Motion Picture Director, Screenwriter, Producer. His fame rests on "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920), one of the first and most influential German Expressionist films. A sinister tale of a sideshow proprietor who commands a somnambulist to kill, it used jagged, deliberately artificial production design and acting to convey a relentless nightmare atmosphere. Many consider it the first true horror movie. Wiene was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), the son of famed stage actor Carl Wiene. He studied law at the University of Vienna (1894 to 1896) and was a practicing attorney in Weimar before moving to Vienna in 1908 to help found a theatre for contemporary drama. Five years later he made his screen debut in Berlin as director of the short "Arms of Youth". From 1914 to 1920 he was employed by the Messter and Decla-Bioscop studios, writing and directing some two dozen films (several starring Henny Porten) while also providing scripts for others. During that time he aided the early careers of actors Conrad Veidt, Emil Jannings and Lil Dagover, and of director F.W. Murnau, whose second feature "Satanas" (1920) he wrote and produced. Wiene was approached to make "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" after Fritz Lang, the original choice to direct, declined because of other commitments. Screenwriters Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz intended their story as an anti-authoritarian allegory, and had brought in Expressionist painters Hermann Warm, Walter Röhrig, and Walter Reimann to create sets that would show a postwar German world on the brink of collapse. Wiene was quick to approve this unprecedented visual scheme, shooting a test reel to convince the reluctant producers of its effectiveness. More controversially, he endorsed the suggestion (allegedly made by Lang) of giving the story a "twist ending" that logically explained away the film's main events. While this undercut the authors' intentions it made the project more marketable than a straight avant-garde film would have been. "Caligari" was an international blockbuster that ushered in the Golden Age of German cinema. Its notoriety effectively carried Wiene through the early sound era, giving him the clout to act as his own producer. He alternated program fare with big prestige productions. Notable are the Mayer-scripted "Genuine" (1920), a failed attempt to outdo "Caligari", now something of a cult item; an Expressionist Dostoyevsky adaptation, "Raskolnikow" (1923), featuring members of the Moscow Art Theatre; "I.N.R.I" (1923), a Biblical epic; the famous psychological thriller "The Hands of Orlac" (1924); a lavish screen version of Richard Strauss's opera "Der Rosenkavalier" (1926), for which Strauss himself adapted the score; and the talkie crime drama "The Other" (1930). From 1924 to 1926 Wiene was de facto creative head of Austria's film industry as senior director of the Pan-Film studio in Vienna. His last German film, the espionage tale "Taifun" (1933), was banned as subversive by the Nazis, though they may have had a hidden agenda concerning Wiene's "non-Aryan" origins. (He gave few interviews and was elusive about his private life, but apparently he was a Jewish convert to Protestantism). In September 1933 he went to Hungary to direct "One Night in Venice" and never returned to Germany. His remaining years were spent in London and Paris fruitlessly trying to mount a sound version of "Caligari". He died of cancer while shooting the French spy thriller "Ultimatum" (1938). Burial was at the Bagneux Cemetery in Paris, in a temporary concession plot that was later recycled. There is no trace of his grave today. Wiene was a busy commercial craftsman who suddenly found himself hailed as a genius thanks to "Caligari". He never lived up to that success, though he tried, and his surviving output is uneven at best. After World War II historians re-evaluated him as a hack and attributed the brilliance of "Caligari" to everyone involved except the director - a dismissal as undeserved as the extravagant praise. Crime, madness, identity, and contrasts between Western and Eastern cultures were themes that occupied him throughout his career; he tackled all of them in "Fear" (1917) and "The Doll Maker of Kiang-Ning" (1923). He was good at sustaining darker moods and capable of eliciting excellent performances. He was even something of a maverick, maintaining his creative independence until Goebbels' film ministry took it away. If his style was stagy and impersonal it was still beneficial to "Caligari", allowing the painted-on milieu and the performers most in tune with it (Werner Krauss in the title role and Veidt as Cesare the somnambulist) to speak for themselves. Veidt's subsequent admission that "I never got 'Caligari' out of my system" reflects on the freedom Wiene offered him as an actor. Whatever can be said of his talents, he clearly provided the sympathetic environment that helped make "Caligari" unique. Perhaps a truer standard for judging Wiene's work is "The Hands of Orlac", in which he adroitly fused naturalism, Expressionist elements and a fetish-like eroticism. There are some memorable set pieces (the train wreck scene, Orlac's nightmare) and a mesmerizing star turn by Veidt. The publication of "Beyond Caligari: The Films of Robert Wiene" (1999) by Uli Jung and Walter Schatzberg, and the growing availability of his work through restorations and the internet, has sparked more even-handed assessments of the man and his movies.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards