click to buy "Paul Wegener: Frühe Moderne im Film" at Amazon.co.ukThis review was originally published in Cinema & Cie, no. 5, Fall 2004, 54–56.

It has always been axiomatic – and not only thanks to Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen – that Expressionism is the typically “German” film style. Among the typical genres that this style produced, the most likely candidate would be the fantastic film. What is less known – especially in light of Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, where the fantastic film is treated as the unconscious emanation of a troubled epoch and a tormented people – is the extent to which this genre owes its existence to a single individual, namely Paul Wegener. A celebrated Max Reinhardt actor before he came to make films, Wegener gave, between 1913 and 1918, decisive impulses to the fairy-tale film, drawn from the literary gothic, which in turn provided the templates also for the films of the fantastic and the uncanny, as they emerged after World War One. Best known, of course, among Wegener’s early films is Der Student von Prag (1913), which, although nominally directed by the Dane Stellan Rye and scripted by Hanns Heinz Ewers, was the brainchild of its cinematographer Guido Seeber and its leading actor, Paul Wegener, in the role of the impoverished student and his fateful double. After the film’s enormous success, Wegener acted in, co-wrote and co-directed Der Golem (1914), which became the prototype of many subsequent “ambivalent-benevolent” creature feature films, not only in Germany. There followed Rübenzahls Hochzeit (1916), Der Yoghi (1916), Hans Trutz im Schlaraffenland (1917), Der Rattenfänger (1918) and several other films exploiting the rich vein of German Romantic legends and folk-myths.

One of the reasons why, in film history, Wegener’s pioneering role has not always been fully appreciated I have already hinted at. His exploration of sorcerers, demiurges, tyrants and giants in his films during the 1910s contradicted the idea of the German fantastic film as a post-World War One phenomenon, to fit the political thesis of fascist premonitions. Another reason for his neglect, however, has been Wegener’s politically compromised position during the Nazi era. Between 1933 and 1945 he directing no fewer than seven feature films (among them, Ein Mann will nach Deutschland [1934]; Moskau-Schanghai [1936]; Unter Ausschluss der Öffentlichkeit [1937]) and he starred, as a high-profie, celebrated “State Actor”, in 20 more (including such infamous ones as Hans Westmar [1933]; Der Grosse Herrscher [1942]; and Kolberg [1945]). Yet to think of him as a convinced Nazi, or even an opportunist fellow-traveller neither captures his philosophy of life, nor is it confirmed by his biography. Born in West-Prussia in 1974, into an upper-middle class protestant family, Wegener died in 1948 in Berlin. One of his last great roles was as Nathan, the Wise in G.E. Lessing’s eponymous play, German literature’s most eloquent plea for multi-ethnic tolerance and religious emancipation.

Thus, it is a rather patchy picture that we have of Wegener, apparently full of contradictions. One of Germany’s foremost film pioneers, who throughout his life remained above all a man of the theatre; passionate about modern cinematic technology, but using it to give body to pre-industrial romantic and fairy-tale fantasies; a free spirit of vast erudition and culture, but seemingly willing to lend his talents to a Fascist and racist regime. The much-needed re-assessment of Wegener has now begun in Germany, and a bright shaft of illuminating light is cast on part of his early work by Heide Schönemann’s new book. Following on from her equally path-breaking study Fritz Lang Filmbilder-Vorbilder (1992), this large-format, quality-produced and well-illustrated volume does not set out to be a biography, explaining or reconciling the tensions just mentioned. Instead, it painstakingly and with great aplomb, reconstructs the life-worlds of the images, the ideas and friendships that animated this restless intelligence, by tracing a dense network of cross-references between art history and esoteric religion, between a collector’s passions and colonial fantasies, between a generation’s questing spiritual aspirations and an age of increasingly self-confident media technologies.

For film historians, Wegener’s work in the teens is crucial for at least two reasons: he was attracted to fantastic subjects partly because they allowed him to explore different cinematic techniques, such as trick photography, superimposition, special effects in the manner of Méliès’ féeries, but with a stronger narrative line and psychologically motivated protagonists. For this, he worked closely with one of the early German cinema’s most creative cameramen, Guido Seeber, himself a still underrated pioneer whose many publications about the art of cinematography, special effects and lighting are a veritable source-book for understanding the German style of the 1920s. But Wegener’s fairy tale films also promoted the ingenious compromise which the “Autorenfilm” wanted to strike between countering the immense hostility shown towards the cinema by the intelligentsia and the educated middle-class (manifested in the so-called “Kino Debatte”) and exploiting the cinema as a popular medium.

Schönemann, from a slightly different, more art-historical perspective, sees Wegener as the chief exponent of what she terms “early Modernism in film”, situated by her in a European context (Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Arts and Crafts, as well as the Scandinavian painters, novelists and dramatists of anti-naturalism). Consequently, she concentrates on the years from 1913 to the 1920s, culminating in Wegener’s (third) Golem film (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam [1920]), and concluding with a picture epilogue of Lebende Buddhas, a film from 1923/25, presumed lost, since only a fragment has survived, along with a series of production stills, which are reproduced over 24 pages. Not unexpectedly, Schönemann considers Wegener’s early work to have inspired Fritz Lang (Der Müde Tod [1921]), F.W. Murnau (Der Knabe in Blau [1919]), Arthur Gerlach (Zur Chronik von Grieshuus [1925]), as well as G.W. Pabst’s Der Schatz (1923). She also mentions Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, as well as Febo Mari’s Il Fauno (1917), claiming in all cases a common artistic sensibility rather than direct “influence”.

Although an art historian by training, Schönemann is generally less interested in (classical) links of influence, (modernist) citation or (postmodern) appropriation. The strength of her method – derived from Erwin Panofsky and recalling Aby Warburg – is to isolate visual moments, compositions or facial expressions in the films, and then try to identify (in the vast and surprisingly diverse archive which is modern art) the recurrence or migration of these same iconic or pictorial motifs. Thus, for instance, she shows how certain of the mirror scenes in Der Student von Prag have echoes in the drawings by Alfred Kubin and Max Klinger, how body postures in Wegener’s films recall dance poses of then famous dancers such as Gertrud Leistikow, Dora Brandenburg or Gret Palucca, and how important for his sense of lighting and surface texture was his collaboration with Lotte Reiniger (she did the intertitles for Der Rattenfänger and a film-within-a-film for Der Verlorene Schatten [1921]). Reiniger, in turn, felt inspired by Wegener’s fairy-tales to extend her own silhouette work into feature-length films.

Famous names from the art world that turn up – apart from the usual suspects Pieter Breughel, Albrecht Dürer, C.D. Friedrich – are Felix Valloton, Lovis Corinth, Hans Thoma, Ferdinand Hodler, Moritz von Schwind, Heinrich Vogeler and many other artists now barely remembered. Lotte Eisner had already done similar work, notably on the films of Lang and Murnau, comparing motifs in paintings that were cited by particular films. Where Schönemann extends and also differentiates Eisner’s conventional method of tracing influence, is in her deeper and more dynamic analysis of such networks – pointing out biographical as well as philosophical links – and secondly, in her more detailed attention to spatial composition and architecture.

To cite an example of the first: one of the many filiations that bind Wegener to his generation of artists is the monumentality and singularity of his own appearance. From early on, the massive body and, above all, the striking face identified Wegener as a star, a towering presence, destined to distinguish himself. His face was often seen as “Asiatic” or “Slav”, with all the cliche associations of inscrutability, of erotic danger and allure, of lurking cruelty and the hidden access to supernatural wisdom as well as power. Schönemann is able to document how this face became a kind of icon or brand-name, caricatured in the newspapers or featured on posters by the artist Zajac, his silhouette made famous by not only Lotte Reiniger’s paper cut-outs: amazingly, the actor’s head served almost a dozen sculptors as their model. It notably haunted Ernst Barlach, who did several busts of Wegener. Not satisfied with enumerating or documenting these instances, Schönemann digs further and produces evidence from Wegener’s correspondence and private papers (to which she had unprecedented access) that he himself was profoundly troubled by his own face. This she interprets as the source for his choice of career (he broke off his studies as a lawyer to train in acting, much to the disappointment of his father) and for his life-long fascination with mirror-images, doubles, split personalities and the “Other” within the self. Finally, the striking face of Wegener elicits a meditation on the emergence of a new aesthetic type – what Schönemann calls the “new ugliness”. There, she detects a fundamental shift in the canons of (not only) masculine beauty, away from the Greek or Nordic type to the more earth-bound, chthonic physiognomies, with Slav, Asian (and Jewish) faces receiving a new, positive valorisation in the arts of the teens and early ’20s – in contrast to the revival of the Nordic type in the ’30s by Nazi artists such as Arno Breker or Josef Thorak.

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam

The second example – of Schönemann’s closer consideration of architecture and design – would be the chapter on Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam. The highlight of the book, it is a genuine tour de force. Schönemann’s detailed description of architect Hans Poelzig’s plans, and the analysis of the narrative meanings encapsulated in every building, the streets and the interior elements (stairs, balconies, windows and arches) are a model of textual analysis in the language of architectural style and plastic forms. Embedded into her account of the provenance of the film’s formal repertoire are biographical vignettes, such as Poelzig’s use of a spiral motif ascribed to Hermann Obrist, a vegetal door frame cross-referenced to the Finnish architect Saarinen, or her discussion of a tomb in Dresden designed by Max Taut and decorated by Otto Freundlich. It is a story which suddenly opens up into a brief but harrowing account of racial persecution and violent death.

That Schönemann, in her discussion of the 1920 version of Der Golem, can raise the delicate question of the “typically Jewish” iconography in Poelzig’s designs, without skirting the question of (negative) stereotyping, indicates her sensitivity and sure historical grasp, while leaving open to what extent the legend of the Golem can be interpreted as a creation myth, a robot story with anti-semitic traits, or as a narrative of Jewish “survival” in a hostile, intolerant environment, retracing the heroic – and historic – struggle for Jewish emancipation around the figures of Rabbi Löw and the Emperor Rudolf II. In this chapter on Der Golem – although it deals with Wegener’s most important and best-known film (attesting to the dignity, sympathy and respect the director had for the central figure) – Schönemann, perhaps surprisingly, makes Wegener the director recede into the background, barely visible in the tapestry she weaves of references and echoes that easily cross from architectural theory to narratology, from German-Jewish relations to theatre history.

One welcome consequence of Paul Wegener: Frühe Moderne im Film is that it further helps to disengage German cinema of the 1910s from its traditional role as either retarded in relation to international (French, Danish and American) developments, or at best merely the precursor of the Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. Schönemann gives Wegener’s films, their narratives and visual elements, their acting and spatial compositions, a stylistic signature and a dramaturgical logic of their own, seeing them as part of a distinct neo-Romantic legacy, with roots in the 19th century and its diverse image cultures, both high and popular. From the methodological point of view, her “thick” biographical description of professional networks, friendships and personal contacts, combined with an equally exacting eye for what Aby Warburg called the “pathos-forms” of images, enriches film history with a new historical depth, and adds considerable texture to our current pre-occupation with “visual culture”. Convincingly demonstrating how motifs can migrate between the period idioms and across the arts, the book stresses the subtly modifying but also amplifying resonances that such transpositions engender in cultural meanings. Whatever the heady mix of a difficult personality (he was married five times) and of cloudy metaphysics (a Northern Protestant attracted to Buddhism), Wegener’s enabling role in the arts of his time and his curiosity for the technical media, which brought so many other creative talents into his films, ensure that his work contributes to a modernity in many ways just as radical as Expressionist storm-and-stress, while cautioning us from conflating his philosophy with the “reactionary modernism” of the late ’20s and early ’30s.

It would be pleasing to think that Paul Wegener: Frühe Moderne im Film will find a publisher able and willing to produce an English edition. While waiting for such an eventuality, funds should be found to translate at least the chapter on the 1920 version of Der Golem, for it is difficult to think of the work of many other scholars working in the field, perhaps with the exception of Yuri Tsivian, who like Heide Schönemann can combine an extensive knowledge of art history and cultural studies with such a fine eye for filmic images and their multiple reverberations.

Paul Wegener: Frühe Moderne im Film, by Heide Schönemann, Alex Menges, Stuttgart and London, 2003.

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About The Author

Thomas Elsaesser is Professor Emeritus of Cinema Studies at Amsterdam University and since 2013 Visiting Professor at Columbia University.