Paul Heinrich Diehl was born in Munich on 10 January 1886. His father was a painter. While his younger brothers Ferdinand (*1901) and Hermann (*1906) completed artistic training, Paul Diehl earned a doctorate in economics. He was a follower of the ideas of the German-Argentinean financial theorist and social reformer Silvio Gesell and belonged to the federal board of the Freiwirtschaftsbund (German Free Economic Association), which represented Gesell's teachings. In 1931, Diehl's book "Wohin führt uns der Nationalsozialismus?" (Where is National Socialism leading us?), which was published there, dealt very critically with the ideology of the Nazis, not least from the point of view of economic theory. After the Nazis came to power, the Freiwirtschaftsbund was banned.
Already before that, Paul Diehl had turned to film. When his brothers, who had worked in the animated film department of the Emelka Film Company, went into business in 1928 and began making their own first film, he joined them: "Kalif Storch", based on the fairy tale by Wilhelm Hauff, was a silhouette film similar to Lotte Reiniger's. The studio of their father, who had died shortly before, now served as their studio - a storage room of just 32 square metres. From the Emelka prodcution company, which was struggling financially, they bought an Ernemann camera, converted it to single-frame operation and built their own animation table: on it the silhouette figures were illuminated by light from above and animated with the stop-motion method. The 20-minute film was completed in 1930, after two years of work. By this time, however, sound film was already established, so that the silent film "Kalif Storch" no longer received much attention.
After this silhouette film, the three brothers turned to puppet animation - and received a lot of attention, at least in professional circles. Paul Diehl often acted as producer and author for the films, and later also wrote accompanying educational texts for the school films (however, details of his activities and contributions to the individual films have hardly been handed down). Herrmann Diehl created the elaborate and innovative puppets, Ferdinand Diehl was the director and animator for the films. Until then, most animated puppets had immobile faces and rigid limbs. The new Diehl puppets had interchangeable facial expressions (especially for the mouth parts) and an elaborate metal skeleton with ball joints and movable limbs.
The brothers initially produced supporting programmes for feature films, of which the adventures of the grotesque character Wupp (1931-33) were particularly popular. Following on from this apparent recipe for success, they created other films with what were seen as bizarre and whimsical characters. The Diehls also made small advertising films.
In 1933, the brothers founded Gebrüder Diehl-Filmproduktion in Gräfelfing near Munich. Although the Nazis classified the grotesque characters like Wupp as "alien to the people", the 'Reichsstelle für den Unterrichtsfilm' (RfdU, Reich Office for Teaching Films), founded in 1935, became a major client of the Diehls - albeit with different themes and characters: the brothers made a large number of fairy tale films for the RfdU. The first of these, "Von einem der auszog, das Gruseln zu lernen" (1935, Brother Grimm's story "The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was"), was popular with schoolchildren because of its idiosyncratic design and remarkably eerie atmosphere, but sparked sharp discussions among teachers for the same reason. At the 1937 World's Fair in Paris, the Diehls were awarded gold medals for this film and for "Tischlein deck' dich" (1936, Brothers Grimm's fairytale "The Wishing-Table, the Gold-Ass, and the Cudgel in the Sack"). In addition, they continued to make advertising films.
Probably the most ambitious Diehl production of these years was the 55-minute Brothers Grimm adaptation "Die sieben Raben" (1937, Grimm's "The Seven Ravens"), in which the puppets were created based on drawings by Moritz von Schwind. The fairly creepy film did not go down well with the audience, but received very good reviews. Paul Diehl (screenplay) thought that a problem for the more negative audience reviews was the classification of animated puppet films as children's entertainment. In 1941, he wrote in the film magazine Film und Bild: "Playing with puppets [is] regarded as something inferior to films made with humans, suitable at best for small children, but a quantité négligeable for adults (...)."
The Diehl brothers probably most famous animated film was also made in 1938 collaboration with the RfdU: "Hase und Igel" (based on the Brothers Grimm's "The Race between the Hare and the Hedgehog"). Like most of their fairy tale films, it was produced as a silent film with intertitles for budget reasons. Hermann Diehl designed the hedgehog puppet using real hedgehog hair, Paul wrote pedagogical texts to accompany the film, while the brothers' mother sewed the costumes. As almost always, Ferdinand directed the film. The film was such a great success that the Diehls had postcards printed with the hedgehog figure.
The hedgehog did not have a name at that time. It was only after the war, when he became the mascot of the radio magazine Hörzu and was marketed as a play doll by the Steiff company, that he was given a name: Mecki. Later, Ferdinand Diehl summed up that of the thousand or so dolls he and his brother Herrmann had created, only this one was really successful. Decades later, the licence income from the hedgehog figure was still the financial basis of Diehl-Film und Verlag KG.
Other Diehl films until 1945 included "Tapferes Schneiderlein" (1938, Grimm's "The Brave Little Tailor"), "Max und Moritz" (1941) and "Dornröschen" (1941, Gimm's "Sleeping Beauty"). With their work for the RfdU, the brothers were not subject to the Ministry of Propaganda, but to the Ministry of Education, nevertheless their films were politically instrumentalised by the Nazis. The trade journal Kinder- und Jugendfilm Korrespondenz wrote in 2010: "Schools had also long since begun to reinterpret fairy tales - and thus also the Diehl brothers' fairy tale films - in a National Socialist way. 'Die Stadtmaus und die Feldmaus', for example, was perfectly suited to strengthen the sense of belonging to the homeland and at the same time to propagate against the rural exodus (...) The National Socialist teaching system had robbed the ideology-free films of the Diehl brothers of their innocence".
Some Diehl fairy tale films were used to entertain the troops in the front-line cinemas and counted as film adaptations of "German cultural treasures" that needed to be defended. In this context, the very elaborate "Die Erstürmung einer mittelalterlichen Stadt um das Jahr 1350" (1944) can be seen as an attempt by the brothers to escape the demand for regime-strengthening works through the purely historical-didactic treatment of a war theme.
After the end of the war and the Nazi era, the Diehls initially kept their heads above water with the HofBühne, a travelling hand puppet theatre. In 1946, Paul Diehl was one of the founding members of the Freiwirtschaftsbund (FWB), in which he held important positions for many years and for which he wrote several pamphlets: "Deutschland ist tot, es lebe Deutschland" (1947, Germany is dead, long live Germany), "Unserer Jugend eine freie Zukunft" (1947, A free future for our youth) und "Planwirtschaft – die Sklaverei des 20. Jahrhunderts" (1948, Controlled economy - the slavery of the 20th century).
In November 1948, their company was finally granted a production licence. The following year, Paul withdrew from the film business because of his political career. The last film he was officially involved in (as a producer) was "Immer wieder Glück", which went into production in 1949 and premiered in 1950. Paul Diehl was mayor of Gräfelfing from 1948 to 1960, after which he was made an honorary citizen. Over the years he wrote other socio-political texts, such as "Wahre Demokratie - ein Wunschtraum?" (1968) and "Macht oder Geist. Die Frage unserer Zeit" (1970, Power or Sense. The Question of Our Time). He died in 1976 in Gräfelfing.
His brothers had initially continued to run the company together. When Hermann also withdrew from business, Ferdinand kept the studio going for a few more years. In 1970, Gebrüder Diehl Filmproduktion ceased operations. The Diehls' estate is administered by the DFF - Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum in Frankfurt am Main.