he helped turn the book into a film (he had both written and directed films previously).
The direction of the film was handled by Austrian editor-turned-director Karl Hartl. F.P.1. was his breakthrough film. His other foray into science fiction was the 1934 film Gold, which also became an international hit, and it is perhaps his best known film internationally today. That film was also made into a French version. Both films incidentally starred Hans Albers, Germany’s top movie star at the time. The English version of F.P.1. starred German actor Conrad Veidt, who was already an international star because of his work in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Hands of Orlac (1924, review) Waxworks (1924) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) – his Hollywood breakthrough role.
The lead in the French version was played by Charles Boyer, who was a star in France, and had made a short, unsuccessful tour to Hollywood. He later returned to Tinseltown and became a major star of the late thirties and forties – in films such as The Garden of Allah (1936), Algiers (1938), and Gaslight (1944). The closest he came to sci-fi again was appearing as a balloonist in Around the World in 80 Days (1956) – one of numerous cameos by various celebrities in the film. James Bond aficionados might want to note that he appeared in the 1967 spy film spoof Casino Royale starring Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress and David Niven.
Another starring role in the German version of F.P.1. was given to Peter Lorre, one of the great actors of his generation – whose major film work is far too great to list here, however one role we must mention is his star-making turn as the villain of Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking sound film M (1931), a huge international hit. And keeping with the Bond theme, one might point out that Lorre played the first ever Bond villain as Le Chiffre in the 1954 TV series. In Casino Royale Ronnie Corbett comments that SMERSH includes among its agents not only Le Chiffre, but also ”Peter Lorre and Bela Lugosi”. Lorre and Veidt would team up again with added help from Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains in Casablanca (1942). Apparently the three films were made simultaneously, so on any given day the star factor on set would have been huge! Of the three female leads, the best known is probably German femme fatale Sybille Schmitz – although she never came near the same recognition as the film’s male stars.
The plot: Major Ellissen (Albers/Veidt) is a former war pilot ace, a daredevil and ladies’ man. During a lavish party at a hotel in Hamburg he is overheard by the beautiful, young Claire Lennartz (Schmitz/Jill Esmond) as he supervises a break-in at the Lennartz Shipyard – owned by Claire’s brother – by phone. But, it is all with good intentions, he explains when she confronts him (and the break-in has happened). He hasn’t actually stolen anything, but simply removed the plans for the so-called “F.P.1.” and “hidden” them somewhere in the building. When Claire’s two brothers – the owners of the shipyard – ”discover” the long forgotten plans that have been collecting dust in a safe for years – Ellissen has conveniently arranged for the newspaper photographer Jonny/Sunshine (Lorre/Donald Calthrop) to be there to snap a picture for his paper – thus making F.P.1. famous.
Ellissen’s interest in the plans is that the designer of Floating Platform number 1 is Captain Droste (Paul Hartmann/Leslie Fenton), Ellissen’s old pilot buddy, who has been too modest to draw attention to his drawings, and noboby else has paid any attention to his brilliant idea to build a floating platform to serve transatlantic flights in the middle of the Atlantic. Well, now they have, and now it will also be built.
For Ellissen all of this is just a little game, and he intends to move on to new adventures. However, a romance is brewing between him and Claire, and finally she convinces him to settle down and play home. But alas, when he gets a telegram which offers him the chance to test-fly a new plane around the world, he drops all thoughts of marriage and storms off into the sunset.
Fast forward almost three years. F.P.1. is now almost ready for action, but the project has been beset by corporate espionage and mysterious sabotage. Claire has been working closely with Droste and her two brothers, and the two have now all but become a couple, as no word has come from Ellissen on his adventures. However, one day, out of the blue, a dishevelled and down-beat Ellisen returns to Hamburg, and reluctantly tells Claire that he has been beset by bad luck and trouble, and has now lost faith in himself and in all adventure. He sees that his biggest mistake was to leave her to go chasing the rainbow, and if she will have him, he is now back and dead set never to fly a plane again. Claire is now torn between Droste and Ellissen.
One day gun shots are heard over the radio from F.P.1. — where Droste currently is aboard — and then radio contact is broken: F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer! Despite his oath never to fly again, Claire manages to convince Ellissen to fly out with her to the platform in order to rescue his old friend and romantic rival. And so they fly — but only to crash land on the deck and completely ruin their plane, which means they now have no means of getting back.
On F.P.1. the shipping firms have sabotaged F.P.1. so it is slowly sinking, and destroyed the radio, so they can’t call for help. This is all revealed in a pretty slow-moving and uninspiring spy tale, accompanied by a love triangle melodrama. Droste is wounded in a gun fight and the spy escapes, leaving the sinking platform to its destiny. However, the platform has got an old, out-of-order plane inside a hangar, and Droste is able to somehow get the old bird into some kind of operational shape with his skills as a mechanic — although there is no guarantee that it will actually take off — or indeed fly back to Europe.
Ellissen, seeing the true nature of the relationship between Droste and Claire, decides to let it all go to hell: if he can’t have Claire, they may all just as well sink to the bottom of the ocean: furthermore, he simply laughs at the idea that the old rust-heap of a plane that Droste has been trying to nurture to life will fly anywhere. At least not with one-armed Droste piloting it! Now he only spends his days in a cynical stupor (decidedly more drunken in the German version, as the British version was going to be exported to a prohibition-era USA), and confides only in his tame newspaper photographer, who has been working on the platform as well. Johnny/Sunshine seems to be the only hope of talking sense into him, and rekindling the heroic spirit in his heart. But will he succeed before it is too late?
As a sci-fi, the film is not much worth writing home about. As a spy thriller its is serviceable, as a melodrama it is quite decent. The German version of the film is very enjoyable to watch, simply because of the performances. Sparks fly every time Albers and Lorre appear together on screen (as much as sparks ever fly around the laconic and wry Lorre). Albers is simply suberb as the suave man of the world, the adventurer and Don Juan. Modern viewers may find it hard to believe that this bulky man with a quickly receding hair line, and a jovial, gentlemanly face was the leading man number one in Germany, basically all the way through the thirties and through WWII. But his charisma, humour and raw talent makes it impossible to take your eyes off him – and his versatility meant he could appear in almost any genre, from musical comedy to horror, sci-fi, drama and action. His stature, broad shoulders and regal bearing are in hilarious contrast to the short, plump, bug-eyed and laconic Lorre – the master of understatement, who could say more with a single eye movement than many lesser actors could with a thousand lines. Hartmann, Schmidtz are not bad either, but completely out-acted by the dynamic duo, and to be honest their roles are rather bland.
Conrad Veidt might perhaps seem a rather surprising choice for the lead in the English version, as he had returned to Germany from Hollywood in 1929, explicitly because he didn’t want to act in talking pictures in a language he did not fully master. After becoming one of the biggest movie stars in Europe, Veidt had a promising career in Hollywood at the very tail end of the silent era, with the afore-mentioned The Man Who Laughs, directed by Paul Leni, as his biggest achievement. However, for such a physical actor as Veidt, who embodied the expressionist film movement in his often exaggerated and dance-like performances, sound films were a completely new beast, which called for a totally different approach to acting on his part. And one can understand that if an diligent actor needs to completely re-invent himself, he would at least rather do it in his own language. Some have speculated that Veidt thought he didn’t speak English well enough to cope in Hollywood, but I think that’s just part of the equation. I think he went home to regroup, to work out the kinks and find his voice. There’s certainly no evidence in F.P.1. that his English was too bad for Hollywood, on the contrary it is a lot better than that of numerous foreign Hollywood stars. And as we have discussed earlier in this blog, accents as such were never a problem in Hollywood. Some actors just had problems with them, as their accents didn’t match the sort of roles they had become pigeonholed in during the silent era. In Veidt’s case it was probably less a question of mastering English as such, and more a question of mastering a whole new way of acting.
Conrad Veidt is surprisingly restrained in his portrayal of Ellissen, exchanging the joie de vivre of Albers for a more driven and cool demeanour. This makes it all the more surprising early on in the film, when he falls head over heels for Claire and decides to leave his adventures behind him. I have previously been of the mind that Veidt was miscast in the role, but upon recent viewing of the film, I rather found Albers miscast. The problem, I think, is that the character arc of Ellissen is so bizarre that it’s almost impossible to create a character that would be believable in all the scenarios presented in the movie. This problem is added to by the fact that we don’t really believe the part where Ellissen falls madly in love with Claire — simply because the script doesn’t give us any reason to: suddenly we’re just told that he is.
Curt Siodmak, despite his reputation built on werewolves and disembodied brains, was a friend of high melodrama, and that is essentially what this film is. Through focusing a bit more on Ellissen’s character and a bit less on the floating gas station and the rather poorly written sabotage subplot, the filmmakers could have created a classic. Unfortunately it isn’t one. Not that it’s a bad film in any way, the script just sort of tries to do too much at one time and so fails to develop its different ideas.
Austrian Screenwriter Walter Reisch, who helped Siodmak adapt his book, was best known at the time for light-hearted dramas and romantic comedies, with a long and successful career behind him. His German/Asustrian career is perhaps most remembered for the many films he wrote for British-born actress Lilian Harvey, such as The Temporary Widow (1930), A Blonde Dream (1932), as well as for the Viennese operetta film Masquerade (1934). When the Nazis took the power in the mid-thirties, his Reisch’s old friend Alexander Korda set him up in London, and ultimately in Hollywood, where he was offered a contract in 1937. Reich went on to contribute to scripts for such films as Gaslight (1944), Song of Scheherezade (1947), Titanic (1953), for which he won an Oscar, and — interesting for sci–fi fans — Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959).
Curt Siodmak was clearly quite obsessed with the idea of crossing the Atlantic, since he was involved the the writing of three films about the subject during the thirties. The first one was the British version of The Tunnel (1935) – a remake of the German/French sci-fi film Der Tunnel (1933, review), based on a novel by Bernhard Kellerman. The second, also British, was Non-Stop New York (1937, review). And third time is the charm, I guess, because after hitting and missing with first a floating platform and then a tunnel, he actually got it right this time with non-stop transatlantic flights.
Siodmak was partly on the right track with his floating fuelling station, only what actually happened was that later in the thirties, they came up with a way to fuel planes in flight with the help of tank planes. The basic idea of F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer isn’t its problem, rather it’s the fact that the whole thing feels a bit like a backdrop more than the actual point of the film. Exactly what the point of the film is supposed to be becomes a bit hazy: as mentioned earlier, the character arcs in the movie don’t feel plausible and we spend too little time with each of them to actually build up any real sympathy for them. Both Albers and Veidt come off as dicks, to put it bluntly, plus for a good chunk of the movie they aren’t even in the movie. Albers’ happy-go-lucky-demeanour makes him a bit more likeable, but on the other hand, when Veidt’s character sinks into darkness, Veidt is like a fish in the water.
I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if it handles things better, but the feel I get from the film is that there are too many parallel plots and themes that aren’t quite brought to any conclusion. The building of the platform doesn’t really seem to have any drive or purpose behind it, other than “just because”. Droste is clearly passionate about building it, but we are never given any clear indication as to why. Ellissen doesn’t care one bit about the platform, and Claire mainly seems to care about it because her brothers (who serve no real purpose in the film) are apparently building it, although it’s really Droste who is building it. One can see the film as a character study if Ellissen, but as stated, Ellissen doesn’t really have anything to do with the whole F.P.1. thing, other than dragging out its plans as a favour to his old friend, so in a sense, his arc has absolutely nothing to do with the actual centre-piece of the film. The whole hoo-haa with building of this gigantic thing has no political or social commentary attached to it, and the sabotage plot is clearly just a plot contrivance, as we never see or even really get to know the people behind it, other than the fact that it seems to be shipping factories afraid to lose profits.
In The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for example, the bridge is, in a way, the catalyst for all the highly interesting and dramatic character arcs exploring duty, pride, compassion, courage, egotism, loyalty, and at the heart of it all the futility of war. The bridge represents something to all the main characters. Both when it is completed and when it is finally blown up, it’s filled with dramatic meaning and symbolism for the audience. But we don’t really give a flying fuck, if the expression is excused, about F.P.1. It just becomes another one of those buildings about to blow up/boats about to sink/tunnels about to collapse that our heroes must get out of before it’s too late. As stated, I haven’t read Siodmak’s book, but at least the plot of the film seems to me to share some of the problems I found in Bernhard Kellermann’s rather similar novel The Tunnel (1913). Granted, that film has a much better connection between the protagonist and his tunnel, but like F.P.1., the novel grasps at too many themes without bringing its ruminations to any sort of conclusion, and I have a feeling that Siodmak was inspired by Kellermann’s work.
Visually the film is good without being impressive. The design and effects were created by some of the same artists that worked on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927, review), so the movie was in good hands. Not very much of their artistry is seen on screen, though. The one effects scene that does stand out is a miniature model of the floating platform with model planes taking off and landing, which is very nicely rendered. For the live action scenes on the platform, a large set was built, and it works very nicely. The film is well shot and lit by Hartl, without being spectacular in any way. The crew probably had to keep it all fairly simple and shoot rather fast, as they were essentially filming three movies at the same time.
I don’t really feel that there’s anything essential missing from the 90 minute English version, as opposed to the 115 minute German version. One thing that shortens the English version quite naturally is that Veidt simply talks so much faster than Albers: I’m sure at least 15 of the missing 25 minutes is just Veidt machine-gunning his way through the lines. I’m not saying that he talks too fast, it’s just that his style is so different from Albers’, who is very fond of dramatic pauses and drawn-out sentences. I also think that Veidt’s screen-time was reduced somewhat as compared to Albers’, perhaps because of his accent. For example, the scene where Sunshine/Johnny is trying to convince Ellissen to be the hero at the end, goes on for a good ten minutes in the German version, but is cut rather short in the English one (also, in the German version, Ellissen is drunk out of his mind).
Hans Albers was not only a popular actor, he was also a singer, who released a number of best-selling hits over the years — most of them taken from his films. Germany didn’t quite have the same musical tradition as the US, but musical theatre was popular, and many of the early sound films contained a number of songs, which would be recorded and sold to the public in order to further the production companies’ profit. So whenever Albers starred in a new film, the producers tried to make a song out of it. F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer gave Albers one of his biggest hits, Flieger, grüß mir die Sonne. The song has been covered numerous times, most successfully perhaps by the German New Wave band Extrabreit in 1980. Techno band Scooter also used the song’s melody for the synth loop of I’m Your Pusher in 2000.
Conrad Veidt also recorded the song in English, but thankfully this version seems to have been forgotten by time. However, Veidt also recorded a second song for the English version of the film, called Where the Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay. Veidt was perhaps many things, but a singer he was not. The song is basically a poetry recital set to background music, and it comes off as almost worse than anything William Shatner has done. Ironically, the song actually became the title for the entire film in Australia.
Speaking of titles, this film is one of the trickier ones to keep track of. First of all, the original book has been translated into English with at least two different titles: F.P.1. Fails to Reply and F.P.1. Doesn’t Reply, and furthermore, the book’s Wikipedia article lists the book as F.P.1. Fails to Respond. The English version of the film was originally released in the UK simply as F.P.1. and in the US as F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer — and as stated: in Australia as Where the Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay, which is a misnomer, as there’s neither a lighthouse nor a bay in the film. The French version doesn’t even have “F.P.1.” in the title, but was released as I.F.1 ne répond plus. Adding to the confusion: In the UK the English version of the film has since been shown on TV as The Secrets of F.P.1., and the German version has been released as F.P.1. Fails to Reply. In Sweden and Denmark the German version of the film was originally released as F.P.1. svarar inte, resp. F.P.1. svarer ikke (“F.P.1. doesn’t answer”), but the French version was later released as Havets örnar and Havets Ørne, which means “Eagles of the ocean”.
So popular were the book and the film that in 1933, according to Joachim C. Fest’s book Hitler , it formed the basis of a political joke on Adolf Hitler: “Parteigenosse 1 antwortet nicht”, or “Party member number one doesn’t answer”.
Today F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer is an obscure film, even in Germany. Of course, as a science fiction movie it became outdated almost immediately after it was released. It isn’t visually spectacular enough to be iconic, and the plot and/or characters aren’t original or interesting enough to be remembered as a great drama or even melodrama. Also, it doesn’t have any horror elements, so it hasn’t been unearthed by the thriving horror scene, that otherwise is very good at keeping the memories of the most obscure films alive, something which the sci-fi scene has benefited greatly from. All in all, it’s just a bit too bland a film to have withstood the marching of times.
Still, the film does deserve a little more recognition. As stated, the script is deeply flawed and the pacing of the movie is off, especially in the German version. While its lack of social and political commentary makes for a rather meandering plot, it’s also a key reason as to why the film doesn’t feel as dated as many of its contemporaries, which often took the politics to a level of preachy that feels way over the top today. It clearly chooses its side in the debate over science and progress: while others imagined a Frankenstein monster. F.P.1. sees the potential of technology creating bridges between worlds, and even if its message is a bit muddled, the prevailing tone of the movie is one of optimism regarding the future: a rather ironic stance in a country where Hitler was just one year away from seizing power.
Out of the handful of science fiction films released in Europe in the thirties, F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer is one of the more forgettable ones, but nonetheless a a fairly engaging, well-made inter-war film with good acting, sparse but professional effects and an interesting score. It is one of the first very feature film adaptations of a modern science fiction book, disregarding a couple of now lost H.G. Wells adaptations and a 1915 adaptation of The Tunnel, which has never been released for home viewing, as well as the Alraune films, which are in all fairness more horror fantasy than SF. In fact, F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer is earliest feature film adaptation of 20th century SF novel that is available to a general audience today. It was also the last German film made by both Curt Siodmak and Peter Lorre, before the fled the Nazis abroad, along with Reisch and Veidt. Other weren’t as lucky. Jewish actor Georg John did three more films before being blacklisted by the Nazis, and returned to the theatre. He died in the Lodz ghetto in 1942.
Siodmak continued his sci-fi adventures in Hollywood in 1940 with The Invisible Man Returns (review), starring horror icon Vincent Price. He also wrote the sci-fi horrors Black Friday (1940, review, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) and The Ape (1941) Universal like the scripts, and gave him the task of conjuring up a script for The Wolf Man, thought as a vehicle for Lon Chaney Jr, son of the legendary Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces – as well as a chance to introduce a new character in the Universal horror franchise. In writing the script, Siodmak invented a whole new mythology for the Wolf Man. It was Siodmak that first came up with the idea that only silver can kill a werewolf. He also wrote the famous poem that has since been recited in much werewolf fiction, often believed to be of old folk tale origin. He was also the first to tie in the werewolf with the wolfbane plant.
Curt Siodmak went on to write scripts or novels that inspired scripts of a whole host of horror and sci-fi films. These included Invisible Agent (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). In the fifties, the so-called Golden Age of American sci-fi, he penned the scripts for such B-grade films as The Magnetic Monster (1953), Riders to the Stars (1954), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), and Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956). His 1942 novel Donovan’s Brain became a bestseller and inspired a whole slew of films, including The Lady and the Monster (1944),Donovan’s Brain (1953) , The Brain (1962) and Hauser’s Memory (1970). Among his 9 directing credits we find such masterpieces as Bride of the Gorilla (1951), The Magnetic Monster, Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956) and Love Slaves of the Amazon (1957).
Peter Lorre’s screen credits include such legendary films as M (1931), Mad Love (1935, review), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and the hugely influential Disney sci-fi adventure film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), that kicked off a torrent of Jules Verne adaptations. Other sci-fi sidesteps include Invisible Agent (1942) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961).
German actor Conrad Veidt created big waves as the mute somnambulist murderer in Robert Wiene’s expressionist milestone Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari in 1919. He soon became an iconic performer of tortured, sinister roles in horror films, but also had the looks and the charisma to pull off a few leading man parts. In 1920 he played the lead in an unauthorized Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde adaptation, Der Januskopf, directed by F.W. Murnau, later of Nosferatu (1922) fame, and played Ivan the Terrible in the influential film Waxworks, directed by Paul Leni in 1924. Russian director Sergei Eisenstein claimed he used Veidt as a model for his protagonist in the epic film Ivan the Terrible (1944/1958). In 1924 he also created one of his most haunting characters in The Hands of Orlac, about a pianist who after an accident gets transplanted hands from a murderer. 1928 saw his perhaps best remembered role, at least among aficionados, in the Hollywood film The Man Who Laughs, directed by Paul Leni. The character served as an inspiration for the Joker in Batman. He moved back to Germany at the advent of talkies, and starred in a number of thrillers, horror films and historical dramas in Germany, France and Britain, where he lived as the Nazi regime cemented its power. Here he also perfected his English before returning to Hollywood in 1939. He realized that Hollywood would have him play many Nazi roles, and stipulated in his contract that they would always have to be villains. But he also got the chance to play the lead in the 1940 remake of The Thief of Bagdad. His most famous Nazi by far was Major Strasser in the memorable anti-Nazi drama Casablanca.
Paul Hartmann would later play the lead in the German version of The Tunnel, Der Tunnel (1933). Of the British cast Donald Calthrop played opposite Boris Karloff in the 1936 sci-fi horror film The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936, review). Of the French cast Marcel Vallée played the thief in director Rene Clair’s experimental time stopping film The Crazy Ray (Paris qui dort, 1924, review).
Sybille Schmitz and Hans Albers both continued to have successful film careers during the Nazi rule, even if none of them were supportive of the fascist. Such was Albers’ fame that the Nazis would have found it difficult to ban him from the screen even if he would have caused trouble. In fact, they silently accepted his relationship with Jewish actress Hansi Burg until 1935, when she was forced to move to Germany and Albers. However, Albers secretly supported her during her stay in Switzerland and later Great Britain, and the two were reunited after the war. The Nazis and Albers had an unspoken agreement, where he did not publicly speak up against the regime, but neither was he ever asked to publicly endorse it. As the most popular star of the Nazi era he provided entertainment for the masses and gained considerable wealth in doing so. Because of his connection with Hansi Burg he avoided blacklisting after the war, but because of his thriving career under the Nazis, he was difficult to cast, and didn’t really return to the screen until 1950. He then had a reasonably successful “second” career elder, dignified characters until his death in 1960, at the age of 67.
Sybille Schmitz made a splash in the German movie world in the early thirties, spellbinding audiences in films like Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer and Master of the World (1934, review). While not Jewish herself, she had connections to the Jewish community, and herself had a “non-Aryan” appearance, which meant that although not banned from films, she was mostly cast as suspicious foreign women or femme fatates. Like most actors working during the Nazi era, she was slapped with a three-year ban after WWII, and combined with drug and alcohol abuse, depression, several suicide attempts and a “scandalous” private life, her career faltered. Schmitz died in 1955 of a sleeping pill overdose — an apparent suicide, but committed under suspicious circumstances. I’ll write more on Schmitz in my upcoming review of Master of the World.
F.P.1. Does Not Answer (F.P.1. Antwortet Nicht), 1932, Germany. Directed by: Karl Hartl. Written by Curt Siodmak, Walter Reisch. Based on the novel by Curt Siodmak. Starring: Hans Albers, Peter Lorre, Sybille Schmidtz, Paul Hartmann (Conrad Veidt, Charles Boyer). Cinematography: Günther Rittau. Music: Allan Gray. Editing: Willy Zein. Production design: Erich Kettelhut. Special effects: Konstantin Irmen-Tschet. Produced by Eberhardt Klagemann, Erich Pommer for UFA.