The German film critic Lotte Eisner claimed that his script for Nosferatu was "full of poetry, full of rhythm." I've read it and agree. The script, by the way, can be read in full here.
Singling out Galeen's brilliance is a tough thing to do properly. This is not because Galeen wasn't a brilliant writer (he was), rather it is because filmmaking is a collaborative effort. Yes, Nosferatu is one of the world's greatest films and one of cinema's greatest scripts, and yet the reasons for that are far greater than Galeen. There is of course the fact that the film is based on a popular novel (Dracula), as well as the often highlighted reality that the man who directed the film - F.W. Murnau - was a genius. Everyone else who worked on the film, even the nameless grips and errand boys, deserve some credit as well.
Still, despite the group work nature of filmmaking, some stars shine brighter. As one of the men responsible for the golden era of German filmmaking, Galeen has earned his right to be spotlighted.
Henrik Galeen was born in 1881 in the dying Hapsburg lands. Much of his earlier life is unknown, with only a few snippets of credible evidence existing. For instance, it's known that he was a German-speaking Jew. For years his birthplace was unknown, but most now believe that Lemberg, today the Ukrainian city of Lviv, was his hometown. Unlike his fellow Austrians, Galeen managed to avoid serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, which most likely would've been a death sentence considering that fighting force's staggering casualty rates.
Sometime before 1914, Galeen found himself in Wilhemite Germany, specifically Berlin. Galeen became a touring actor. He also knew and studied under the famous Max Reinhardt, the very same man who taught Max Schreck, the future Graf Orlok of Nosferatu fame. It has also been stated at various times that Galeen also worked as a journalist.
Galeen's first foray into films came in 1913 when he started working on screenplays for various films and film companies. Often his work went uncredited and unacknowledged. This would not maintained though, for in 1915 he wrote, directed, and acted in Der Golem.
The Golem is based on the medieval Jewish legend concerning Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel and his attempts to protect the Jewish community of Prague by building an anthropomorphic human out of clay. Brought to life by the shem, the golem Josef could make himself invisible and even summon the dead. The golem, which has its origins in the Old Testament with the creation of Adam, the first man, is essentially the first Frankenstein narrative, except that magic and mysticism replace science.
Galeen's film is today considered one of the earliest monster movies, and a good one at that. In the film, Galeen plays an antiques dealer who discovers a golem statue (played by Paul Wegener) from many centuries earlier. Galeen revives the creature in the hopes of making the golem his servant. Unfortunately, the golem falls in love with the dealer's wife (played by Lyda Salmonova, who would later marry Wegener in real-life), and when he is rejected, he murders several people in a cloud of fury.
A lost film (although some contend that a complete print exists), The Golem would prove highly influential in the later development of horror cinema in Germany. Galeen would be at the forefront of this development, and after co-writing 1920's The Golem: How He Came Into the World, Galeen's status as one of Germany's pre-eminent fear-makers was cemented.
After World War I, Galeen began working for the legendary German studio Ufa. One of his first films with the company was Nosferatu. After being hired to write a screenplay based on Dracula, Galeen turned out what is widely believed to be his greatest script. Unfortunately, Bram Stoker's wife and the rest of his estate were not fans, and the film was almost shelved eternally for failing to get the widow's permission.
Galeen's later horror scripts included 1924's Waxworks and 1926's The Student of Prague (which he also directed). Waxworks, which was directed by the great Paul Leni, deals with a writer hired to boost the attendance at a waxworks museum which features the likenesses of such people as Jack the Ripper and Ivan the Terrible. Waxworks stars some of the major figures of the German silent era, such as Emil Jannings (Faust, The Last Laugh), Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Hands of Orlac), and Werner Krauss (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and the film is Leni's last German-language feature before he immigrated to the United States.
Galeen's script for Waxworks was heavily cut by Leni, although the spirit of thing remains true to Galeen's initial vision. The film's protagonist, an unnamed poet played by William Dieterle, is the perfect Expressionist character - a dreamer plagued by his own thoughts, a struggling artist trying to find a benefactor, and an egoist who constantly finds ways of placing himself inside of the stories involving the museum's historical figures. A strange, alienating film that resembles The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in some ways, Waxworks is the first in a long line of sub-genre films involving haunted waxworks. Others of this type include Michael Curtiz's Mysteries of the Wax Museum (1933) and 1953's House of Wax (which stars Vincent Price).
Galeen's final two German horror films - The Student of Prague and Alaraune - help to connect Galeen to another German horror maestro - Hanns Heinz Ewers. Ewers, a Nazi sympathizer and a lifelong German nationalist, was a poet, actor, and novelist who crafted some of Germany's weirdest tales during the early 20th century. H.P. Lovecraft was a fan, and so too were German cinema audiences, who had adored 1913's The Student of Prague, which Ewer's co-directed and wrote. Galeen's version, which was released in 1926 and is also known as The Man Who Cheated Life, stays faithful to the original tale. Conrad Veidt's Balduin is a lonely, broke student who falls into the clutches of the moneylender Scapinelli (played by Werner Krauss), who is a stand-in for the Devil. After signing a contract (i.e. giving his soul away), Balduin is tortured by his mirror familiar, a doppelgänger who commits a series of terrible crimes.
Galeen's next directorial production after his Student of Prague was Alraune, yet another story based upon a medieval legend and an earlier work by Ewers. A highly erotic vampire film, Alraune deals with a mad scientist (played by Paul Wegener) and his attempts to artificially inseminate a prostitute with the semen of a hanged criminal. Since legend holds that a hanged man's semen causes mandrakes to grow, the crazed doctor instructs his nephew Franz (played by the Serbian actor Iván Petrovich) to not only find a suitable mandrake, but also a representative from "the scum of society." Franz obliges and after the experiment, Alraune (played by Brigitte Helm of Metropolis fame) is born. Alraune, as the soulless byproduct of multiple crimes, spends her entire life sucking the life out of men and coldly seducing them to do awful things.
After the release of Alraune, Galeen moved to Great Britain in order to direct several films. In 1931, he moved back to Berlin but soon found himself moving again thanks to the Nazis. First he landed in Sweden, then he went back to the U.K. Finally, Galeen settled in the United States and eventually died in Randolph, Vermont in 1949. The "photographic imagination" of Galeen was not widely mourned upon his death. Hopefully this small blog post corrects in some ways that grievous error.