Leopold Jessner (3 March 1878–13 December 1945) was a noted producer and director of German Expressionist theater and cinema. His first film, Hintertreppe (1921), is considered a major turning point which paved the way for the later German Expressionist experiments of German filmmakers F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and G.W. Pabst.
A native of Königsberg, Jessner was a touring actor in his youth and turned to directing in 1911. He was director of the Berlin State Theatre from 1919–1925 and was known for bare stages in which flights of steps served as different spaces for scenes and directing actors to act in an oversimplified, unnatural manner.
Hintertreppe (German for Backstairs), Jessner’s first film (co-directed with Paul Leni), highlighted Jessner’s use of these heavily stylised staircases. These staircases would become regular fixtures in later German films, nicknamed “Jessnertreppe” in Jessner’s honor, and would be used to full effect in the 1926 German Expressionist film Faust, directed by F.W. Murnau. Jessner’s direction is often considered heavy-handed and clusmy in regards to this picture, and critics accuse Jessner of forcing inappropriate theatrical conventions into the cinema.
Being both Jewish and a Socialist, he was forced to emigrate to the United States in 1933, after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. He worked in film anonymously in the United States until his death, in Los Angeles.
- Hintertreppe (1921) (aka Backstairs) (Directed with Paul Leni)
- Earth Spirit (1923)
- Maria Stuart, Teil 1 und 2 (1927) (aka Mary Queen of Scots) (Directed with Friedrich Feher)
- Children of the Fog (1935) (Directed with John Quin)