Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The first Avenger… The Golem (1920), BFI with Cyrus Gabrysch

Alan Moore, perhaps the greatest comic writer since Stan Lee, once described superheroes as revenge fantasies for the impotent… among other things. Moore knows the score and has written Superman, Batman and many other mainstream men in capes. One of his major works is Miracleman – a radical reimagining of the British version of Captain Marvel (or Shazam! as he is now known) in which the powerful man without peer declares peace on a warring World which enters a “golden age”.

The quasi-religious elements in Moore’s superhero writing stems form the source, Seigel and Shuster’s Superman was the product of two Jewish emigres looking for a break and calling on their heritage in the creation of an Übermensch who was all powerful and able to right the wrongs they could see ruining the World.

The legend of The Golem goes back a long way in Jewish history: a mystically evoked super-human who is immune to the weapons of mere mortals and who will protect the weak against oppression and serve the cause of the just. Only those who play by the rules can benefit from this hulk though and the very powers which give him birth may end up being turned against his creators… That’s pretty much the plot of Batman vs Superman right there not to mention Captain America Civil War.

Destiny amongst the stars...
There’s a connection or two with The Student of Prague … Paul Wegener co-wrote with Henrik Galeen who was later to direct the 1926 version and, it was during the filming of the 1913 original that Wegener 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.

Wegener became so fascinated with the story that this 1920 film, full title, The Golem - How He Came to the World, was his third film on the subject after the 1915 dry-run and the 1917 comedy, The Golem and the Dancing Girl. This, surely his most fully realised effort, was directed by himself and Carl Boese, featured delicious cinematography from Karl Freund and a cast of thousands led by himself as a platform-shoed protector, worked to life from clay (just like Wonder Woman…).

The sets were designed by Hans Poelzig and were described by Wegener as "a poem of a city", sixteenth century Germany as it might have looked in a split reality with later fairy tales, lovely organics lines and not a straight line in sight: a city which has grown around its citizens as comfort and protection: the whole set reflects the feelings of those huddled behind the city walls.

"a poem of a city"
Wegener always denied any deliberate attempt to make an “expressionist” film but… The Golem certainly has many of the hallmarks in terms of this design as well as the settings and camerawork. None of the classification matters though as this is one of the best of early Weimar films and with a satisfying story arc which the “impotent” could easily relate to.

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 track 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 slightly fey 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. But events are about to take the turn Loew feared as Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebühr) issue an edict to banish the Jews (usual reasons!?) and tasks the flamboyant Knight Florian (Lothar Müthel) to deliver the message. The ultimatum is delivered to the Jewish leader, Rabbi Jehuda (Hans Stürm) who immediately confers with Loew: what can they do? Meanwhile the mischievous Miriam has caught the eye of the young Florian and he has seen her too... things are going to get breathlessly complicated with these two you can tell.

Loew asks for an audience with the Emperor and he heads off to complete his moulding 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… every superhero needs his kryptonite.

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. He’s a towering but almost timid presence and when he is presented to the Emperor and his chamber all are swiftly convinced of his good nature. But things go awry as the Rabbi magically projects images of the exodus and the Wandering Jew on the walls of the throne room and when the court get the giggles the figures start to move towards them and the ceiling starts to crumble…

Loew gets Golem to hold up the roof, thereby saving the royal family and earning his people a pardon. Mission accomplished… but not quite as Florian and Miriam had used this occasion to meet in secret and the camera cuts back to what looks suspiciously like post-coital bliss in Miriam’s room… will there be a price to pay? ‘Course there will!

Florian and Miriam after, you know...
Loew has discovered that a change in the alignment of the stars will bring about an unpleasant shift in the creature’s personality and that 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 heck breaks lose.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied with super powered piano and ran some impressive lines as the city began to burn and the tension rose and fell. Cyrus is probably one of those who has accompanied this film more times than he can count and yet his improvisations were fresh and let the drama breath.

Wednesday night watching Weimar film… we should do this every week!

The BFI Weimar Cinema series continues through May and June, further details are on their website.

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