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A story of German-born identical twins (both played by Veidt), one a loyal American and the other, a Nazi official. The American is forced to help a group of German spies, but eventually rebels, kills his brother, impersonates him, and exposes the ring. Written by
Herman Seifer <email@example.com>
Conrad Veidt's career in European (and American) film from 1919 - 1939 was one as a notable star. He had played Cesar the Sonabulist in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI in 1919, and been a star ever since. In the silent film period it was easy for him to have an international audience as Gwynplaine in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS and as King Louis XI of France in BELOVED ROGUE (with John Barrymore). But he was anti - Nazi and Veidt left Germany in 1933 and settled in England, where he remained a star. His last film in England of greatness was as the evil vizier Jafar in THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD. Then he went to Hollywood.
Most Americans recall him for his American films, although he did not make many in his last three years (1940 - 1943). These included a comic villain in WHISTLING IN THE DARK, a selfish Swedish scoundrel in A WOMAN'S FACE, and Nazis in CASABLANCA (his best recalled performance - as Major Strasser), ESCAPE, and ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT. Twice he portrayed anti-Nazi Germans: ABOVE SUSPICION (where he is aiding Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray, and the villain is Basil Rathbone!), and this film - probably the most interesting of the movies he made in Hollywood.
The plot is simple. Veidt plays twin brothers, one of whom has been living in the U.S. since World War I, having gotten sick of the militarism and racial crap at home. The younger brother remained behind as a dedicated careerist Nazi. The younger brother has been sent to the U.S. as a "diplomat" but in reality to head a sabotage ring. He uses some of his agents to locate the older brother, and blackmail him into acquiescing into working for the Vaterland again. The older brother is forced by circumstances (relatives in Germany may be executed or tortured if he refuses). But when he learns of the various sabotage acts planned, and when the ring members kill one of his closest friends, the older brother fights back. He confronts and kills the younger brother, and pretends he is the younger brother. Then he proceeds to destroy the sabotage ring.
Veidt's Nazis were quite convincing, as he obviously based them on the people he met in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. Major Strasser, for example, is very businesslike - see how he confronts Rick with his file at the start of CASABLANCA and shows little concern when Rick starts reading it - and usually intelligent. He is also ready to turn into a subtly deadly threat, as when he tells Elsa about the cheapness of life in Casablanca. So the young careerist is quite true to form.
But the older brother is fascinating. The issue of the "good German" was difficult to get across after 1941, as most Americans saw Hitler's Germany as a real, viable threat. It was rare, in the movies of those years, to think of making a film about Germans who were decent (it was actually easier to show Italians who were decent - see Forunio Bonanova's Italian general in FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO). If a German was good or sympathetic, he or she might have been Jewish. But Veidt's two brothers are upper crust junkers. They are part of the establishment. The older brother was in the army (unlike the younger one), so he knew what was expected of the German nobility. But he got to dislike the arrogance of the class towards all others. So he fled his native land to escape what he hated.
Veidt's not the only good German in the film. For every younger brother, and Martin Kosleck, and Deborah Tree, there is a Frank Reicher and Anna Ayars who supports the decency wiped away by the Nazi regime. Veidt's older brother fall for Ayars, and in one sweet moment one sees what the Nazis have destroyed. They are seated in a car alone, and have put on the radio. The moon is out, and it is a moment for love-making. But the radio plays a piece by Felix Mendelsohn (who was Jewish, and whose music was forbidden by the Nazi regime in Germany). Ayars, sadly, says "Verboten.", and starts turning it off. Veidt gently stops her and says, "Just this once." They cuddle listening to the music.
Veidt also demonstrates a trait which (oddly enough) he can share with the Nazi Kosleck. The older brother's hiding spot in America was discovered by Marc Lawrence, who has sold his services to the Nazis. But later (after the older brother has begun impersonating the dead younger one), Lawrence returns to squeeze more money out of his German employers. Kosleck tells this to Veidt (and it is obvious that Kosleck is disgusted by this greedy American). Veidt says he'll speak to Lawrence. He does open the safe and give Lawrence the money without a word. Then after Lawrence puts the money in his pocket, Veidt grabs him around the neck and with a fierce look in his eye tells him never to ask for another extra cent beyond his salary again if he knows what is good for him. Lawrence is thoroughly frightened of his "employer" after that - and the viewer actually sides with Veidt at that moment even if he had been the younger brother instead of the older one.
NAZI AGENT was a programmer, but it shows what would have been Veidt's ability to play a hero in American films. If he had survived World War II he probably would have been a star along the lines of his French contemporary Charles Boyer, playing good characters as well as bad ones. He did not have the fortune to survive, but we know what he might have been like.
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