Robert Wiene: Film History Series

Robert Wiene, “The Hands of Orlac”, 1924, Silent Horror Film, Running Time 99 Minutes, Cinematography Günther Krampf and Hans Androschin, Producer Pan-Film

Robert Wiene was born in April of 1873 in the German Empire city of Breslau, now the city of Wroclaw in Poland. He was a German film director, producer and screenwriter who worked in a variety of genres including the German Expressionist movement of the early twentieth-century. Wiene was the elder son of theatrical actor Karl Wiene and the brother of Conrad Wiene, who also entered the German film industry. 

Wiene traveled during his formative years with his family throughout Central and Western Europe; he lived in Stuttgart, Vienna, Dresden and Prague. Wiene studied law at the University of Berlin and the University of Vienna where he earned his law degree. He practiced law in the central German city of Weimar until 1908. At which time, Wiene relocated to Vienna for a position as manager of a theatrical company; this position gave him the opportunity to perform in its stage productions. 

Robert Wiene’s initial participation in the German film industry was writing the screenplay for director Friedrich Müller’s 1913 silent film “Die Waffen der Jugend (The Weapons of Youth)”. This film is now considered a lost film. In the following year, Wiene directed his first film, “Er Rechts, Sie Links (He This Way, She That Way)”, a marital short comedy for the Berlin-based Messter Film. Messter Film became the center of the German film industry and played a prominent role in the development of the longer-running feature film. Between 1914 and 1918, Wiene wrote the screenplays for fifteen movies he directed for Messter Film. 

In 1919, Wiene and Austrian film director Heinz Hanus founded the “Association of Film Directors in Vienna”. This association was a member of what would become the Filmbund, a professional support group for the Austrian film industry which was on the verge of collapse. In 1920, Wiene directed what is probably his best known film, the 1920 silent horror film “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”, considered the archetypal work of German Expressionist cinema. The script was written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, both pacifists, and was inspired by their experiences with the military during World War I.  

After the success of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, Robert Wiene became an independent director for the remainder of his career. In 1923 for Neumann-Film-Produktion GmbH, he directed and wrote the screenplay for the 1923 silent drama “Raskolnikow”, an adaption of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s epic 1866 novel “Crime and Punishment”. An avant-garde psychological drama, it starred Ukrainian-born actor Gregori Chmara and premiered in Berlin. This film also had a strong influence on the development of German cinema.

Wiene continued to direct and write screenplays for silent films until 1928. His final silent film was the 1928 “Unfug der Liebe (Folly of Love)” for Max Glass Film. Austrian director Max Glass wrote the screenplay and produced the film, which starred Maria Jacobini and the British actor Jack Trevor. Wiene directed his first sound film, the 1930 drama “Der Andere (The Other)”, at Berlin’s Terra Studios. He shot a French-language version entitled “The Prosecutor Hallers” immediately afterwards with different actors at the same studio. Wiene directed three more films in 1931: “Panik in Chicago”, “Der Liebesexpress (The Love Express)”, and in collaboration with French director Pierre Billon, “Nuits de Venise (Venetian Nights)”. 

In 1933, Robert Wiene directed “Taifun (Typhoon)”, a drama film based on writer Melchior Lengyei’s 1911 play of the same name. This was Wiene’s last film in Germany. In May of 1933 four months after the National Socialist Party took power, the film was banned. The film was seen by the censors as portraying Asian characters as more noble than Europeans; the censors were also concerned the film’s portrayal of the French justice system as incompetent might undermine the audience’s faith in the German system. The film was heavily reshot with an altered plot under the title “Polizeiakte 909”; the Japanese were now portrayed as unsympathetic villains. 

Wiene relocated to Budapest in 1933 and never returned to Germany. In September of that year, he started directing the 1934 “Eine Nacht in Venedig (One Night in Venice)” for Hunnia-Film, at that time the most significant sound film studio in Hungary. Two versions were shot simultaneously, a German language film and a Hungarian version with Hungarian actors. After finishing the film, Wiene traveled to London and finally to Paris where he attempted to make a sound remake of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” with artist Jean Cocteau. 

Robert Wiene died in Paris from cancer on the seventeenth of July in 1938, ten days before the end of production on his spy thriller “Ultimatum”. The film was finished posthumously by his friend Robert Sildmak, a prominent film director at Universal Films in Hollywood. Robert Wiene was buried at Paris’s Bagneux Cemetery in a temporary concession plot that was later recycled. There is no trace of his grave today. Only twenty of the ninety films Wiene created are currently known to exist. 

Note: Robert Wiene’s 1924 silent horror film “The Hands of Orlac” was based on French writer Maurice Renard’s novel “Les Mains d’Orlac”. It starred Russian Empire-born actress Alexandra Sorina and the prominent German-born British actor Conrad Veidt, who had played the murderous somnambulist in Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. The film was shot at the studios of Listo Film in Vienna and had its Berlin premiere in September of 1924.

Several reconstructed versions of the film exist today with new sound scores by such composers as Henning Lohner, Paul Mercer, and Donald Sosin. German-émigré film director Karl Freund, as a final assignment with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, directed a 1935 adaption of Renard’s novel under the title “Mad Love”. This film starred Peter Lorre as Dr. Gogol, Frances Drake as Yvonne Orlac, and Colin Clive, known for his 1931 role of Henry Frankenstein, as the somnambulist Stephen Orlac.  

In 1960, French filmmaker Edmond T. Gréville directed both an English and French version of “The Hands of Orlac”, based on his screenplay of Renard’s novel, that starred Mel Ferrer, Dany Carrel, Lucile Saint-Simon and Christopher Lee. The film’s cinematography was done by Desmond Dickinson and featured a score by French pianist and jazz composer Claude Bolling. 

Second Insert Image: Robert Wiene, “The Hands of Orlac”, 1924, (Alexandra Sorina and Conrad Veidt), Cinematography Günther Krampf and Hans Androschin

Third Insert Images: Robert Wiene, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, 1930, (Conrad Veidt), Cinematography Willy Hameister

Fourth Insert Image: Robert Wiene, “The Hands of Orlac”, 1924, (Conrad Veidt), Cinematography Günther Krampf and Hans Androschin

Bottom Insert Image: Robert Wiene, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, 1930, (Werner Drauss and Conrad Veidt), Cinematography Willy Hameister

One thought on “Robert Wiene: Film History Series

  1. There’s also another remake of THE HANDS OF ORLAC: 1935’s MAD LOVE with Peter Lorre and Colin Clive.

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