Stuttgart, 8 July 1885.
Painter and stage designer, and member of avant-garde movement associated
, Berlin, 1900s; production designer, from 1914; directed first film,
1916; also worked as scenarist and actor; hired for Universal in Hollywood
by Carl Laemmle, 1927.
Of blood poisoning, 2 September 1929.
Das Tagebuch des Dr. Hart
Dornröschen (+ sc)
Platonische Ehe (+ co-prod des); Prinz Kuckuk (+ co-prod des)
Patience (+ sc, prod des)
Fiesco ( Die Verschwöhrung zu Genua ) (+ co-prod des); Das Gespensterschiff (+ prod des); Hintertreppe ( Backstairs ) (co-d, prod des); Komödie der Leidenschaften (+ prod des)
Das Wachsfigurenkabinett ( Waxworks ) (+ prod des)
The Cat and the Canary (in US); The Chinese Parrot (in US)
The Man Who Laughs (in US)
The Last Warning (in US)
Das Panzergewölbe (May) (prod des)
Der Katzensteg (Mack) (prod des); Das achte Gebot (Mack) (prod des)
Das Rätsel von Bangalor (assoc d, co-sc)
Der weisse Pfau (Dupont) (co-prod des, co-sc); Die Schuld der Lavinia Morland (May) (co-prod des, role); Veritas Vincit (May) (co-prod des)
Die Geier Wally (Dupont) (prod des); Kinder der Finsternis (Dupont) (prod des)
Frauenopfer (Grüne) (prod des)
Tragödie der Liebe (May) (prod des)
Die Frau von vierzig Jahren (Oswald) (prod des); Der Farmer aux Texas (May) (prod des); Der Tänzer meiner Frau (Korda) (prod des)
Manon Lescaut (Robinson) (costumes); Fiaker Nr. 13 (Kertesz) (prod des); Wie einst im Mai (Wolff) (prod des); Der goldene Schmetterling (Kertesz) (prod des)
"L'image comme action," in Cinématographe (Paris), February 1982.
Kracauer, Siegfried, From Caligari to Hitler , Princeton, 1947.
Eisner, Lotte, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt , Berkeley, 1969.
Willett, John, Art and Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety 1917–1933 , New York, 1978.
Bock, Hans-Michael, Paul Leni: Grafik, Theater, Film , Frankfurt, 1986.
Buache, Freddy, "Paul Leni 1885–1929," in Anthologie du Cinéma (Paris), vol. 4, 1968.
"Paul Leni," in Film Dope (London), March 1986.
Brandlmeier, Thomas, "Paul Leni," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 3, no. 12, December 1986.
* * *
Siegfried Kracauer, in From Caligari to Hitler , calls Paul Leni "one of the outstanding film directors of the post-World War I era," and refers to the Jack-the-Ripper episode of Waxworks as being "among the greatest achievements of film art." Yet Leni's name is familiar only to film scholars today.
Leni predates Hitchcock as a maker of thrillers; the screen clichés of trembling hands intent on murdering unsuspecting innocents, and corpses falling from opened doors, were first presented in his The Cat and the Canary. Excluding the films of Lon Chaney, he was the foremost practitioner of utilizing make-up to create grotesque creatures, silent-screen monsters who terrified audiences by looks alone.
Leni's death from blood poisoning at age forty-four denied the cinema what might have developed into a major career. Leni commenced his work in the German cinema as a painter, set designer, and art director, most notably collaborating with Max Reinhardt. These concerns carry through into his own films: his sets are strikingly stylized, dreamlike, and expressionistic.
Leni's attempt to go beyond the limits of photographed reality utilizing set and costume design was never more successfully realized than in Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks). The film, with its distorted sets and ingenious lighting, is as profound an example of surreal cinematic madness as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Three of the best-known actors in the post-World War I German cinema starred as the wax-work villains: Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, and Werner Krauss. Each appears in a separate episode as, respectively, Haroun-al-Raschid, Ivan the Terrible (who places hourglasses near each of his poison victims, so that they will know the exact moment of their deaths), and Jack the Ripper (a sequence that, in its dreaminess, is extremely Caligari-like). Veidt's Ivan allegedly influenced Sergei Eisenstein's conception of the character.
Like many foreign talents of the period, Leni ended up in Hollywood. As a result of his success with Waxworks , he was signed by Universal's Carl Laemmle. His first project was The Cat and the Canary , the original haunted-house movie and quite unlike its successor: here, heiress Laura La Plante and her nervous cronies spend a night in an old dark house. To his credit, Leni did not sensationalize the material. The film's chills result from atmosphere, from stylized, expressionistic set design. The mansion, seen in the distance, is eerily gothic; inside are long, winding corridors and staircases. The Cat and the Canary is not just a chiller, in that Leni adds charming touches of humor to the scenario. Paul Leni made only four features in Hollywood. His final one, prophetically titled The Last Warning , was his only talkie.