Saturday, September 27, 2014

#191: The Golem (Paul Wegener & Carl Boese, 1920)

I didn't plan it, but it seems serendipitously appropriate that I watched The Golem, probably the most famous Jewish horror film ever made, during the final minutes of Rosh Hashanah. The Golem is a landmark in silent film, German expressionism, horror, and Jewish art, and the film lives up to its status. It still looks gorgeous all these years later and is both a predictor of the Germany that was soon to come and a shining example of the thriving German film culture that would be demolished and turned into propaganda and cheap entertainment by the Nazis in a decade, a film culture that would not recover until the late 1960s and 1970s with the New German Cinema of Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Von Trotta, Reitz, and others.
A collaboration between actor/writer/director Paul Wegener, director Carl Boese, writer Henrik Galeen, and cinematographer Karl Freund, The Golem was inspired by the ancient creature of Jewish folklore and the most famous tale to use that creature, the golem of Prague. The film, set in the Jewish ghetto in 16th-century Prague, opens with Rabbi Loew looking at the stars and seeing ominous portents for the Jewish people. He's soon proven all too right when the emperor signs a decree demanding the removal of all Jews from the ghetto and their exodus from the city by the end of the month. The emperor sends his knight Florian to deliver the news, and when Florian arrives at the rabbi's home, he immediately falls in love with Loew's daughter Miriam. They engage in lots of secret canoodling while everyone else is at temple, unbeknownst to Loew's assistant/Miriam's ardent admirer Famulus.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Loew has a plan. He has constructed a golem out of clay, and when the stars align, he will summon forth the spirit Astaroth to help bring the golem to life. He shares this information with Famulus, and the two men get their spirit-summoning on until the break of dawn. The creepy Astaroth shows up and gives them the secret word required to bring the golem to life, as well as the amulet placed in a star on the golem's chest that acts as a switch to turn the creature off and on. The plan works, and the golem (played by the physically imposing director Wegener) is ready for action. Instead of immediately sending the golem to the emperor's palace to make anti-Semitic gumbo out of the innards of the emperor and his court, they start small and use the golem to do their shopping and household chores. (It's pretty funny to see the giant golem walking to the store with his tiny grocery basket.) Rabbi Loew is a good man who is still counting on changing the minds of his enemies instead of pummeling them to death, golem-style.
Rabbi Loew convinces Florian to get him an audience with the emperor, who still respects his mystical powers even while forcing him to leave the city. Florian takes little convincing because he is still throbbing with lust for Miriam. Audience granted, Rabbi Loew and the golem visit the emperor and his court. The golem freaks everybody out, but Loew keeps him in check. Using his magic, Loew presents to the assembled goyim a visual history of the Jewish people and their persecution in an attempt to make the emperor change his mind. He warns them not to laugh or talk during the presentation, or he can't control what will happen. Only minutes in, and the emperor and his cronies start laughing hysterically at images of Jews wandering in the desert. These people are some real jerks. This causes all hell to break loose, golem-style. Then things calm down. Then shit gets crazy again. And so on.
Besides its historical importance and unfortunately prescient depiction of the Germany to come, The Golem is a great movie in its own right. As a piece of filmed storytelling, The Golem is entertaining, strikingly photographed, and briskly paced. As a work of art, The Golem is a thing of beauty, with gorgeously framed, iconically rendered images, and colored tinting that brings out the film's expressive qualities. A fine example of German Expressionism, the film's sets, cinematography, and the movement of the actors are a shade subtler than something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but still exhibit the distorted geometrics, sharp angles, deliberate movement, and expressive use of shadow and light that characterize the art movement.
Co-director/co-writer/star Paul Wegener was an imposing man, tall and large with a wide, stone-like face. He was a law student obsessed with the stage, and he disappointed his family by dropping out to pursue the life of an actor. Also obsessed with trick photography, Wegener saw film as the combination of his passions. Not a Jew himself, Wegener was nevertheless fascinated by Jewish folklore and mysticism. While most of his fellow artists either left Germany or were persecuted by the Nazis, Wegener remained a popular actor and found himself unwilling to leave his country. He began to lead a double life, acting in Nazi propaganda films while funneling the money he earned to the Resistance and secretly housing targets of Nazi oppression in his home. He died of a stroke in 1948 at the age of 73.
Cinematographer Karl Freund was Jewish and left Germany in 1929 for Hollywood. One of the greatest cinematographers in film history, Freund's filmography includes Carl Dreyer's Michael (the only film Freund also acted in), F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh and Tartuffe, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Tod Browning's Dracula, John Huston's Key Largo, and most episodes of the TV series I Love Lucy. He also directed two landmark horror films, The Mummy, with Boris Karloff, and Mad Love, with Peter Lorre. The latter film was photographed by another great cinematographer, Gregg Toland, who went on to shoot Citizen Kane for Orson Welles.

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