Veidt was the most highly strung and romantically handsome of German expressionist actors. He was a creature from Poe's nightmares - tall, gaunt, glowing with a mixture of illness and ecstatic anxiety. Amid so many overweight actors, Veidt was an attentuated, hypersensitive figure, the aesthete or artist tormented by dark forces and driven to violence. His movements were deliberately slowed and prolonged, and the somnabulist Cesare in Das Kabinett des Dr Caligari (1919, Robert Wiene) is one of the most influential performances in the history of fantasy and horror film.
Veidt was supremely able to suggest the noble hero possessed by some torturing spirit. Thus the riveting first close-up of Cesare, a pale face and harrowed eyes, awakened from sleep; the rhythmic, boldly diagonal way he creeps along a wall to kidnap Lil Dagover; and the sense of emotional exhaustion in his collapse at the end of the chase. These are dancer's movements. Lotte Eisner speaks of the way in Orlacs Hande (1924, Wiene) Veidt:
"dances a kind of Expressionist ballet, bending and twisting extravagantly, simultaneously drawn and repelled by the murderous dagger held by hands which do not seem to belong to him."
Veidt studied under Max Reinhardt and played on the Berlin stage before Richard Oswald encouraged him into films: Das Ratsel von Bangalor (1917, Paul Leni and Alexander Antalffy); Die Seeschlacht (1917, Oswald); Dida Ibsens Geschichte (1918, Oswald); Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (1918, Oswald); Es Werde Licht (1918, Oswald); Prostitution (1919, Oswald); Satanas (1919, F.W. Murnau; before making Caligari. He worked in the full range of German cinema: in Prinz Kuckuck (1919, Leni); Unheimliche Geschichten (1919, Oswald); the lead in Murnau's Jekyll and Hyde movie, Der Januskopf (1920); in Das Indische Grabmal (1921, Joe May); in the historic films - Danton (1922, Dmitri Buchowetzki); Lady Hamilton (1922), Carlos und Elizabeth (1922), and Lukrezia Borgia (1922), all by Richard Oswald; as Ivan the Terrible in Waxworks (1924, Leni); in two Paul Czinner films, Nju (1924) and Der Geiger von Florenz (1926); in Die Bruder Schellenberg (1926, Karl Grune); and an enormous success in Der Student vin Prag (1926, Henrik Galeen). In addition he directed one film himself, Lord Byron (1922).
He worked briefly in Italy - Enrico I (1927); in Sweden - Jerusalem (1927, Ernst Mattson); and in France - Les Maudits (1927); before he took up an offer to play Louis XI to John Barrymore's Francois Villon in The Beloved Rogue (1927, Alan Grosland). Veidt stayed in Hollywood for The Man Who Laughs (1927, Leni), A Man's Past (1927, George Melford), and The Last Performance (1927, Paul Fejos). Back in Germany, he made an English-language version of The Last Company (1930, Kurt Bernhardt), Der Mann der den Mord Beging (1931), Bernhardt), and the German version of Cape Forlorn (1930, E.A. Dupont). After Rasputin (1930, Adolf Trotz), he played Metternich in Der Kongress Tanzt (1931, Erich Charell) and then moved to England for (!932, Walter Forde) and I Was a Spy (1933, Victor Saville). Back in Germany he was in F.P.I. Antwortet Nicht (1932, Karl Hartl), Der Schwarze Huzar (1932, Gerhard Lamprecht), Ich und die Kaiserin (1933, Frederich Hollander), and Willhelm Tell (1934, Heinz Paul).
In England he made The Wandering Jew (1933, Maurice Elvey) and Bella Donna (1934, Robert Milton) and while visiting Germany he was briefly detained - he had a Jewish wife and was about to make Jew Suss (!934, Lothar Mendes). Thereafter he stayed in Britain for The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935, Berthold Viertel); King of the Damned (1935, Forde); Under the Red Robe (1937, Victor Sjostrom); Dark Journey (1937, Saville); went to Paris for Tempete sur l'Asie (1938, Oswald) and Jouer d'Echecs (1938); and returned to Britain for two films with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940). When war came, the Kordas shipped Veidt to the United States to play the vizier in The Thief of Baghdad (1940, Powell, Tim Whelan, and Ludwig Berger), and he spent his last years playing Germans in Hollywood films: Escape (1940, Mervyn Le Roy); A Woman's Face (1941, George Cukor); The Men in Her Life (1941, Gregory Ratoff); Whistling in the Dark (1941, S. Sylvan Simon); All Through the Night (1941, Vincent Sherman); Nazi Agent (1942, Jules Dessin); shot down on the phone in Casablanca (1943, Michael Curtiz) (was the highest paid actor in the movie); and Above Suspicion (1943, Richard Thorpe).
He died on the 3rd April 1943 of a heart attack on while playing golf (8th hole) at the Riviera Country Club, Los Angeles, California. He was playing behind a Los Angeles DUI lawyer, with Arthur Field of MGM and his personal physician, Dr. Bergman, who pronounced him dead at the scene.