Although nearly forgotten, Paul Wegener has unquestionably made the largest and longest lasting impact on the horror genre than any other single artist. His influence can be found in films, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Frankenstein (1931), Metropolis (1927) and many more films through the proceeding decades. Wegener was born December 11, 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 England 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, Wegener’s relationship with his father became what can only be described as dysfunctional. Otto seems to have lost all interest is youngest child after losing his wife.
At the age of 20 the 6’6” Wegener gave up his law studies to pursue an acting career. He made his stage debut at the Stadt Nurnberg. He continued to act in theater until 1905 when he made his film debut in DIE BYZANTIER directed by Victor Hahn. At the premier a talent-scout for Max Reinhardt of the Deutschen Theater was impressed with Wegener’s performance. The young actor was offered a contract with the Deutschen Theater which he gladly accepted. But after two years Wegener was denied renewal of his contract.
Wegener had been experimenting with trick photography during his days as a law student. Wegener reasoned that the same techniques of using double exposure to produce ghostly images in still photography can also be used in the motion picture as well. Wegener was also convinced that cinema could communicate, completely independent from literature and the stage, with imagery alone.
“The real creator of the film must be the camera. Getting the spectator to change his point of view, using special effect to double the actor on the divided screen, superimposing other images , all this technique, form, gives the content its real meaning” Paul Wegener
The concept of Autorenfilm, the idea of a movie should be considered a work of art based on the author’s work alone, was growing in popularity in Germany during the 1910’s. This was a radical concept in the age when film was not thought of as an art form at all. Paul Wegener was a strong proponent of Autorenfilm and applied this concept and trick photography techniques to his first horror project The Student of Prague (1913).
The Student of Prague (1913) also known as A Bargain with Satan, would rocket Paul Wegener to stardom making him the world’s first horror star. Wegener not only starred in this 1913 silent film he also co-directed it with Stellan Rye. With a run time of 1 hour 25 minutes, The Student of Prague (1913, which is hailed as the first true feature length film in history, premiered on August 22, 1913. It is reported the some of the audience members actually screamed when the student’s image steps out of the mirror. Although this effect was achieved with the ever so common double exposure technique that effect had never been seen by the movie going audience at that time and it did make quite an impression.
For his next project Wegener found inspiration from an ancient Jewish legend. While The Student of Prague (1913) is hailed as the first feature length horror film, The Golem (1915) is considered to be the first feature length monster film. The Golem (1915) was set in contemporary times and in this retelling of the legend, a Jewish rabbi restores a golem to life and uses the creature as a servant. The golem falls in love with the antique dealer's daughter. The daughter finds the golem repulsive and does not return his love, in retaliation the creature being begins to commits a series of murders.
Wegener was a natural for the role of the golem with his large stature and sharp features. Not only did he star in this film he also co-wrote and co-directed with Henrik Galeen. And he would again reprise the roles as star, writer and co-director along with Rochus Gilese in The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917). This film unlike the original had more of a comic twist. It was and still is for that matter considered a comedy /horror. The Golem (1915) and The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917) are both lost films.
The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) a prequel to The Golem (1915) was directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese. Written by Wegener and Henrik Galeen, the script was adapted from the 1915 novel The Golem by Gustav Meyrink and once again Wegener reprised his role as the golem. The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920) is considered to be an excellent example of German Expressionism in film.
Paul Wegener appeared in his first and only Hollywood film in 1926 in Rex Ingram's The Magician (1926), based on Somerset Maugham's story. In this film he played Oliver Haddo who with the aid of a dwarf attempted to create life in an old tower during a thunderstorm, foreshadowing James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931).
In 1933 when the National Socialists came to political power, theatre companies were disbanded and many of the actors and directors were arrested, persecuted or exiled. Wegener became an actor of the German state and agreed to appear in Nazi propaganda films. However there was another side to Wegener, who secretly donated money to resistance groups and hide those being persecuted in his apartment at the risk of his own personal safety.
Shortly after the end of World War II, the Soviet Supreme Commander General Berzarin ordered a sign to be placed in front of Wegener’s home in Berlin-Wilmersdorf to protect the aging actor from the occupying forces. The sign read:
" PAUL WEGENER LIVES HERE , THE GREAT ARTIST !
Loved and adored ALL OVER THE WORLD. "
Despite his declining health, Wegener joined with other actors and artists to help rebuild cultural life in Berlin after the end of the war. In 1947 he suffered a stroke that caused him to go to Switzerland for medical care. In 1948 Wegener returned to Berlin and accepted a part in the film DER GROSSE MANDARIN (1948), his last film role. In July 1948 he reprised his role a "Nathan the Wise" at the Deutschen Theatre. During the first scene he collapsed and the curtain was brought down. Two months later, on September 13th, 1948, Paul Wegener died in his sleep.