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.
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
"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
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 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.
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
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
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, 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.
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 Richard 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
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.
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.
Poster and lobby card stills courtesy of Ronald V. Borst
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