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05 September 2011

Harry Piel

German ‘dynamite’ director, actor, producer and screenwriter Harry Piel (1892 - 1963) made over 150 sensational films full of explosions and stunts. With his iron nerves he was Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks and Eddy Polo, all in one person.

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 4587/1, 1929-1930. Photo: Ariel Film.

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 5046/2, 1930-1931. Photo: Ariel Film.

Stunt Pilot
Hubert August Piel was born in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1892, as the son of an inkeeper and a farmer's daughter. His career started already adventurous. After attending elementary school in Benrath and secondary school in Düsseldorf, Piel became a cadet in 1909 on a sail training ship, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, but seven months later, he was sent back home because of a heart failure. He started a commercial apprenticeship, did some odd jobs (including working in a circus) and studied several foreign languages. In 1911 he went to Paris to become a stunt pilot. In France he met director Léonce Perret, who introduced him to Gaumont. There he wrote his first script and the cinema became his passion. In 1912 he moved to Berlin where he founded his first film company, the Kunst-Film-Verlags-GmbH. His debut as a director-writer-producer was the adventure film Schwarzes Blut/Black Blood (1912, Harry Piel) starring Curt Goetz. Even though his company went bankrupt, Piel had become established. In the following years he shot dozens of short films full of action and adventure such as Der Triumph des Todes/The triumph of the death (1912, Harry Piel), Ein Millionenraub/A million robbery (1914, Harry Piel), and Die grosse Wette/The Large Bet (1916, Harry Piel), all starring Ludwig Trautmann. As a director he had the nickname ‘the dynamite director’ because of all the exploding bridges and houses in his films. These explosions were often authentic. A demolition engineer notified him about forthcoming blow ups. He filmed the explosions and inserted the footage into his films.

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 455/2, 1919-1924. Photo: Rembrandt.

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 525/1, 1919-1924. Photo: Franz Meinecke, Berlin.

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag, nr. 525/2, 1919-1924. Photo: Franz Meinecke Phot.

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 525/3, 1919-1924. Photo: Franz Meinecke, Berlin.

Joe Deebs, Private Investigator
In 1915, Harry Piel became too bored with just standing behind the lens and he started to act before the camera. His first film as a leading actor, Die große Wette/The Large Bet (1916, Harry Piel), was a science fiction film on the subject of man-machines. In Unter heißer Zone/Under the Hot Sun (1916, Harry Piel) he used scenes with wild animals for the first time. He pretended that he did all his stunts himself, but the most dangerous stunts were carried out by Hermann Stetza. During 1918 and 1919, Piel directed and starred in eight films of the Joe Deebs, private investigator, series. Internationally he became a popular film star under the name of Harry Peel. In 1927 he starred in a double role alongside Marlene Dietrich in Sein größter Bluff/His Greatest Bluff (1927, Henrik Galeen, Harry Piel). That same year he married actress Dary Holm, who appeared in several of his films.

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 1901/1, 1927-1928. Photo: Nero Film. Piel played a double role in the film of this still

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 1295/3, 1927-1928. Photo: Atelier Bernhardt, Berlin.

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3567/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Ufa.

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3343/2, 1928-1929. Photo: Ufa.
Publicity still for Panik/Panic (1928, Harry Piel) in which Piel plays Mister X, alias Harry Peel, alias The Rajah of Lahore.

Doppelganger
Effortlessly Harry Piel changed to sound film in the doppelganger comedy Er oder ich/Him or Me (1930, Harry Piel) with Valerie Boothby. Many adventure films followed, such as the box-office hits Schatten der Unterwelt/Shade of the Underworld (1931, Harry Piel) with Elisabeth Pinajeff, Jonny stiehlt Europa/Johnny Steals Europe (1932, Andrew Marton, Harry Piel) with Alfred Abel, and Der Dschungel ruft/The Call of the Jungle (1935, Harry Piel) with Gerda Maurus. Then however difficulties began with Panik/Panic (1940-1943, Harry Piel), about an animal catcher who works for German zoos. At the film's climax, an air-raid on a German city frees the wild animals in the zoo and only the heroic trapper can recapture them. The authorities found the air strikes too realistic and did not want the public to believe that Germany was in danger, so the film was forbidden. Furthermore his production company, Ariel Film Co., was liquidated through the nationalization and 72 negatives of his films, nearly all silent films, were destroyed with an air strike. He was a sustaining member of the NSDAP (the Nazi party), and after the war he first concealed this to his enquirers. He was sentenced to six months detention and five years professional disqualification. After his denazification in 1950, he refounded Ariel Film. His last directorial effort was Gesprengte Gitter/Elephant Fury (1953, Harry Piel) with Dorothea Wieck, which was based on Panik. However it had only moderate success. Piel gave up Ariel-film in 1960 and retired. Harry Piel died in Munich, Germany in 1963.

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag. Photo: Ariel Film.

Harry Piel
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 6302/2, 1931-1932. Photo: Ariel-Film.

Harry Piel
German postcard. Photo: Ariel Film/Siegel-Monopol.

Sources: Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Stephanie D'heil (Steffi-Line) (German), Wikipedia, Filmportal.de and IMDb.

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