Paul Wegener was the first of the great German actors to go willingly into cinema realising the artistic capabilities of the new medium. He was also a man of great stature, towering six foot six inches, and with his distinctly chiseled-face managed to give feelings and realism to the horror movie characters he portrayed.
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Paul WegenerThe Golem (1920)PAUL WEGENER
MAN OR MONSTER?


Paul Wegener was born 11th. December 1874 in Jerrenkowitz to Anna Wolff and Otto Wegener. He was a poorly child expected only to live for a short while. His father moved away to Ermland where Anna and Paul followed six weeks later after the child's health had improved. However, when Anna died shortly before Paul's third birthday, Otto completely lost interest in his youngest son who was left mostly to himself. At mealtimes Paul briefly saw his father when a bell was rung to summon him to the table.
Paul's sister had a friend who taught him to read and write and by the age of eight, Paul was devouring volumes of literature and reciting monologues.
After two painful years at a Catholic school, Paul moved to another school where with like-minded pupils he formed a dramatic society, edited a hand written newspaper and composed poems and songs. This was a decisive time of life that mapped out his future. Paul's first contact with the theatre was at a performance in Konigsberg which began his life-long devotion to the stage.

At twenty years of age while studying law at the University of Leipzig, Paul wrote to his father,
"I am about to end my law studies and get on the stage. I'm very sorry to disappoint you, but I have to...I have long doubted, but now I am sure".
After just a few short months Paul had managed to build up a repertoire of thirty character roles, and with a college distinction, he set off for Berlin to make his stage debut at the Stadt Nurnberg.
His theatrical work steadily increased while touring the provinces, until in 1905 he appeared in the film production of DIE BYZANTIER by Victor Hahn. The film's premier was seen by a talent-scout for  Max Reinhardt of the Deutschen Theater who had been sent to view the film. The scout telegraphed Reinhardt immediately, praising Wegener's performance.
Paul debuted at the distinguished theatre company during October 1906 and enjoyed continued success until after two years his contract was denied renewal. In 1912, with a determination to continue acting, Paul turned to the new medium of motion pictures.

Since his student days, Paul had always enjoyed experimenting with trick photography, particularly the double exposed ghost effect that visually illustrated the "doppelganger" of German literature. Fascinated that this might be achieved in motion pictures, Paul approached Bioskop Studios where innovative cameraman Guido Seeber claimed it could be done and filming began on Der Student von Prag Der Student von Prag (1913)in an old section of Prague with interiors shot at Lobkowitz castle. The Jewish community had refused permission to film in the old cemetery, so the crew erected huge medieval tombstones in a forest nearby. Working closely with Danish director D. Stellan Rye, Wegener portrays Balduin a young student who is offered 100 thousand gold pieces by the mysterious Dr. Scapinelli, (John Gottowt), in exchange for his reflection. Now that Balduin is a rich man, he courts a Countess who is engaged to Baron Waldis. Eventually Balduin is driven to shoot his reflection and winds up killing himself.
The six reels of film that were originally tinted brown, dark-green and blue, cost 20 thousand marks to complete and premiered on the 22nd August 1913 at the Nollendorfplatz in Berlin. The posters read "The film debut of the genial actor Paul Wegener in the title role. This highly interesting play is set in historic Prague and contains completely new phenomenal techniques in film-making".
The premier was a roaring success in Germany as well as overseas where it was shown as A BARGAIN WITH SATAN. Critics hailed it as the first artistically important film in Germany and brought attention to Wegener as a serious actor.

Shortly after Der Student von Prag, Wegener began work on Der Golem. As in the previous film, Guido Seeber's camerawork is stunning, and nicely complemented by Rochus Gliese's set designs. The legend tells of a clayman created by Rabbi Loew during the sixteenth century and brought to life by an antique dealer who acquired the statue from an excavated synagogue in Prague. The statue falls in love with the antique dealer's daughter, (Lyda Salmonova), who eventually stops its advance by snatching an amulet from around the creature's neck. The clayman reverts to stone and smashes into pieces on the cobblestones.
Henrik Galeen who later became a leading figure in German cinema, co-directed and co-wrote the script with Wegener and also appeared in the film as the antique dealer. The film met with success and firmly established Wegener's reputation.
Long thought to be lost, Der Golem (1914) was discovered in the private ownership of a collector who struck a print from the surviving nitrate copy in 1958.

Der Golem (1920)During October 1914, Wegener and his film partner Lyda Salmanova took a canoeing holiday near the Black Sea. It wasn't until they arrived in Vienna that they learned of the outbreak of the First World War. Despite all warnings to the contrary, Wegener and Salmanova continued their travels only to be detained in Hungary suspected of being spies. On his return to Germany, and despite his feelings of the futility of war, Wegener was drafted into the army and served on the Western Front. After suffering a mental breakdown he was admitted to hospital with a heart condition. Only after some lengthy treatment was he returned to the army where he performed light duties.
News arrived that Max Reinhardt required him for a theatre production, but his interest at this time was in film and he wrote, produced and appeared in Der Yoghi (1916). The film provided him with another "doppelganger" role and was one of the first films to feature invisibility.
During 1917, Paul returned to the role of the Golem in Der Golem und die Tanzerin, a parody of his original film in which he attends a performance of the 1914 film and then returns to don a clay man costume and scare some people at a dancer's apartment. Considered by historians as the first cinema sequel, this has sadly never been discovered and remains a lost curiosity.
During this period Wegener also appeared in Rubenzahl's Hochzeit (1916), RATTENFANGER VON HAMELIN (1918) and DER GALEERENSTRAFLING (1919).

Paul Wegener had done more for the development of the film industry in Germany than any other, and was possibly one of the first to recognise the medium's potential. In an essay he wrote during 1916 Wegener foretold of the importance of photographic techniques and the necessity of discreet acting with restrained movements and expressive faces. "On the screen, the actor is seen as if under a microscope". Comments that are still valid today.
In late 1919 production began on Wegener's best, and most reknowned work Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt Kam (The Golem: or How He Came into the World). Again Paul took the helm with Carl Boese,Der Golem (1920) co-writing with Henrik Galeen and also starring in the title role. The cast included a formidable ensemble of actors including Ernst Deutsch, Albert Steinruck and Lyda Salmanova and a crew that boasted Karl Freund as cameraman and Rochus Gliese to create the distorted sets. Despite the recent success of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Wegener denied that he ever had the intention of creating an Expressionist film, but the atmosphere is certainly similar.
The story ties in with Der Golem of 1914 as a prequel set in 1580 Prague as Rabbi Loew creates the clayman to protect the Jewish ghetto from the persecution of Emperor Rudolph II. Brought to life at a time decided by the stars and when the magic word Aemaet is placed in his amulet, the creature saves the community, but the rabbi's assistant causes the statue to go on the rampage until it is rendered lifeless by a small child.
Again the film was a success and put Germany at the forefront of the world's fantasy film output. The film was seen in America during 1923 and gained such rousing popularity that it ran in New York for ten months. The film would later influence such classics as Frankenstein.
Ten years later when Wegener was walking through a Jewish community in Amsterdam, the people gathered together whispering to each other and pointing at the actor. When Wegener turned to enquire from someone what was the matter, the man shied away from him. As the whispers became louder Wegener heard them say "Der Golem! Der Golem!".

In the years that followed Wegener concentrated solely on his acting career. He appeared in the Arabian Nights adventure SUMURUM (1920) for Ernst Lubitsch who also appeared in the film as a hunchback, and also in Lubitsch's DAS WEIB DES PHARAO (1922) as the King of Ethiopia. Wegener appeared twice with his favourite film actress Asta Nielsen in STEUERMANN HOLK (1920) and VANINA VANINI (1922) in which he portrayed a crippled sadistic govenor under the direction of Arthur von Gerlach. 1922 also saw him in LUCREZIA BORGIA as the title role and in MONNA VANNA set during the Renaissance.
In 1923 Wegener formed his own company "Paul Wegener AG." and invested heavily into a production about one of his primary interests, Buddhism. Since his days as a student, Wegener had been fascinated by the arts of the Far East and in this film he planned to take the role of the Dali Lama. A zepplin hanger in Staaken was hired to house an entire reconstruction of a Tibetan town designed by Hans Poelzig, but unfortunately although the film was completed it was never released. Wegener's hard work and images never got to be seen, leaving him severely in debt. A test copy and the negatives were acquired by someone, but to this day they have never been found leaving only a few stills to confirm the film's existence.

Paul Wegener as Dr. Haddo as The Magician (1925)In 1925 Rex Ingram, a noted director of silent spectaculars in Hollywood, hired Wegener for MGM's The Magician being filmed on the French Riviera. In one of the few true "mad scientist" themes of the silent era, Wegener portrays Dr. Haddo, a sorcerer who uncovers documents that pertain to the creation of artificial life. The key ingredient, however, is the heart's blood of a maiden.
Somerset Maugham, who wrote the original story in 1908, disapproved of Ingram's adaptation which he felt bore a closer resemblance to the antics of alchemist Aleistair Crowley. The predominantly European cast also included Britain's Michael Powell who appears as an English comedy actor during the scenes set in a fairground.
Although the film found only minor success, it brought Wegener again to the attentions of German film producers and he was hired for a series of film roles including Svengali (1927) in which he portrays a musician with extra sensory powers and Friededrich Zelnik's DIE WEBER (1927).
In 1928, Wegener returned to co-writing and acting in Ramper der Tiermensch (Ramper the Beastman Aka: The Strange Case of Captain Ramper) as an Arctic explorer who loses his way in the cold terrain and devolves into a shaggy beast. Back in civilisation the creature is displayed in a circus until a scientist restores his mentality. The man decides to return to the frozen wastes rather than endure a society in which he feels there is no place for him. Directed by Max Reichmann and co-scripted by Curt J. Braun, the film also starred the enigmatic Max Schreck as a member of a whaling fleet, who found fame with his definitive vampire role in Nosferatu (1922).
In 1928 Wegener also appeared as Professor Brinken in Henrik Galeen's Alraune. Brinken creates the title character played by Brigitte Helm of Metropolis fame by artificial insemination using the seed of a hanged murderer's corpse. The result is a woman without a soul who leads all men who fall in love with her to destruction. This highly erotic and horrific film was penned by Hans Heinz Ewers and Brigitte Helm would reprise the role again in 1930.
Wegener's sound debut came in Funf Geschichten (Unholy Tales) made in 1932. Director RichardThe Strange Case of Captain Ramper (1928) Oswald set Wegener in five tales based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson. In "The Black Cat" Wegener as a scientist murders his hen-pecking wife and walls her up in the cellar. Attempting to avoid arrest, Wegener's character appears in all five tales including an episode based on Poe's "Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather" in which he imprisons all the wardens of an asylum and leaves the inmates to run the institution for themselves. For the film's release in America in 1940 the title was changed to THE LIVING DEAD.

March 1933 was the start of a great upheaval for Germany. The National Socialists came to political prominence and theatre companies were disbanded, many of the actors and directors arrested, persecuted or exiled. Although a pacifist and unwanted by the new political power, Wegener remained in Germany and continued his work on stage and screen despite the limitations. Eventually the pressure closed almost all avenues to acting work and Wegener jumped at the chance to return to Prague where he filmed ZWISCHEN NACHT UND MORGEN in 1944.
Back in Germany for 1945, Wegener's street became the front line, his house trembling under the daily bombardment as the fascist tyranny crumbled. On April 25th the Red Army arrived in Berlin and recognising the seventy year old Wegener some of the troops hung a notice outside his house saying "Here lives Paul Wegener, the great artist, beloved and adored throughout the world".

As the war closed Wegener was one of the first to rebuild cultural life in Berlin. Despite ill-health he became president of an organisation to improve standards for it's inhabitants.
In 1947 Wegener suffered a debilitating stroke that caused him to go to Switzerland for medical care. On his return to Berlin he again succumbed to illness, but refused to give up acting and accepted a part in DER GROSSE MANDARIN (1948), his last film role.
In July 1948 he reprised his role of "Nathan the Wise" at the Deutschen Theatre, but in the very first scene he collapsed and the curtain was brought down. Two months later, on September 13th. 1948, Paul Wegener died in his sleep.The Golem (1920)
His funeral was attended by mourners from all walks of life, coming to pay their respects to the artist. He was buried in a quiet corner of the Berlin cemetery at Heerstrasse where a Chinese temple-stone bears his name and a marble Buddah from his own back garden protects his grave.

It is indeed a sad fact that the majority of Wegener's work is generally unavailable today which is in complete contrast to the works of Conrad Veidt and Emil Jannings, two other great German actors who followed in Wegener's footsteps. However evidence is available of his enormous talent that wasn't just restricted to acting, but many other facets of film production.

In some small way I hope this article will also help to keep his name regarded as a leading light in filmdom's illustrious history.

Filmography

Poster and lobby card stills courtesy of Ronald V. Borst

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