Paul Wegener Films Ranked
Note: “The Ranks of the Auteurs” is a written series that traces notable people, studios, and series throughout film history and ranks their work. This is the sixteenth installment, featuring Paul Wegener, who was born on December 11, 1874 in Arnoldsdorf, West Prussia and died on September 13, 1948 in Berlin, Germany.
OK, so maybe there are only three key, surviving (and/or easily accessible) Paul Wegener films, and yes, they are co-directorial credits. But the mainstay actor/producer/director of the German silent era was no slouch, shepherding and fronting challenging, standout films. However, as with most “auteurs” (a concept on which I must admit I am conflicted on and one that I dangerously romanticize for the sake of categorization), Wegener didn’t do it alone.
In fact, I’ve written about Wegener at considerable length before, in essays dedicated to two of the three directorial efforts he has left us with. His first, which was also his motion picture acting debut after years on the stage, was THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE. From there, he became a fixture in the Expressionist world and beyond. But perhaps I play up his ubiquity in the German film industry. It’s hard not to with his craggy, considerable frame, played to great effect in the Golem films and, ironically, his lone Hollywood film, THE MAGICIAN (1926). Wegener was married six times, twice to fellow actor Lyda Salmonova (his third and last wife). Greta Schröder, leading lady in F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1922), was his fourth. During World War II, and indeed before, Wegener worked under the Nazi regime, sponsored by the state. Apocryphal accounts put him as a sort of ringleader of resistance groups hiding people in Berlin, although I haven’t been able to find any real evidence of it. Shortly after the war, he began building theater up again in Berlin before he died in 1948.
As with many German actors and filmmakers of the era, their part in the country’s culture during the rise and regime of the Nazis complicates or indeed taints their silent legacy. Wegener is one of those, but ultimately, his three remaining co-directorial credits leave an impression of a consistent vision, assisted to execution by his frequent collaborators.
#3 — THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE (1913)
THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE is a proto-Expressionist film, made on the eve of the war that was to fuel the artistic “rebellion.” Much of its aesthetic is still naturalistic, filmed on location, but its Faustian tale and key, dark scenes (specifically in Balduin’s [played by Wegener] apartment) tell a different story. The film was co-directed by a Stellan Rye, a little-known Danish-born German filmmaker whose first film was also THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE. He would die the next year, fighting in France. Anyways, THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE was seen as an elevation of the art form, bringing stage-style complexity to the budding feature film form. But it does more than the stage, employing moody lighting and spooky effects only made possible by cinema, i.e. the doppelganger effect of Wegener/Balduin. An important film, and an enjoyable one even today.
#2 — RÜBEZAHL’S WEDDING (1916)
A film I was unaware of before looking into this piece, RÜBEZAHL’S WEDDING was co-directed by Rochus Gliese, most famed (in my mind) for his unparalleled art direction for Murnau’s sensational SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927). More than a decade before that, however, he brought his fantastical touch to, fittingly, a straightforward fantasy. Wegener also stars as the titular weird forest man, who doesn’t take kindly to strangers ‘round his parts and wants to get a bride out of it. His aggressive, affected delivery is an interesting contrast to the relative stoicism of his other mystical monster, the Golem. Generally, though, the film is more “whimsical” if not as restrained or detailed as THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE. And I’m always a sucker for whimsy.
#1 — THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD (1920)
The lasting work of Wegener and the only surviving film in the Golem “trilogy” he made, HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD is a semi-Expressionist historical fantasy centered on the Jewish legend of the Golem. As I’ve written before, THE GOLEM is most impressive, actually, for its fantastical Romanticism, blending exaggerated architecture with naturalistic, well, whimsy. The tone of the picture is like a painting, and Wegener gives it depth as the title monster. Co-director Carl Boese, best known for this film, probably provided more of the technical knowledge. The result of their approach is an impressive extrapolation of the Frankenstein blueprint, to be mined in cinema for decades.