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Many people see the character of the Joker exclusively as Batman’s key archnemesis. But it turns out this legendary villain’s history traces back to something a lot more real. The Joker was actually heavily inspired from a source one would least expect: silent film.
Meet the character Gwynplaine, portrayed brilliantly by German Expressionist actor Conrad Veidt in the 1928 silent movie The Man Who Laughs. Just from looking at his picture alone, it’s not hard to see how he influenced what eventually became the Joker. But below the surface is a much deeper truth — one of defiance, innovation, and standing up to one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century.
Demon Of The Silver Screen
Some actors just have a certain “scary look” that can’t be denied, and Conrad Veidt was one of them. His deep, glaring eyes; his tall, gangly body type; that slicked back hair — Veidt set the standard for what a true sinister villain type should look like. A famous theater critic explained: “Conrad Veidt is a very strange-looking young man with a face you will never forget. His eyes haunt.”
Horror filmmakers all wanted to cast him in their films, and eventually Veidt became known as the “Demon Of The Silver Screen.” Given this history, it’s no surprise that his style would eventually give rise to the Joker character, a recurring feature in modern cinema. But it turns out that off-screen, Veidt had a lot more fire in him than people knew.
A Rebel At Heart
Conrad Veidt was not a pushover. He was a man who stood by his convictions no matter the cost — and in many ways, he was just as cunning and strategic as most villains usually are. The difference, however, is that he used his intelligence for good. With the various roles he played on screen, he bravely fought against norms that had been around for centuries, hoping to spur positive change.
His rebellious nature would later take center stage outside of the movie industry as well. Veidt became a perennial force of nature in the face of prejudice and power. And with the course of his nation’s history soon to take a dark turn, Veidt was destined to come into friction with the powers that be — at the risk of his own life.
He Was Very Progressive
Nowadays, it’s common for films to have homosexual characters depicted in a positive light. But it took a very long time for cinema to become more accepting, and in the early 20th century, it was nigh unheard of. As in many other countries, there was a law in Germany at the time that made being gay was a criminal offense. But Conrad Veidt was there to change that perspective.
He chose to star in a 1919 film called Different from the Others, which was about two male musicians who fall in love with each other. This was one of the first movies ever to portray homosexuality as something that could be loving and positive. But that wasn’t the only influence he had on pop culture.
Veidt’s Other Descendant
The Joker wasn’t the only villain who Conrad Veidt inspired. It’s crazy to think about, but Veidt’s villainous aura also influenced the creation of the evil Jafar from the 1992 Disney classic Aladdin. Contrary to the Joker, however, this influence was not so subtle.
In 1940, Veidt starred in a Middle Eastern fantasy remake called The Thief Of Bagdad, where he played an evil Vizier whose name was literally Jafar. Veidt’s menacing 6’3” frame wasn’t forgotten 50 years later, and the cartoon version of Jafar happened to end up also being extremely tall, thin, and scary. But Conrad Veidt’s influence wasn’t just felt in cartoons. He impacted the real world too.
Fighting The Power
Describing the achievements of Conrad Veidt’s life would be incomplete without discussing what he did during World War II. Like many public figures in the arts, he was adamantly opposed to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Unlike many others, though, Veidt wasn’t afraid of showing it. In fact, in an incredibly risky move even for a star, he outright humiliated Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.
Goebbels had asked Veidt to publicly stand by the Nazi agenda and endorse their message to the world. In response, Veidt married a Jewish woman named Ilona Prager, and announced to the world that he himself identified as Jewish. What’s more, on a racial questionnaire Goebbels made all actors fill out, in solidarity Veidt listed his own race as “Jewish.” Soon, he began to embarrass the German official even more — putting his own life in danger.
Held Under House Arrest
It was only a matter of time before Joseph Goebbels hit back at Veidt for showing him so much disdain. Goebbels wanted to show the world that Veidt was only human, so he put the famous actor under house arrest. Goebbels then told the press that Veidt was “unfit to travel,” but the rumor going around at the time was that he wanted to have him killed.
Unfortunately for Goebbels, the film studio Veidt was working for requested to have the house arrest end so he could show up for work. This further humiliated the high-ranking Nazi official, showing how powerless he was against the defiant actor. And Veidt’s professional career was about to reach a critical turning point.
Catching Some Bad Luck
Even as he fought the Nazi government, so too did Veidt’s professional career shift. In his early years acting, Veidt was mainly known for his work in silent film, especially the classic 1920 German Expressionist horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This helped him get jobs for American movies, because the audience wouldn’t hear his thick German accent.
But when speaking roles became more prominent, suddenly language and accents became a factor for actors. Veidt started to struggle. Would he be able to maintain his status as a Hollywood symbol under these new requirements? The answer came pretty soon. Veidt was ready to show the world some ideas he had up his sleeve.
Sending A Message To The World
Conrad Veidt and his wife left Nazi Germany and fled to Britain, and then the US several years later. As his adoptive country hurtled towards war with his native country, he wondered: how he could both work in Hollywood as a German actor, while sending a positive message at the same time? The answer then materialized right in front of him.
He would find himself a new niche in movies: playing the roles of Nazi officials. However, Veidt had one condition. He would only do it if he was being portrayed as the villain. In this way, he raised awareness to the world about what was going on, through infamous roles like Major Heinrich Strasser from the seminal romance film Casablanca. But the ultimate role was yet to come.
A Forgotten Legend
Even though Conrad Veidt was an extremely well-respected actor on an international level, people started to forget about him after World War II. Pop culture was moving forward at a dizzying pace, and it seemed like audiences were starting to move on from him, too.
Now that the war was over, people weren’t as interested in watching German officials on screen, and they were getting swept up in the early beginnings of glamorous red carpets and Rock n’ Roll ideals. It seemed Veidt’s time in the spotlight was coming to an end. That is, until a particular writer saw his picture and had an epiphany.
The Perfect Foil
Conrad Veidt was about to change the world again, and he didn’t know he was doing it. Bill Finger, a comic book writer, was trying to find the perfect villain for a superhero character he’d co-created: Batman. When he saw Veidt’s pictures from The Man Who Laughs, something clicked in his mind.
He showed the images to his artistic partners, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, and they agreed this was the precise look they’d been searching for. But why were they so sure that this idea was going to be a slam dunk? Well, it turned out that Conrad’s character eerily foresaw precisely the villain they needed.
Unique Physical Features
The creators of the Joker (Kane, Finger, and Robinson) wanted him to have some unique physical feature that would stand out, along with appearing effortlessly sinister. Veidt’s portrayal of Gwynplaine from The Man Who Laughs showed them exactly what they were looking for: that creepy, terrifying smile.
Even now, the Joker’s maniacal grin is still iconic. It suggests a jovial disposition, while hinting that below the surface resides a much darker truth. This contradiction was directly inspired by Conrad Veidt’s genius. As can be seen, the resemblance between the two characters is simply uncanny. But beyond the physical, there were even more shocking similarities between the two characters.
Victim Of Bullying
Both Conrad Veidt’s character and the Joker were major victims of bullying in their respective films, to the point where we can’t help but pity them. Veidt’s character from The Man Who Laughs is regarded as a “freak” by the masses, because like the Joker, he’s been affected physically by something that was out of his control.
As a child, Gwynplaine was intentionally physically disfigured by a government official, so he’d have a hauntingly eternal smile for the rest of his life. Heath Ledger’s Joker from Dark Knight also gets disfigured as a child, while Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker gets beat up and made fun of frequently. The fact that fans feel so much for them is also a testament to their outstanding abilities as actors. Veidt in particular had a unique skill.
Conveying Silent Emotion
Back in the silent film era, dialogue was not the tool to get an actor’s point across. You had to be particularly adept at conveying emotion. The late legendary film critic Roger Ebert explained that in The Man Who Laughs, Veidt was forced to wear an uncomfortable device in his mouth which made it “even harder for him to project emotions only with his eyes.”
Nonetheless, Ebert maintains that Veidt rose to the challenge magnificently, giving us “scenes where we sense love, fear, pity and lust.” In other words, Veidt conveyed these core emotions that were behind many of the Joker’s qualities we know of today. In fact, he set a standard that continues to receive accolades.
Doing Conrad Veidt Justice
Thanks to Conrad Veidt, the character of Joker is being dubbed the “New Hamlet” of characters in modern film. Actors have dug deep into their lexicon of talents to portray the notorious villain. In fact, Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix both won Oscars for it. This makes that besides the Godfather Vito Corleone, the Joker is the only movie character whose actors have won Oscars twice.
Additionally, while most common people don’t know about Conrad Veidt’s character in The Man Who Laughs, he was actually the primary source of inspiration for Joaquin Phoenix in 2019’s Joker. Apparently Phoenix didn’t even watch any footage of the previous Jokers; he only researched Veidt’s performance from nearly a century before. This impeccable work ethic would have resonated with Veidt.
Eyes On The Prize
Conrad Veidt had always worked extremely hard to get where he got. When he was in high school, he thought about becoming a surgeon, but his dream to become an actor was stronger than anything else in his life. Infatuated by theater and the silver screen, he was willing to risk it all to make it big.
Unfortunately, this required him to make sacrifices that not everyone would approve of. One of those sacrifices was leaving high school without a diploma so he could focus more on his dream. As you might imagine, he received a lot of resistance from certain people in his life.
After learning their son was leaving high school to focus on acting, while his mother was excited, Veidt’s father wasn’t particularly happy. He tried to discourage Conrad, telling him: “An actor is a gypsy. An outcast.” And therein lay another strong similarity that Conrad Veidt shared with the Joker: alienation from his father.
As painful as it was, this isolation would later help Veidt thrive in a unique way on stage. By understanding what it meant to be an outcast in real life, he was able to relay that exact emotion through his characters. But the hopeful teen still had ways to go before reaching the mountaintop.
Becoming The Villain
Conrad Veidt had an interesting method of promoting himself. Not only would he attend theater performances frequently, but he would make sure to dress up in “theatrical clothes” while there. He would adorn himself in a sinister cape and monocle, making himself look like the prototypical “villain-type” people would later come to know him as.
In this way, he was showing the German theater scene what his stage image was all about. Standing slender and glowering tall above the crowd at these events, people began to notice him. Eventually, a local actor even offered to give him free lessons. Veidt was thrilled — but his enthusiasm grew a bit worrisome.
During this formative period of his early career, Veidt was so consumed with the idea of becoming an actor that his basic physical needs took a backseat. When he received free acting lessons, Veidt committed himself so hard to his training that he skipped meals without even realizing it.
Even at initial stage of Veidt’s rise to stardom, critics could see he was especially talented. One of them said, “He dominated the stage. I forgot the others when he was on. Undoubtedly film producers will be rushing for his services.” Yet even though he was getting respect, another issue was about to beset him: finances.
The Paychecks Started Small
For Veidt’s first audition, he had his lofty sights set on a film by the legendary Austrian film director Max Reinhardt. Veidt initially thought that Reinhardt wasn’t impressed by him, but apparently the young dreamer made enough of an impact to score a gig as an extra.
This role only paid $10 a month, but Veidt used all this money to further his career by buying gold-lettered business cards that read, “Conrad Veidt, Member of the Deutsches Theater.” It seemed like Hollywood stardom was right around the corner. And yet, right when he was starting to build momentum, more obstacles kept piling up.
Delayed By Calamity
Right when it seemed Conrad Veidt was about to get his big break, World War I required him to join the German military. It was at this time that he fell sick, and found himself quarantined with both pneumonia and jaundice. If this had happened to anyone else, they may have just given up — though not Veidt. In fact, it only strengthened his resolve.
He would later say earnestly about that period in his life: “My will to succeed was never stronger within me. It was kind of an urgent drive which forced me forward, the impetus gathering strength as it progressed.” He was then released from the army, but even in civilian life, things would soon take an even more dramatic turn.
A Devastating Loss
Once he was out of the army, an energetic Veidt was now ready to head full throttle into the movie scene. However, in that very same year, Veidt’s father passed away. This was an earth-shattering blow to the rising star, for a handful of reasons. In addition to missing his father, there was another element to Veidt’s pain.
After not getting his father’s approval as a kid, Veidt mourned throughout his life that his father never got to see him succeed in Hollywood. Their complicated dynamic is similar to that of the Joker’s character with his own dad. In fact, it can be argued that this hostile relationship taught Veidt a lot about his craft, from an internal angle.
Veidt wasn’t just the perfect villain because of his physical features. He also was able to understand the underlying psychology behind it all. He constantly spoke about the nature of villains, remarking: “They are bad, because somebody has made them bad. Life has twisted them.”
This sounds eerily similar to the type of quotes the Joker would constantly spout, remarking on his madness in Dark Knight by saying, “You can just step outside and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away forever.” But unlike the Joker, Conrad Veidt took the pain of his past and transformed it into positivity and love. He found the perfect way to do so.
Devoted Family Man
After not getting the desired love from his own father, Conrad Veidt strove to be different with his future family. As much as he was the perfect villain on screen, he was nothing like that in real life. After having a child with his second wife, to say he was excited is quite an understatement.
On this topic he said, “Do not ask me how I behaved when my daughter was born. Like a crazy man. You might have thought nobody had ever had a baby before.” Indeed, Veidt was all about family, and it was this strong passion that caused critics to say such loving things about him. And the adoration is far from stopping.
Stealing Scenes And Hearts
Over the years, countless people have reflected on the monumental impact Conrad Veidt had on their lives. As author J.P. Mayer fondly wrote in British Cinemas and Their Audiences, “I only fell in love once with a movie actor. It was Conrad Veidt. His magnetism and his personality got me.”
Fans of Veidt were able to understand that although he played the role of the villain, he was still giving his character the full weight of his heart. Perhaps it’s Mayer’s following line that epitomizes Veidt’s connection with the Joker best of all: “His voice and gestures fascinated me. I hated him, feared him, loved him.”