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One of the most noteworthy names in Weimar cinema, Henrik Galeen – to whom the Viennale 2021 has dedicated a special retrospective – stood out at the beginning of the last century above all for the dark and disturbing character he used to give his works, now as scriptwriter, now as director or actor.

In an aura of mystery

“Nosferatu’. “Not Dead”. The name that screenwriter and director Henrik Galeen chose for the film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in order not to have rights issues. The name of Nosferatu, therefore, has by then become part of the collective imagination, just like the iconic figure of the actor Max Schreck in the role of the disturbing protagonist. And if, therefore, the expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu – directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in 1922 – has become a milestone in film history, it is also thanks to Henrik Galeen, who wrote the screenplay for the film. One of the most noteworthy names in Weimar cinema, Galeen – to whom the Viennale 2021 has dedicated a special retrospective – stood out at the beginning of the last century above all for the dark and disturbing character he used to give his works, now as scriptwriter, now as director or actor. And, just like many of the characters he created, his life too is somewhat shrouded in an aura of mystery.

Born on January 7, 1881 in Lviv, a town in the Ukraine that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, Heinrich Weisenberg came from a family of Jewish descent. After a short period working as a journalist, Galeen moved to Berlin and started working at a very young age as an assistant for the Austrian director Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and later worked as a director at the Volksbühne, also in Berlin. The film world, which at the time was turning into an increasingly powerful industry, did not take long to fascinate him and his debut in the seventh art finally came a few years later, in 1915, when he wrote and directed together with Paul Wegener the masterpiece The Golem.

Already from his first feature film, certain constants in his filmography could be noticed, especially with regard to gloomy and macabre atmospheres (often softened by Wegener himself), perfectly in line with the emerging expressionist movement. From then on, Henrik Galeen’s career was marked by numerous successes and as many feature films that became part of world film history. After a reworking of his first feature film, The Golem: How He Came into the World was made in 1920, again directed by Paul Wegener together with Carl Boese. This story would keep him busy on several occasions during his lifetime and these two films were to be followed by a third version in an anti-fascist key, which Galeen started working on in 1943 together with Paul Falkenberg, but never completed.

Among the major Expressionist films Galeen took part in were, in addition to the aforementioned Nosferatu, Waxworks (Paul Leni, 1924), Alraune (1928), which he also directed and which starred Brigitte Helm and Paul Wegener himself, and, above all, The Student of Prague, which he wrote and directed, starring a masterful Conrad Veidt, and a remake of the feature film of the same name directed by Stellan Rye in 1913.

Yet, if these are Galeen’s most famous works, in the course of his career the author actually had the opportunity to try his hand at all genres of Weimar cinema. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are the comedy The Telephone Operator (Hanns Schwarz, 1925), the melodrama The Lady with the Mask (Wilhelm Thiele, 1928) and The House of Dora Green (1933), the only sound film he made, which he also directed.

The last years of Henrik Galeen’s career were quite eventful. After moving to Great Britain from 1928 to 1931 (where he worked mainly as a supervisor and where he made only one film as a director in 1929, After the Verdict, adapted by Alfred Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville from Robert Hichens’ novel of the same name), Galeen returned to Germany for a short time, but in 1933, due to his Jewish origins, he was forced to emigrate first back to Great Britain, then to the United States. His career, unfortunately, with the exception of a few unfinished projects, was now over.

Despite his few years of activity, Henrik Galeen contributed significantly to the development of Weimar and Expressionist cinema and many of the films he wrote are now considered cult films. The author is today mainly appreciated for the fantastic, gloomy and decidedly disturbing tones that have become trademarks for his screenplays, while with regard to his directorial approach, he has not experimented with anything particularly new, although he has directed quite remarkable feature films. And yet, his name now belongs by right to the great authors of cinema of the past, and his particular history, often shrouded in mystery, just as happened to the protagonists of his films (suffice it to say that about fifty years ago he was thought to be still alive and over ninety years old, when, in fact, he had already died on July 30, 1949 in Randolph, Vermont), contributes to making his figure even more interesting and fascinating. A ‘mystery creator’ who made mystery to all intents and purposes the heart of his life.

Info: the page of Henrik Galeen on iMDb