Monday, August 26, 2013

In A Silent Way: Paul Wegener

Silent films really exacerbated the notion of celebrity. Actors and actresses who were popular with the paying patrons became known as ‘movie stars’ and their imagery could not only sell tickets but also magazines and products should they choose to endorse them. Some of these screen idols exude a charisma that extends 80 or 90 years forward and I have come under the spell of a few.

One of my very favorites was a German actor/director named Paul Wegener. He was a giant of a man with a physique that looked as if Joe Shuster designed it in 1938. He was not particularly prolific but often he was associated with movies containing supernatural elements. I have seen three of his movies and offer these thoughts.

The earliest of these is 100 years old, a film titled “The Student of Prague”. As near as I can tell this was his film debut. Paul plays Balduin, the title character, an impoverished scholar who makes the acquaintance of a lovely and wealthy young countess. The poor lad is smitten by her but is forlorn that he doesn’t have the means to become a legitimate suitor. In this angst he meets the devil, sells his soul for fabulous wealth and the opportunity to make the ingĂ©nue his own. As you might well imagine things do not go the way Balduin bargained for.  

Jumping ahead 13 years, you have the 1926 feature called “The Magician”. Directed by Rex Ingram, it is based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. The story deals with a young Parisian sculptress, Margaret Dauncey, who suffers dire injuries when a piece that she is working on collapses. Paralysis is staved off thanks to the skills of a brilliant surgeon named Dr. Arthur Burdon. During her convalescence the couple fall in love and engage to marry.

They go to a fair where they encounter a mystic named Haddo (Wegener). As a magician, hypnotist and occultist, Haddo finds the saucy Margaret perfect for a scheme he has concocted. While combing arcane books he discovers one that has a formula for the creation of human life. An essential ingredient is the "heart blood of a Maiden".

Soon after, the magician pays an unannounced call upon the girl, at her studio. During the visit he mesmerizes her and transfers her affection for Arthur upon himself. On the scheduled wedding day, Dr. Burdon is at the alter when a note from Margaret arrives. She has married Haddo. The girl’s uncle is certain that, somehow, these events have been against her will and he begs Arthur to track her down. The doctor eventually finds them, just in time for a showdown in Haddo’s medieval tower laboratory.

After seeing this I am convinced that this movie was a big influence of James Whale’s “Frankenstein”. 

Wegener’s most iconic role was in the 1920 feature “The Golem: How He Came Into the World”. Paul not only starred as the Golem, he also co-directed it along with Carl Boese and co-wrote the screenplay with Henrik Galeen. I don't remember where I first saw the image of Wegener in the role, probably in Famous Monster, but for some reason it caught my imagination and for a long, long time it was one of the films in my "must see before I die" list. It’s actually the third in a series of movies where Wegener portrays the creature ( the others being 1915's "The Golem" and 1917's "The Golem And The Dancing Girl") It is however the most acclaimed of that trio and the only one set in the period of the original legend.

If you are unfamiliar with the folktale, the Golem was a hulking giant creature, sculpted from clay and brought to live through Cabalic magic. He was created to be the protector of the Jews in the ghetto of medieval Prague.

I originally saw it on VHS, but more recently caught it on DVD Comparing the print quality between the tape and the DVD is like comparing night and day. The DVD is clean, clear and includes tintings which provides more evidence that in their time these films did not display the "herky-jerky" quality that I always assumed from modern viewings. It also features a lovely soundtrack of music performed by a trio of violin, cello & piano.

Major kudos go out to set designer Hans Poelzig. Poelzig creates a 16th century ghetto that is as quirky, distinctive and remarkable as the sets created for "The Cabinet of Dr, Caligari". There is circular stairway featured that absolutely looks as if it came from a Roger Dean painting!

My highest recommendations go out to “The Magician” and “The Golem: How He Came Into the World”. Both were very entertaining. I give a more cautious approval to “The Student of Prague”. This one might be a little dry for some folks.


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