“I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evince no idea of reality... It is not extreme reality that the camera perceives, but the reality of the inner event, which is more profound, effective and moving that what we see through everyday eyes.”
Born Paul Josef Levi in Stuttgart, Germany, Leni went on to become one of the most important figures in German Expressionist cinema and also made a few influential films for Universal in the ‘20s that helped kick off their classic horror boom of the ‘30s. His distinctly expressionistic style, brought to the U.S. with The Cat and the Canary, represents the collision of German horror/fantasy films and American horror, which would help develop Universal’s classic horror films, as well influence the upcoming noir genre.
In Germany, Leni got his start as a painter and studied at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, which led him to work designing film posters and sets. He worked as an art designer for such directors such as Joe May, Max Mack, Ernst Lubitsch, E.A. Dupont, Karl Grune, Arthur Robison, and Alexander Korda. He began directing his own films in 1917. He made a handful of films in the late ‘10s and early ‘20s, though the most famous of these is Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1923). Also known as Waxworks, this is a silent anthology horror film about three personalities in a wax museum - Caliph of Baghdad, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper. This starred some of the most famous German actors of the period - Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, and William Dieterle (also later a director in his own right) - and went on to be one of the most beloved horror/fantasy works of German Expressionism. This experimental, carnivalesque film was hugely influential, reaching far past genre films and all the way to master director Sergei Eistenstein, who was influenced by the stylized cinematography of Helmar Lerski, and the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.
The success of Waxworks attracted the attention of German born Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal studios. After the success of the most famous German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Universal sought to capitalize on the dark themes and inventive, otherworldly visuals found in Expressionist cinema. Leni made four films for Universal, though his first was undoubtedly the most expressionistic and the most influential for American horror cinema. The Cat and the Canary (1927) is part mystery, part horror film, and part black comedy. It is full of Leni's trademark inventive, shadowy visuals. A long dead, wealthy, and eccentric man has his family called together to his creepy old mansion so that his will can be read, but they are forced to stay the night when a killer known as “the Cat” escaped from the local asylum and hides out somewhere in the house. This would go on to influence an entire sub-genre of “old dark house” films, all horror-themed murder mysteries set in spooky old houses.
Next, Leni made The Chinese Parrot (1927), the second film in the Charlie Chan series. Charlie Chan was a world-traveling Chinese American detective created by Earl Derr Biggers for a series of mysteries novels. Though the series is ridiculous by modern standards, they somewhat helped to counter negative stereotypes of Chinese villains like Fu Manchu. A film series began in 1926, though ironically only became popular a few films into the series when a caucasian in make up, instead of an Asian actor, was cast as Charlie Chan. The eventual popularity of Charlie Chan resulted in over a dozen U.S. films, Mexican and Chinese productions, radio shows, a television adaptation, a cartoon, comic books, games, and more. Leni’s film is now believed to be lost. The central mystery involves a jewel theft that is bizarrely solved by a parrot.
The Man Who Laughs (1928), Leni's next film, reunited him with German actor Conrad Veidt for this adaptation of the novel by Victor Hugo. Veidt briefly travelled to Hollywood in the late ‘20s to work before becoming a British and then American expatriate during WWII when he had to flee because of his Jewish wife. In The Man Who Laughs, Veidt stars as Gwynplaine, the disfigured son of a disgraced noble. As a child, a permanent smile was cut into Gwynplaine’s face and he makes his living appearing in carnivals until the Queen discovers who he is and orders him to marry the Duchess that currently holds his inheritance. Universal regular Mary Philbin appears as Dea, Gwynplaine’s blind love interest, a girl he rescued as a baby. He refuses to marry the corrupt Duchess and flees with Dea. Though this is more of a romantic melodrama, the expressionistic visuals and post-gothic plot elements place this near enough to the horror genre that it went on to influence subsequent genre films. Veidt as Gwynplaine was also the initial inspiration for the Joker in Bob Kane’s Batman comic.
Like Lon Chaney, Leni sadly died before he could have an impact on the American horror boom of the ‘30s, mostly controlled by Universal. If it had not been for his untimely death, he would likely have directed Dracula. The same is true of Lon Chaney, who was slated to appear in the titular role of the film if he had not died of cancer. It certainly would have been a very different Dracula than the one we know today.
If you want to know more about Leni, there are a lot of resources, though the best of these are books and not websites, because Leni doesn't have the popular following he deserves. Siegfried Kracauer’s influential From Caligari to Hitler and Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen are two of the best books on early German horror and include a lot more great information than just on Leni and his works. Also worth checking out is John Willet’s Art and Politics in the Weimar Period, which is a good run down of the art being produced during this period, and Vincent Brook’s Driven to Darkness: Jewish Emigre Directors and the Rise of Film Noir charts the influence of Leni and other German-Jewish emigres on the development of noir.