Saturday, 8 February 2014

Old Clayface is back… The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

Much has been written about the impact of the Great War on European cinema in general and its impact on the “losers” in particular. With death affecting almost everyone there was an interest in the mystical as a grieving audience looked for deeper meaning yet there was also a willingness to be entertained by horror safely isolated on the screen?

As Lotte Eisner wrote in The Haunted Screen: “mysticism and magic, the dark forces to which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves, had flourished in the face of death on the battlefields…”

Yet, in placing Paul Wegener’s Der Golem in the context of post-war cinema it must be remembered that it was not only the co-director and writer’s third go at the subject, with the first being made in 1914, but that his interest dated back at least to his location shooting of The Student of Prague in 1913. In Prague he studied the legend of Rabbi Loew who was reputed to have constructed a golem to protect the Jews from oppression in sixteenth century. Leow’s body is still buried in the cemetery in which they filmed part of Student… still one of the most haunting pictures of the period and due a re-release from Edition FilmMuseum very soon.

Then there is the Jewish question, always a loaded one in Germany as the story itself highlights when the King of Prague issues his “Decree against the Jews”, asking for them to quit their ghetto and leave in penitence for their ongoing guilt at having killed Jesus, aggressive self-propagating financial dealings and their practice of the darker arts of necromancy.

Wegener said that Poelizig's set was "a poem of a city"
Paul Wegener wasn’t Jewish, and there’s no overt anti-Semitism in Der Golem, but the characters are certainly stereotypical and even the Ghetto shapes up in anthropomorphic imitation of the culture and attitude… Then again the members of the Emperor’s court are no less caricatures of nobility: this is a fairy tale.

Together with co-director Carl Boese, set designer Hans Poelzig and cinematographer Karl Freund, Wegener created one of the cornerstones of Weimar cinema: something on a par with Caligari which became one of the most influential horror films in history.  Wegener subsequently denied any deliberate attempt to make an “expressionist” film but… it certainly has many of the hallmarks: brilliantly designed, lit and photographed.

I’d almost written off Der Golem after having only watched murky black and white excerpts but, having now seen the re-mastered 2003 version complete with crystal clear colour tinting and cleaned up frames, you can’t fail to be impressed by the style and substance.

The world created is closer to our own reality than Caligari and yet the skylines are stretched to extremes, houses are almost grown organically around their inhabitants and the whole set reflects the feelings of those huddled behind the walls.

Are the stars out tonight?
It begins with a mix of magic and magnification as Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) scans the stars for portends: he’s a science-priest who mixes the arcane with astronomy to look after his people and to influence their destiny. He sees catastrophe ahead and is busy making plans moulding a golem from clay who will, with the right incantations and calls to the necessary demons, become a living super being able to defend the Jews from all threats.

He has an apprentice, the sly Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) who has eyes for his daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova who, fact fans, was married to Mr Wegener on two separate occasions)… and he might get lucky as she seems game.

Poelizig's organic designs: spot the spiral staircase?
But events are about to take the turn Loew feared as Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebühr) writes his anti-semitic instructions and tasks gallant Knight Florian (Lothar Müthel) to deliver the message. We see his pride in serving his ruler as he bounces towards his horse, through splendid palace gates and to the forbidding, high-walls, of the Ghetto where, flower jauntily in mouth, he has to wait for the gatekeeper to unlock the massive wooden doors…

The ultimatum is delivered to the Jewish leader, Rabbi Jehuda (Hans Stürm) who immediately confers with Loew: what can they do?

The eyes of the beholders
Meanwhile the mischievous Miriam has caught the eye of the young Florian and he has seen her too...

Loew plays for time and asks for an audience with the Emperor… he plans to take a special guest. Off he goes to complete his molding of his Golem, plastering clay over an unformed face as hard as he can. Then comes the moment when he must bring his creation to life… He draws a smoking circle around himself and summons up the demon Astaroth who utters the word he must use to complete the magic by writing it on a slip of parchment and enclosing it in a star which, when attached to the Golem’s chest will animate the clay. But, if removed, the life will drain away and the Golem reduced back to mere clay…

Off to the city
There follows a sequence in which Golem goes shopping and helps with the daily chores. Wegener is suitably imposing as the hunk of clay and yet there’s a child-like surprise at this new life he’s woken up to. When Loew takes him to the city, you expect no danger even when the locals recoil. He is presented to the Emperor and his chamber and once the commotion dies down and all are convinced of his good nature the Rabbi is encouraged to show more of his magic. He projects images of the exodus and the Wandering Jew on the walls of the throne room but when the court get the giggles and even the emperor starts laughing the figures start to move towards them and the ceiling starts to crumble…

Golem saves the court
Loew manages to switch of his projection and gets Golem to hold up the roof, thereby saving the royal family and earning his people a pardon. Mission accomplished…or is it?

Meanwhile… Florian and Miriam had used this occasion to meet in secret and the camera cuts back to their post-coital bliss in Miriam’s room… will there be a price to pay?

Florian and Miriam
Back in his workshop Loew discovers a darker side to Golem as he discovers that a change in the alignment of the stars will bring about an unpleasant shift in the creature’s personality: he will start to do the bidding of the evil Astaroth. Loew just about grabs the star in time to de-activate the Golem…

And, that would be that were it not for the imperfections of the human heart as Famulus re-animates the Golem and orders him to remove Florian. All hell breaks lose…

No spoilers… Der Golem has a more detailed and inherently logical dramatic arc than Caligari without the latter’s raw impact. It’s less overtly experimental but the overall look and feel is as expressionist – just on a bigger budget allowing for the construction of wonderfully lob-sided walls, roads and rooftops. Wegener succeeds in creating an holistic logic in this alternative Prague and one that resonates clearly with everyday passions.

Albert Steinrück
Albert Steinrück is the moral foundation as the well intentioned Rabbi whilst the love triangle is well performed by all three corners. But it is Paul Wegener who gives the film true heart as the monster who begins to develop thoughts and morality even in spite of the influences of evil. The scene when he meets the children playing outside the ghetto is especially well-handled and I’m sure James Whale was watching…

The Kino DVD seems to be the best quality version and comes complete with those wonderful tints and a super score from the late Aljoscha Zimmermann which moves along with the action with impact and grace. The Eureka DVD appears to be from the same source and is also worth checking out - it's available from MovieMail.

Wegener’s first Golem is still extant and there are excerpts available on YouTube… der Golem looks very much the same as five years later.

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