The German film Waxworks (1924) is commonly classified as a fantasy-horror, though more accurately it is an anthology film with horror elements coming into play only in the latter half. Written by Henrik Galeen, the structure clearly takes inspiration from 1919’s Eerie Tales, even having two of the actors playing multiple roles, and from Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921). The framing story involves a wax exhibition at a fair that hires a young writer to create fantastic stories about their figures, which include Huran al Raschid, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper.
The sets of each tale are of course stylistic in the German Romantic sense, such as was seen in 1920’s The Golem: How He Came into the World. Their interesting construction is largely due to director Paul Leni’s early struggles as an avant garde artist and as a working set designer. In 1924 he explained his approach to the German film magazine Kinematograph:
“If the designer merely imitated photography to construct sets, the film would remain faceless and impersonal. There has to be the possibility of bringing out an object’s essential attributes so as to give the image style and color…
This is particularly necessary for films set wholly in a world of unreality. For my film Waxworks I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evince no idea of reality. My fairground is sketched in with an utter renunciation of detail. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines and curves. It is not extreme reality that the camera perceives, but the reality of inner events, which is more profound, effective and moving than what we see through everyday eyes, and I equally believe that the cinema can produce this truth, heightened effectively.
I may perhaps cite the example of Caligari and The Golem, in which Hans Poelzig created a town’s image. I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen every day and to attain its true sinews…
It will be seen that a designer must not construct ‘fine’ sets. He must penetrate the surface of things and reach their heart. He must create mood (Stimmung) even though he has to safeguard his independence with regard to the object seen merely through everyday eyes. It is this which makes him an artist. Otherwise I can see no reason why he should not be replaced by an adroit apprentice carpenter.”
In addition to memorable sets, the film contains some notable actors of German horror cinema. The first tale stars Emil Jannings, looking far more rotund than he did in Eyes of the Mummy Ma (1918) six years earlier, playing the 8th century Caliph. The story is light and the ending is actually quite entertaining and funny, with Jannings playing the role with a joking glee, and it reportedly inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make Thief of Bagdad (1924) the same year. The humorous nature of the episode is an indication that the terror-film cycle that began with the deadly seriousness of Caligari and continued with Nosferatu was now coming to an end (S.S. Prawer, Cailagri’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, 42).
Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss, who both played major roles in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), also appear. Veidt plays Ivan the Terrible, being appropriately malicious and menacing, especially as he claps his hands to force a grieving wedding party to dance and to drink while the father of the bride lies dead on the banquet hall’s steps. Steve Haberman aptly describes the effectiveness of Veidt’s performance, recognizing that “the part could have been played as merely a leering sadist, but Veidt constantly emphasizes the almost childlike fear Ivan suffers of those around him, even in his own palace. Though he is the Czar, he seems like a wicked little boy among grown-ups, staring at them with wide, guilty eyes, waiting for one of them to punish him” (Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film, 62).
Krauss, who had played the titular Caligari, inhabits a fairly small role as Jack the Ripper, who the film combines with the Victorian urban legend of Spring-heeled Jack in a dream sequence reminiscent of the painted sets of Caligari, a manic disorientation created by a maze of double exposures. Through this sequence “Leni created the closest equivalent to a nightmare that the cinema had yet presented” (Haberman 63).
The writer is played by William Dieterle, who would also appear in F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926). A fourth segment, based upon Rinaldo Rinaldini, had been written but cut due to budget constraints, and Dieterle would have played that role. In the mid-1930s, as Nazi policy and aggression mounted, Dieterle immigrated to the United States and became an American citizen in 1937. He would go on to a long and successful Hollywood career.
The wax exhibit owner’s daughter, and the main love interest of the stories’ various protagonists, is played by Russian-born Olga Belajeff, born in 1900, who had a strong career until the advent of talkies.
Director Paul Leni would accept an invitation in 1927 by Carl Laemmle, a founder of Universal movie studios, to come to America and direct. His debut American film would be the horror-comedy The Cat and the Canary (1927), which would have a profound influence on subsequent haunted house movies released by Universal over the coming decades. In 1928 he again teamed up with Conrad Veidt to direct him in one of his finest performances as the title character in The Man Who Laughs, the film that inspired Bob Kane to create The Joker. Sadly, Leni would die the following year of sepsis.
Waxworks doesn’t offer anything new to the genre but what it does, it does well. It’s a fine piece of entertainment and a showcase for some of horror’s most influential designers and recognized masters of German Expressionist acting.
After the triumphant contribution to both horror and cinema that was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), director Robert Wiene followed with the poorly received, utterly forgettable Genuine (1920). In 1924, however, he returned to the genre once again with his Caligari star, Conrad Veidt, in the crime-horror The Hands of Orlac. The story is adapted from Maurice Renard’s body-horror novel of the same name, and tells of a pianist, Paul Orlac (Veidt), who loses his hands in a train wreck and has them replaced with transplants from a man recently executed for murder. Orlac begins to feel as though the homicidal impulses are affecting his soul and mind, and soon larger mysteries and even murder are crashing down upon Orlac and his loyal, devoted wife.
It was one of the first movies to deal with the concept of hands having a will of their own. Successful surgical transplants were still several decades into the future, so the story straddles the line into science-fiction. Once again the notion of amputees looms large as still-fresh memories of the Great War inform the fears of the 1920s audience.
Unlike Wiene’s two previous horror entries, the sets in this Austrian production are mostly natural, with only slight Expressionist-inspired exaggerations and motifs. Wiene’s approach, particularly when compared to his Expressionist works, is conservative and reminiscent of American studio films. The worldly twist, inspired by late 18th century English Gothic novels which dispelled the seemingly supernatural with rationalism, reinforces this feeling, and is alone what keeps the movie from reaching the heights of Caligari in its final act.
The lighting is minimal, often employed like spotlights piercing the darkness, exposing the characters, and the sets are mostly bare but perfectly serviceable. The one exception is the realistic train wreckage with the smashed cars piled in the smoke, revealed with the flash of illuminating search lights.
Veidt, as always, is perfectly suited for the role. His portrayal of a man losing control of his body and will is convincing, hypnotic, and at times unexpectedly graceful. In a 1927 interview with Paul Ickes Veidt described his process, and from any other actor it might sound like pretentious boasting, but no one who has seen Veidt perform could doubt his sincerity:
“For days or even weeks before filming I withdraw into myself, contemplate my navel, as it were, concentrating on a kind of infection of the soul. And soon I discover how the character I have to portray grows in me, how I am transformed into it. The intensity of the process almost frightens me. Before long I find, even before the cameras begin to turn, that in my daily life I move, talk, look and behave differently. The inner Conrad Veidt has become the other person whom I have to portray, or rather into whom my self has changed by autosuggestion. This state could best be described as one of being ‘possessed’” (as quoted by Steve Haberman, Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film, 66).
I sometimes watch silent films on mute because I find the scores distracting, especially when they do not coincide well with the scenes, but Paul Mercer’s 2008 score, which accompanied the copy I watched, fits the film perfectly, accentuating the unsettling mood.
While it is an impressive artistic achievement, Orlac can move sluggishly at times. Nevertheless, Robert Wiene proves that Caligari was not a fluke. The film was well received upon its release, though some censors opposed certain aspects, including law enforcement authorities who worried that scenes in the film taught the public how to outsmart the police. The novel’s author, Maurice Renard, was thoroughly satisfied, and said that, “The cinematographic adaptation of Orlac’s Hands gratifies my wishes. I was never understood so passionately nor interpreted with such power.” Orlac arrived in the U.S. in 1928 minus a reel, which probably accounts for the mixed response it received here, and it was remade as an American film in 1935 as Mad Love by Karl Freund, starring Peter Lorre.
Wiene would not return to horror again, instead making comedies and dramas, but his mark on the genre, first with Caligari and finally with Orlac, is immortal.
The Headless Horseman (1922) is a fairly light and straightforward adaption of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820), mixing in some comedic elements from Will Rogers, who plays against type as the stern and arrogant Ichabod Crane. Rogers, who sometimes wrote his own inter-titles, likely wrote some of the jokes in this film as well.
Filmed in the Hudson Valley region and around Tarrytown, NY, the location of Irving’s tale, the film tries to stay true to the setting and landscape, though these locations ultimately add little to the experience. Of historic interest, this was the first feature to be shot on the more expensive panchromatic black-and-white film, which was an advancement on the orthochromatic stock as blue skies and blue eyes no longer became a stark pale white nor red lipstick turn black (though those unintended effects arguably contribute to the haunting quality of many silent horror films).
The film is competent and of a watchable, workmanlike quality, but offers nothing particularly remarkable. The role of Katrina Van Tassel was played by Lois Meredith in her last major on-screen appearance.
Will Rogers was already popular at the time as a cowboy, humorist, social commentator, syndicated newspaper columnist, and of course, Hollywood actor. Part Native American, Rogers was often called “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son” and would make fifty films during the silent era. However, it was after “talkies” that his signature voice, coupled with his home-spun wisdom and everyman-humor, made him the prime political wit and most beloved actor of the era. He was a loyal Democrat and an outspoken supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Tragically, in 1935 Rogers would die in a plane crash in Alaska after taking off with famed aviator Wiley Post, who was the first to fly solo around the world. Engine failure caused the plane to plummet into a lake, killing both men instantly.
Adapted from the novel Körkarlen (1912) by Nobel prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, The Phantom Carriage (1921) is a Swedish fantasy-horror which had a profound influence upon subsequent filmmakers – the axe-chopping sequence would go on to influence Stanley Kubrick in The Shining (1980) and Ingmar Bergman considered the movie a prime inspiration and even cast the film’s director, Victor Sjöström, in his 1957 Wild Strawberries, considered one of Bergman’s best films. Sjöström had previously made outdoor dramas, and both the content and the studio-bound approach to the filming of this piece, necessary due to the complicated special effects shots and desired deep focus, was a significant departure for the director – and one which paid off in spades.
Appropriately released on New Year’s Day in 1921, the plot revolves around a rotten drunkard named David Holm who is killed at midnight on New Year’s Eve, now condemned to become Death’s servant. For a year he must drive a ghostly horse-drawn carriage, collecting the souls of the damned. However, the previous driver for whom he is taking over was an old drinking buddy who helped lead him astray, and, like Marley to Scrooge, Holm is shown the havoc and sorrow his actions have caused and all the opportunities for redemption he dismissed.
Sjöström, who plays Holm, gives an excellent naturalistic performance. He easily inhabits the role as do the other cast members. There’s very little of that broad overacting often found in silent films. Insight into the director’s personal history may provide deeper understanding of both his approach and his profoundly convincing, touching portrayal. As Paul Mayersberg, in his Criterion essay, writes of the performance:
“Coming from the theater, Sjöström nonetheless rejected traditional stage acting as detrimental to films. He wanted another style of performance since the dialogue could not be heard, concentrating on face, movements, and gestures. His own performance in The Phantom Carriage avoids melodrama by admitting David’s inner confusion, which simultaneously erupts into violence. His outward realism explores inner states. Some of the intertitles are actually voice-over, as he talks to himself…
In 1881, as a small child, Sjöström went to America with his father, Olaf, and mother, Maria Elizabeth, to whom he was devoted. Tragically, she died when he was seven… Olaf was a womanizer, twice bankrupt, and a born-again Christian. In 1893, Victor was returned to Sweden to live with his aunt… All his life, Sjöström feared becoming like his father, whom he closely resembled physically… Perhaps his rendering of David’s alcoholism derived from the tensions in Sjöström’s relationship with his father. His performance is so realistically and subtly detailed that it may have come from precise memories, a ghostly reincarnation of his father.”
Perhaps due also to his father’s religiosity, Sjöström is careful to avoid overtly religious moralizing and divine intervention. His intercessor is his old friend, the current Death’s assistant. Despite this, the film was re-cut when released in America to appear more as a Christian morality tale. There nevertheless remains a diabolical element, for
“The Phantom Carriage is at root a Faustian tale, with drink as the devil. If the film were the work of a Jansenist Catholic like Robert Bresson, David’s suffering would be a struggle with God’s design for him, alcohol being the mysterious presence of the divine in his bloodstream, and would probably end in suicide. But for Sjöström, God helps those who help themselves. There is an extraordinary moment when David’s wife faints out of fear at his ax attack and he fetches her a cup of water, only to berate her violently when she recovers consciousness. Here is a glimpse not of God but of a good man within a bad man. Sjöström the actor marvelously conveys the brutish, the melancholy, the sarcastic, and the reflective aspects of his character… Sjöström’s David is a study of tortured self-humiliation.”
The cinematography is beautiful and wonderfully lit, again thanks to the director’s choice in filming in a studio (the story’s author, Lagerlöf, had come into conflict with him when she originally insisted on filming in the town where the tale was set). Some scenes are truly haunting, such as that of Death’s servant retrieving the soul of a drowned man from beneath the murky sea. Likewise, the costumes are rich and the sets are appropriately claustrophobic. Sjöström’s directing is confident and the editing moves the story along smoothly.
The script is tight and sophisticated, even employing flashbacks within flashbacks, which was an advanced storytelling technique for the time. The extensive special effects of the semi-transparent ghosts are particularly impressive when one considers that the double exposures were done in-camera, which had to be hand-cranked at exactly the same speed so as to appear natural.
Though the ghostly carriage is a spooky sight, the actual horror of the film lies in the actions of the living. Holm is at times unstable and needlessly cruel, at one point flicking his sleeping daughter on the nose just for drunken laughs. Yet it is in the final ten minutes that things get really dark, and I wasn’t at all sure how far Sjöström was willing to push the drama, creating a genuine sense of tension and emotional turmoil. Expectedly, his performance here is wonderful.
The actress, Astrid Holm, who plays the Salvation Army do-gooder, Sister Edit, would star in Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) the following year. (As a few points of random observation, Holm is a near dead-ringer for Jena Malone; also, Salvation Army women in 1920s Sweden apparently wore hats with the word “SLUM” on them.)
The Phantom Carriage is an excellent example of silent cinema, both within the horror genre and beyond, and its prayerful message is a sober meditation on our inevitable deaths: “Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped.”
Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921) can easily be counted among the most influential films of all time. It inspired both Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel to enter filmmaking, both of whom would make important contributions to the horror genre, and one cannot ignore its clear influence on Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant The Seventh Seal (1957).
Set in the early nineteenth century, Destiny is a dark fantasy. The story follows a young woman who’s fiancé has been taken by Death and is provided a chance to save him – she will have three opportunities to save a life and if she can save but one, her lover will be released. This provides a frame story and three vignettes which take place in fantastical time periods, namely an Arabian Nights-like Persia, the Renaissance, and ancient China, with the inter-titles changing with each setting. The girl, her amorous man, and Death play roles in each, the former two always as star-crossed lovers.
The film is richly imaginative and, for the most part, very well written, providing a fairytale contemplation on the inevitability of death. At one point a character remarks, as if in summary, “How close people often are to death, without a premonition. They believe eternity is theirs – and don’t even survive the roses they play with.” And yet we battle against it. Even those characters who profess to be weary of life and wish an end to it, when confronted with the opportunity to do so, run screaming to preserve their last remaining breaths.
The set designs, too, are stunning and a touch whimsical. Death is depicted by Bernhard Goetzke, whose tall, gaunt figure is perfect for the role. Death is wary of his labor but is stark and unrelenting in the performance of his duty. At one point we see him snuff out a candle of life only to realize it was that of a child. S.S. Prawer wrote in 1980 of one effective component about which I fully agree:
“One film above all others has been able to show convincingly a supernatural enclave, a realm of otherworldly terror and awe inserted into our familiar world. The film which Fritz Lang called Der müde Tod [meaning Tired Death] and which in English is more generally known as Destiny features one of the most haunting sets in the history of cinema: a Palace of Death whose huge sombre wall and mysterious Hall of Lights has only to be seen once to be seared for ever into our memory. Except for Bernhard Goetzke’s quietly impressive performance as Death, however, nothing in the rest of the work lives up to the visual terrors and delights of this grand architectural conception” (Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, pg. 77)
The young heroine is played by Lil Dagover, and her character is determined and fearless, seeking to save the man for a welcomed departure from traditional storytelling. She is challenged in moral ways as well, particularly in one wonderful scene involving her, Death, and a baby in a burning hospital. Will she sacrifice the infant to Death in exchange for her lover?
Only one sequence has not aged well, that being the one set in ancient China. The film changes tone here to one of comical farce and the depiction of Asians is about as cringe-worthy to modern viewers as Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi is in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Had Lang decided to keep the dark tone throughout the whole movie it would have elevated this otherwise darkly compelling tale into a more effectively haunting experience.
The film was poorly received in Germany upon its release. Critics accused it of not being ‘German’ enough. However, it was met with great enthusiasm in other countries. Douglas Fairbanks bought the American rights and delayed its release so he could study and copy the effects of the Persian sequence for his 1924 Thief of Baghdad.
Fritz Lang, born in Vienna in 1890, ran away from home at the age of 21, dissatisfied with the career path his wealthy father had chosen for him, to study art in Paris and Munich. In WWI he quickly rose in rank through distinguished bravery, being wounded four times and temporarily blinded. It was during his yearlong hospitalization in Vienna in 1916 that he began to write and sell many of his stories and screenplays.
In 1919 he married Lisa Rosenthal and a year later began collaborating with female screenwriter Thea von Harbou, with whom he wrote Destiny. He also began an affair with von Harbou, and one night Rosenthal walked in on the two making love on their couch. Soon police were called to the house and found Rosenthal’s body in the bathtub with a bullet hole between her breasts. The gun used was Lang’s revolver. Producer Erich Pommer and cameraman Karl Freund were called to the apartment to support Lang, and the director used his power to cover up his wife’s supposed suicide. For his part, Freund suspected Lang of murdering Rosenthal. In 1922 Lang and von Harbou were married. (This account is taken from Steve Haberman’s Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film.)
Whatever his guilt, Lang would of course go on to make history and become the most powerful director in Weimar Republic cinema. In addition to making Metropolis (1927), he also would make the masterful M (1931), his first “talkie,” starring Peter Lorre, considered the first serial killer movie and one I cannot recommend highly enough. It was Lang’s personal favorite. As the Nazis rose to power he knew it was time to leave. Von Harbou had developed Nazi sympathies and, even though he was raised Catholic, his Jewish heritage would make him a target. He immigrated to America and would continue making films into the 1960s, though none had the impact that his Weimar Republic era films had.
Lil Dagover, Destiny’s star, had appeared in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920) the year before and would go on to a long career, sticking to German films after the advent of “talkies.” Though she remained apolitical, she was known to be a favorite actress of Hitler and dined with him on occasion, though after the war she would appear in anti-Nazi films.
Destiny is undeniably imaginative and always interesting. It’s easy to see why this film inspired so many young filmmakers.
A year before making the timeless Nosferatu (1922), F.W. Murnau created the minor whodunit thriller The Haunted Castle (1921), a screenplay by Carl Mayer. The English title is deceiving as there is no haunting to speak of. Instead, the chamber-drama surrounds a group of aristocrats who have gathered at an estate to hunt but find themselves shut in due to persistent storms. An uninvited guest arrives – a local Count who many believe murdered his brother a few years before but avoided conviction. To make matters more uncomfortable, due to arrive also is his brother’s widow and her new husband, who stay only because an old friend, a priest, is going to be arriving from Rome. Soon after his arrival the priest disappears and all fingers point to the Count.
The sets are richly decorated and Murnau makes use of some nice location shots, and the ending actually has a pretty nice twist. However, most of the film is plodding and the overall direction is fairly rudimentary, having none of the flair or drama Murnau would evoke in later films. Despite being made in German Expressionism’s heyday, there is no evidence of that revolutionary movement here.
F.W. Murnau would of course go on to great things afterward. If he had only then made Nosferatu his remembrance would be guaranteed, but he would make several other critically acclaimed classics of the era, including The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), and his American romantic masterwork Sunrise (1927).
Unfortunately, Murnau would die in 1931 at the age of 42 from injuries suffered in a car accident while driving in California on the Pacific Coast Highway. For reasons not entirely known but saucily speculated upon, Murnau allowed a handsome Filipino teenager named Garcia Stevenson to chauffeur his Packard limo. Driving erratically, Stevenson crashed into an electric pole and while he was uninjured, Murnau cracked his head open. Rumors soon spread that Murnau had been performing fellatio on the young man while he was driving. Because of the scandalous nature of his death, very few people attended his funeral. However, Greta Garbo (who biographers also believe was bisexual), an admirer of Murnau, did attend and even had a death-mask made of the late, great director. Curiously, in 2015 his grave would be broken into and his skull stolen in what authorities believed (due to the presence of wax residue) was part of an occult ceremony.
Italy’s The Mechanical Man (1921), directed by André Deed, is a mix of science-fiction, horror, and comedy. It tells of a scientist who creates a large robot that is incredibly strong and fast, and is controlled remotely via a series of cranks, wheels, and switches. The scientist is killed and his invention commandeered by a criminal mastermind, a woman named Mado, who uses his creation to burst through doors, steal safes, and wreak general havoc. The scientist’s brother creates another robot to battle it, and there is a final showdown inside an immense opera house.
Unfortunately, anyone who has not done prior research might be forgiven for missing plot points, as only 26 minutes of film remains, which originally ran over an hour. Most of the lost footage encompasses the beginning sequences and cast titles, so it is not always clear watching who some of the characters are. Nevertheless, the present footage hints at a fun movie filled with sight gags, robot destruction, and pulp-like villainy.
Yet as it is, only a select few of genre completionists today will find reason to watch this curio, or at least what’s left of it.
Movie Review – Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1920)
In February of 1920 German director Robert Wiene released the groundbreaking horror classic and German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a transformative milestone in cinema. Later that year he released another work of Expressionist horror, Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire, to much less success. In fact, contemporary critics considered the film a failure (fortunately, his 1924 The Hands of Orlac would reestablish his reputation as a horror master).
Genuine is the titular “vampire” – which at the time was a reference to her status as a femme-fatale. Vampires in film were not generally associated with blood-suckers until F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), but were instead seen as beautiful, manipulative women (“vamps”). Genuine, the former priestess of a conquered tribe who is sold into slavery, seduces men and drives them to madness, pushing them to commit heinous acts.
What is available to the public today is a 44-minute condensed version, only half of the film’s original length. The longer version can only be viewed at the time of this writing at the Munich City Film Museum archives. This trimming could of course account for the many confusing aspects of the narrative, which is brimming with plot holes. However, other aspects of the film, having nothing to do with editing, weigh it down like a wet blanket, and inevitable comparisons to Caligari only serve to accentuate its overall inferiority.
Whereas the sets of Caligari evoked a dream-like world with skewed perspectives and sharp angles, the sets designed by Expressionist painter César Klein, while interesting in many respects, are too busy and cluttered. The fact that the costumes often appear designed to blend in with the background, which was in part keeping with Expressionist cinema by matching the wardrobe to the sets, creates a combination which is ultimately an eyesore.
The writing and acting are equally broad and melodramatic. Genuine’s presence, with costumes as busy as the sets, is more irritating than compelling. She is played by the American actress Fern Andra, who was popular during the German silent era. Interestingly, in 1922 Andra would be in a plane crash with German WWI ace pilot Lothar von Richthofen, the younger brother of the Red Baron. Richthofen would perish but Andra would survive, spending a year recovering from her injuries.
The role of Florian, one of Genuine’s conquests and her ultimate nemesis, is played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski. He was a homosexual who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and went on to star in prominent anti-Nazi films in America throughout WWII, including the creature-feature-sounding Hitler – Beast of Berlin (1939).
Greater appreciation of Genuine has not been forthcoming in the near century since its release, and the condensed version does nothing to whet one’s appetite for the original installment. Unlike Wiene’s two other horror classics, there’s nothing to recommend this film to modern audiences.
Movie Review – The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)
While filming The Student of Prague (1913), Paul Wegener heard the 16th century legend of Rabbi Loew, who tradition says saved the Jews of Prague from persecution by creating a Golem – a clay statue infused with life – to protect them. Wegener became captivated by the story and made a film version inspired by it in 1915 called The Golem, and then in 1917 The Golem and the Dancing Girl, considered the first film sequel (if one does not count serials). Wegener was dissatisfied with the first film, which was set in a modern Germany in which a Golem is found and raised by an antiques dealer and goes on to commit murders before falling to its own demise from a tower, and also with the sequel which was more of a comical take on the legend. Unfortunately, both movies are lost, though a few minutes of footage from the first remain and serve to confirm Wegener’s feelings about it. Nevertheless, his 1915 performance appears to have affected viewers much in the way Boris Karloff would do sixteen years later. As one reviewer, Arnold Zweig, writes in a contemporary issue of the theater magazine Die Schaubühne, “What makes the film worth discussing is only Wegener’s embodiment of the Golem… In lyrical passages Wegener demonstrates possibilities of the film which transcend those of the theatre” (as quoted by S.S. Prawer in Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror).
In his 1916 lecture Wegener described his inspiration for the creature and what his first Golem film meant for his vision of the future of cinema:
“I got the idea for my Golem from the mysterious clay figure brought to life by the Rabbi Loew, according to the legend of the Prague ghetto, and with this film I went further [than The Student of Prague] into the domain of pure cinema. Everything depends on the image, on a certain vagueness of outline where the fantastic world of the past meets the world of today. I realized that the photographic technique was going to determine the destiny of the cinema. Light and darkness in the cinema play the same role as rhythm and cadence in music.”
In 1920 Wegener again returned to the legend, rounding out his horror trilogy (another first), with The Golem: How He Came into the World. As the title implies, this story establishes the origins of the creature, making it perhaps the first prequel, as well. In it Rabbi Loew reads danger in the stars for the Jews and soon he’s informed that the Christian Emperor has decreed that the Jews must be expelled from Prague. Loew creates a Golem, possessed by a demon, to help his people and brings it to the emperor’s court where he has been called to entertain, not so much to intimidate as to astound. As Loew shows them magical images of the Jewish patriarchs the court laughs and the palace begins to crumble, but the Golem is instructed by Loew to save them and does so, securing the promised safety of the Jewish people by the emperor, at least for the time being. The Rabbi returns to tell the good news, however, the Golem begins acting odd and Loew soon learns that the Golem is destined to turn on its creator and so decides to deactivate it by removing a star, the source of the Golem’s power, from its chest. However, another plot involving an illicit affair collides and the Golem is reactivated, causing havoc in the ghetto.
The Golem is a prime example of German Romantic cinema, though it’s often mistakenly classified as Expressionist. As Steve Haberman writes in Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film:
“Expressionism and Romanticism have much in common. Both emphasize emotion over intellect, and both conjure dreamscapes of the mind over objective reality. But Expressionism responds with despair over the lust, violence and hate of society, especially following the horrors of World War I. In cinema, this results, of course, in distorted sets and sharp, tortured camera angles, all lit with chiaroscuro shadows” (pg. 52).
The Golem is Romantic in nature because, though it is still stylized, it is meant to be a believable world, unlike the nightmarish landscapes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which resemble shards of broken glass. Expressionism seeks to evoke negative reactions from its audience – to shock and disturb them – while Romanticism seeks the general acceptance of its viewer, even if certain aspects of the film are exaggerated for artistic effect. Indeed, though Caligari deserves credit for influencing the genre to immeasurable degrees, it remains that the majority of silent German horror films which followed took their cues mainly from Wegener’s work.
Rather than embracing Expressionism, Wegener was most influenced, as were most of his fellow German filmmakers, by the experimental stage director Max Reinhardt. Reinhardt was a pioneer in the use of lighting on stage to evoke atmosphere and to signify scene changes, making the most of limited budgets and churning out productions at near lightning speed. Many of Reinhardt’s most successful innovations would be lovingly imitated by German silent film directors and production designers. The production designer which Wegener chose for The Golem was the revered architect Hans Poelzig, who in his lectures proclaimed that, “The effect of architecture is magical”. When Poelzig conjured images such as magic, he wasn’t just speaking figuratively. He was a student of the occult and an adherent of mysticism, hosted séances in his home for his medium daughter. In his notebook he wrote: “Film… the magic form… the form of magic… Devil’s Mass”. During his time working on The Golem he mentored a teenaged Edgar Ulmer who would go on to direct 1934’s The Black Cat, and Ulmer showed his appreciation by naming Karloff’s villainous character (who was also an architect and Satanic high priest) “Hjalmar Poelzig” in his honor. When Poelzig died in 1936 Wegener, in his eulogy, called him a “gothic mystic” (Haberman, pg. 45).
What Poelzig designed was indeed impressive. It did not resemble reality but still felt real and created a world unto itself. As Wegener boasted proudly in an interview, “It is not Prague that my friend, the architect Poelzig, has built. Not Prague and not any other city. Rather, it is a city-poem, a dream, an architectural paraphrase on the theme ‘Golem.’ These alleys and plazas are not intended to resemble reality; they create an atmosphere in which the Golem breathes” (Haberman, pg.45). The architecture of the Jewish ghetto of which Wegener speaks is made of leaning lines, as though the buildings have grown organically from the soil, like hovels, or have been crafted from clay like the creature. Many of the set pieces are massive and triangular, and I wonder if this was meant to evoke the Star of David which is featured heavily in the film.
The Golem’s birth scene is imaginative and memorable, and the difficulty of pulling off such effects at that time, which had to be accomplished in camera, is no doubt underappreciated by most modern viewers. The unblinking performance of Wegener, cinema’s first horror icon, as the Golem effectively evokes menace and inhumanity. His vision for the Golem had an undeniable influence upon James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), and many scenes here clearly inspired those in that later film. Unlike Karloff’s monster, the Golem is at first far less sympathetic, especially as it drags a young woman around by her long pigtails as though she were a plaything that has captured its curiosity. However, like Karloff’s monster, the Golem shows eventual signs of yearning for humanity, which ultimately proves its undoing.
All of this is filmed with the terrific lighting and cinematography of Karl Freund, a master of his craft, who would go on to film Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which many consider to be a defining masterwork of the silent era. In 1929 Freund immigrated to the United States and in 1931 he filmed Dracula for Tod Browning. However, the scheduling was so chaotic that Browning was sometimes absent, and therefore many consider Freund to be an uncredited co-director (ironically, there’s little cinematography to appreciate in that film). The following year Freund would sit in the director’s chair to helm The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff, and then again in 1935 for Mad Love, starring Peter Lorre. In 1937 he would briefly return to Germany to fetch his daughter as the Nazi pogroms began to protrude their claws. His ex-wife would be interred in Ravensbruck concentration camp during the war. (As an odd addendum to his career, given his horror credentials, Freund would be hugely influential in television as the cinematographer for I Love Lucy, designing the “flat lighting” system which eliminated shadows and allowed cameras to be moved between shots but the lighting to remain the same. It’s still the standard for TV sitcoms.)
The Golem was well-received upon its release, and when it arrived in the U.S. in 1921 American critics were once again forced to concede the superiority of the German offerings at that moment in time. A review from The New York Times sums up the sentiment:
“The black magic of the Middle Ages, sorcery, astrology and all of the superstitious realities of people so legendary in appearance and manners that the unnatural seems natural among them have been brought to screen… in The Golem, the last motion picture to come from the explorative innovators of Germany. The photoplay gives the impression of some fabulous old tale of strange people in a strange world, fascinating, exciting to the imagination and yet so unfamiliar in all of its aspects that it almost seems remote, elusive even, when one would like to get closer to its meaning… This power is derived mainly from a combination of exceptional acting and the most expressive settings yet seen in this country” (Haberman, pg. 47).
All of this is well and good and entirely deserving of praise, however, one cannot discuss The Golem, given its subject matter and the time and place in which it was made, without addressing the subject of anti-Semitism. Is the film anti-Semitic? Wegener would go on to become the actor of the state for Nazi Germany, making many propaganda films, so one might assume the answer is an obvious affirmative. The Jews in the film are depicted as the exotic “other” who dabble in black arts, and some stereotypes certainly make themselves shown, such as the camera locked onto the hands of a bribed Jewish gate-keeper, eagerly taking the silver coins being offered to him. Wegener clearly had no real understanding of Jewish religion, as the symbols and rituals which are shown have nothing to do with actual Judaism. The Jews in this film have about as much in common with real Jews as the “Injuns” of classic Western cinema have with real Native Americans. They’re stage Jews, meant to reflect the existing notions of the viewer. Furthermore, is the Golem meant to be evidence that Jews can only make flawed works of art? Perhaps.
Nevertheless, there’s more nuance here for which Wegener deserves credit. The Jews here are seen as the sympathetic party. We’re meant to feel their plight as they suffer in poverty. Their very safety is at the whim of a frivolous Christian emperor. Loew is well-intentioned and, though flawed, not at all a villain. He simply wants the best for his people. The Christians, on the other hand, are entirely depicted as self-centered, arrogant, and vain. When the Christian women of the court see the Golem, they are clearly sizing him up, if you catch my meaning. The anti-Semitism in the film is more by circumstance and perhaps Wegener’s own limited understanding than in anything intentional.
To further focus on Wegener and his intentions, and rather than present only the opinions only of this author – a white male American humanist of Christian upbringing – I offer a quote from a website offering rabbinic commentary on films called “Rabbi at the Movies”. It states, “Paul Wegener was no Nazi. He was an actor and a pacifist, interested only in telling his stories… [The film is] worth studying by the student of anti-Semitism, precisely because Wegener had no axe to grind: he was simply telling a good story, using images that he thought would captivate. What those images reveal about the hearts of his audience, however, may be truly chilling.”
Additionally, S.S. Prawer, whose family was among the last to flee the Nazis in 1939, has said this about the subject of the anti-Semitism of this era’s German cinema, and may very well help to support the claims above:
“Each age, each nation, incarnates the uncanny in a different way. It is fed by, and may be made to nourish, popular prejudices: sinister monks and nuns invade the Gothic novel in the wake of the Gordon Riots, sinister scientists appear in greater and greater numbers in the course of the nineteenth century, and the use made of grotesque Jewish figures in the consciously uncanny works of such writers as Meyrink, Ewers, Panizza, and Strobl should have given the wise food for thought.
The same might be said of the use of actors with pronounced Jewish features, or made up to simulate such features, in German films made during the Weimar Republic. There was rarely any conscious anti-Semitic intent in this… [Most often just copying what they saw] the film-makers were usually oblivious of what they were doing; but the subliminal influence of their work was none the less powerful for that” (Caligari’s Children, pg. 132).
I’ve been unable thus far to substantiate the claims, but I’ve read that Wegener secretly hid people from the Nazis, financed resistance groups, and scrawled anti-Hitler speech on walls. After the war he indeed helped to rebuild Berlin’s art scene. It’s of course difficult to know just what Wegener thought as he made The Golem, but it appears to me that he was perhaps accidently anti-Semitic in certain aspects of his storytelling, but considering what the film could have been it is remarkably and undeniably on the Jews’ side, perhaps for the last time in Germany until the fall of the Third Reich.