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Main article: Man Who Laughs

Paul Leni: Loss of a Jolly Master

When we think of great directors from the German Silent Era who died far too young, I think of three gentlemen: one is quite obvious, two are far less well known. 

The first would of course be F.W Murnau, who famously died in March 1931 via a Pacific Coast Highway auto crash just before his film Tabu was set to appear in California (an interesting piece of strange synchronicity: I unknowingly put up my appreciation of Murnau on the anniversary of his death, March 11th). 

The second, far less well known director who died under far more obscure circumstances in the haze of the early 1930's in Weimar Germany--on March 7th 1931, incidentally, four days before Murnau--was Lupu Pick, a pioneer German filmmaker to whom F. W. Murnau owed a great debt for the heavy prep work that his partner Carl Mayer cultivated working with Pick, essentially taking the more obvious, strange heaviness of atmosphere effected by unusual costumes and sets in the late teens and very early twenties, and injecting it more subtly into the very air of the film itself via light and shadow, camera movement, and an ethereal sum aura viz the proceedings via skillful mise en scene. Lupu Pick and his wife Edith Posca's death by suicide are not only extremely tragic and ignominious, but incredibly eerie, as it is foreshadowed by what was perhaps Pick's greatest accomplishment--the film Sylvester, aka New Year's Eve from 1924 .  .  .  a film that without doubt was contemporaneously celebrated more than any other title of Pick's (and more than most other directors, at the time).

The third, somewhat less well known (than Murnau--but better known than Lupu Pick) director from the German silent era whose death was an incredibly great loss to the cinema was Paul Leni .  .  . a director whose departure from earth was tremendous because of his great uniqueness of character, skill and hugely original style.

*          *          *

Paul Josef Levi was born in the summer of 1885 (just in time to be conscious of the world when Jack the Ripper struck across the northern seas in England three years later... Jack would find his way into a Leni film much later) to a Jewish family in Stuttgart. If I had the budget I would fly around Europe and excavate a lineage back to Leni's family in attempt to locate some surviving members that might have outlasted the extremely perilous WW2 years and fill in the blanks of this extremely important director's childhood. 

What I like so much about Leni is how much of the anti-Murnau he was. Whereas F. W. Murnau (and to a slightly lesser degree, Fritz Lang) was an extremely sophisticated art historian who never tired of quoting great paintings in his work, setting other historians off on detective work to pick out quote after quote, Leni seems entirely opposite. His images crackle with entirely original life--bursting with a unique mind, filled to the brim with its own emergency procession of self-generated images that he had to get out on the screen, Leni had no interest in arranging his actors and his set dressings in direct quotations of pre-existing vintage oil paintings. He was too busy painting his own new ones.

What marks Leni versus his contemporaries is his unique emotional temperament: equally preoccupied with the freight of death and gloom, Leni was the only of the grand trilogy of himself, Lang and Murnau who consistently injected the absurd into the mix .  .  .  thus coming up with completely unique combinations of the absurd, the ridiculous, the hideously exaggerated, the outrageously funny, with the dismal, the shadowy, the Grand Guignol, the genuinely frightening.

Leni, from what little we know about him, developed an early interest in art and by his mid teens was a devotee and practitioner of the avant garde. His sensibility was of a purely visual nature--he eventually studied at Berlin's Academy of Fine Arts, and worked his way through various assignments as an illustrator and painter for various journals, poster art publications and so on. Of this period, the New York State Writers Institute states,

"Leni began his career associated with the influential 1910's German avant-garde journal Der Sturm. A writer and illustrator .  .  .  "

Clearly, if the generally accepted chronology is to be trusted, by 1911 Leni somehow wound up nailing a job with Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater as a set designer. Dates for Leni are unclear, but we know beyond doubt that, for example, during this prewar period in Berlin Reinhardt's theater also played host to the talents of Alexander Granach, F. W. Murnau, Conrad Veidt, and many many more. Unlike, for example, Murnau, Leni rode out the war years in Berlin, not serving in the military--probably as a result of his advanced age by the time the war broke out (he was thirty).

Is this escape from the mechanized death and destruction of the Great War the reason that Leni remained a jolly cinematic prankster, whereas Lang and Murnau were more preoccupied with sturm and drang? Who knows?

We know due to surviving film records that Leni got his start in the Berlin film industry by as early as 1913--a very early start in the business versus that of many of his contemporaries. Murnau, returning to Berlin after the close of the war in 1918, didn't begin shooting his first film The Blue Boy until 1919; ditto Fritz Lang for Halblut the same year.  

Thus, by the time that Lang and Murnau were just getting their start in the business, Paul Leni was a fully established veteran, having already directed The Diary of Dr. HartDornroschen, The Mystery of Bangalore (with Conrad Veidt, with whom Leni would frequently work) among others .  .  .  not to mention a large handful on which he worked as art director.

Playing a very large part in the man's distinctive and thoroughly modern--and hugely innovative--style was the fact that the vast bulk of the films that Leni directed, he also served as designer .  .  . if not designing the film sets himself, then having a large hand in the overall look and feel of the film by working very closely with his art director. Interestingly this worked in the opposite direction as well--the man's facility with the medium of film was so profound that those films that he worked on as art director, he also had a hand in as director: a perfect example of this is the positively stunning Hintertreppe/Backstairs.

During this period of the teens Leni bounced from company to company--Gloria Film GMbH, May Film, Union Film, PAGU and others, a journeyman director working with the cream of the crop of writers, directors, actors and producers. Examples of his stature include his ongoing work with Conrade Veidt, his working with venerable stage director Leopold Jessner, and grand national frau Henny Porten, Harry Leidtke, among others.

Sadly, a great amount of his directorial work running up to the early 1920's is lost, save for Dr. Hart, Dornroschen, and Backstairs. A recovery of Bangalore and Prinz Kuckuck - Die Höllenfahrt eines Wollüstlings (1919) would be key discoveries allowing us to peek into the development of a critical artist at the cusp of development into what would constitute an earth shattering style which would leave its imprint on the medium forever.

We do see in Backstairs the clear evidence of a man coming into his own in terms of direction, in terms of visualizing a psychological canvass upon which to move his characters. Here we see in action the following quote by Leni put into action:

"If the designer merely imitated photography to construct his sets, the film would remain faceless and impersonal. There has to be the possibility of bringing out an objects essential attributes so as to give the image style and colour... This is particulary necessary for films set wholly in a world of unreality. For my film DAS WACHSFIGURENKABINETT. I have tried to create sets so stylised that they evince no idea of reality. My fairground is sketched in with an utter renunciation of detail. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines and curves. It is not extreme reality that the camera percieves, but the reality of the inner event, which is more profound, effective and moving that what we see through everyday eyes, and I equally believe that the cinema can reproduce this truth, heightened effectively.I may perhaps cite the example of CALIGARI... and DER GOLEM, in which Hans Poelzig created a town's image. I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen everyday and to attain its true sinews... It will be seen that a designer must not construct 'fine' sets. He must penetrate the surface of things and reach their heart. He must create mood, even though he has to safeguard his independence with regard to the object seen merely through everydays eyes. It is this which makes him an artist. Otherwise I can see no reason why he should not be replaced by an adroit apprentice carpenter..."

This deep warping of the set with dreamscape touches finds itself in evidence in greater and lesser degrees throughout his work in the 1920's for Richard Oswald, Karl Grune, Ernst Lubitsch, E. A. DuPont and others. But without question the most famous example of Leni's use of Expressionist dreamscapes (literally, as the film I'm about to mention contains a tour de force final scene that is the dream landscape of a dozing Wilhelm Deiterle, playing a carnival writer) as filmic canvass is Das Wachsfigurenkabinett.

Written by legendary German writer of fantasic and eerie titles, Henrik Galeen (who also penned The Golem as well as Nosferatu and the 1920's Student of Prague), Waxworks--as the film is known in the English speaking world (and the way I'll refer to it since it's less of a mouthful)--is undoubtedly the film that broke Paul Leni as a global figure in the cinema. 

Original as original is likely to get, Waxworks is as strange today as it was the day it was released. Here we see Paul Leni completely unleashed, unchained by constriction and free to indulge both his appetite for the bizarre as well as the humorous. If ever there was a Jolly Gargoyle of the world of the cinema, surely that creature was the entirely harmless person of Paul Leni.

There are those who come to Waxworks expecting a horror film, and walk away disappointed as they are not "frightened." This is not a film for this kind of a viewer: this is a film for the lover of dreams, for those who download binaural beat apps for lucid dreaming, who take various supplements and eat loads of turkey to bug out on the excess L-Tryptophan. It's a film for lovers of envelopment in the unfamiliar, who treasure the reactions within the human system triggered by elements of the obscure, the ethereal, crooked leaning streets in ancient cities at night, strange texts and chants from bizarre societies from long long ago. These things do not "scare" one, but they cover one in a unique atmosphere of the unreal .  .  .  like laying in the dark and rubbing one's eyes and enjoying the phosphene burst in kaleidoscopic waves. Just like the director's peculiar returning to this kind of strange terrain of injecting the effect that the mind has on reimagined architecture, faces of long dead relatives a long time ago, childhood nightmares in the dark of the half-forgotten infantile crib, so will those viewers who truly connect with this material have a joy of sifting through this odd currency of the mind made plastic for all to view.

Take something extremely simple at the very beginning of Waxworks: at the start of the Baghdad episode, cop a gander at the window through which Dieterle views his beloved while he bakes out in the front of the dream world rock and mud contraption that constitutes their apartment/hut/house/something. She stands in a misshapen, lopsided window with a strange set of cross-hatched cutouts that look as though they were drawn by a child without the slightest sense of geometry or perspective, and then constructed by an architect. What exactly this arrangement is, what it does, why it's there--there isn't a soul on the earth that can answer this question. This piece of architecture is not there to serve that side of the mind... it is speaking entirely to another side of the brain, which fully understands .  .  .  .   

Clearly what we have here is the massive afterburn of Caligari, the last gasp of capital E Expressionism and--for my scorecard--perhaps its most tour de force incarnation. The impact of this film, via its use of a dreamlike conceit that was virtually dead by this time via the turning by Carl Mayer away from these drastic examples of viewer impact towards the more subtle tonalities of the Kammerspielfilm with Lupu Pick and finally F.W. Murnau, the impact is essentially impossible to overstate. Whereas Caligari was a global shocker, a first cracking open of the door so wide that it stunned and shocked, Waxworks blew the industry away as well as the public. There would be no Waxworks Foxtrot won by Leni in the New York and Paris dance halls, but he did win an invitation to America by Carl Laemmle for a very fruitful contract with Universal.

The big difference between the work accomplished by Leni in Germany and that in the Hollywood is, to these aging eyes, the following: the culmination of the work that Leni had been doing in his home country was the Jack The Ripper sequence in Waxworks, which Signfried Kracauer said famously was “a very short sequence which must be counted among the greatest achievements of film art.”

A statement with which--rare for much of Kracauer's psychobabbling--I wholeheartedly agree with. 

Let me go on with my difference between German and Hollywood work. With the Jack the Ripper sequence, Leni essentially took the cinema to such a high artistic, wordless, elegant, crystalline level of visual perfection there was basically nowhere to go with it (a criticism that is often, incidentally, levelled at Expressionism in general because of its high volume lack of opportunities for modulation).

The culmination of Leni's work in Hollywood is the sum of all of the parts, all through the pictorialism of The Cat & The Canary, The Last Warning, and the sublime Man Who Laughs are of the loftiest, most unique heights of the filmic art--and these films have been mined endlessly by the greatest directors and the greatest films in the world, particularly those that work in the world of the fantastic film .  .  . James Whale, Georges Franju, any suspense, arthouse or horror film that combines a high pictorial art of the greatest greats with the strangest of the strange.

There is a place to go from his Hollywood work--other directors can take this material and move profitably sideways. With the Ripper episode in Waxworks, there is no place to go but down

 

Those who mix the finest cinematography possible with the most imaginative use of the moving camera, played out against a backdrop of Gothic strangeness and absurdity (sound era Eisenstein, Terry Gilliam, Roman Polanski) are honoring the strange foundational example of Paul Leni in Hollywood.

It is very rare--and thus hugely refreshing--when we have in our midst or our past a man bursting with such rare genius who is at the same time completely unpretentious and takes the piss out of his work at every turn. Without the ridiciculous milk truck driver,  psychiatrist in Cat & The Canary, peeping-tom messenger or guitar-breaking cheek puffing Dirry Moir in Man Who Laughs, or Spiderwebbed female stooge or bouncy Bert Roach in The Last Warning, we'd likely have no Doctor Praetorious, Horace Femm, or--strictly in terms of art direction-- DNA for the Universal Horror Film (and thus the horror film) in general. 

Paul Leni's death, whether we realize it or not, was one of the profoundest to strike cinema; in my view, via his ability to work so well with actors and consistently get that special brand of absurdity into his narratives (he obviously created a jovial atmosphere on his sets), and combine these fruits so seamlessly into flawless and inventive pictorialism, he was well primed to pivot beautifully into the sound film.

He was obviously set to become the premiere sound era director for the Laemmles .  .  .  he died just as the sonorized silents he was making were beginning to give way to sound films at Universal. Who can fail but wonder what Frankenstein, or Dracula, Murders In The Rue Morgue, or so many other films (The Raven!) would have turned into under his expert hand. Who knows where he would have moved afterwards? Leni in Technicolor!

His death by blood poisoning as a result--of all things--a tooth infection is for me among the top two or three losses the cinema has known. He had so much to give, great movies to make, and recognition to earn among a more modern audience. It's a great shame.

Preston Clive/H. Schreck

3/16/2015*** 

 


Preston Clive mar 16 15, 23:12
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