Der Golem: the mask speaks

In my teens I joined a film-club, and many of the films that have stayed with me and influenced my work over the years were first experienced at club-screenings in a class-room at Newport College of Art, though the prints were frequently pretty terrible. So it may have been there that I first saw the 1920 film of The Golem. Now of course you can easily watch such treasures of early cinema, digitally restored and looking pristine at YouTube.


The film was the idea of the great Paul Wegener, but when acting he liked to collaborate with craftsmanlike directors who would serve as his eyes behind the camera. On the 1913 film The Student of Prague it had been Stellan Rye. For The Golem, in which Wegener played the creature of the title, he invited Carl Boese to be co-director.

Above: Paul Wegener as The Golem


Art direction was by Kurt Richter and architect Hans Poelzig, and Poelzig’s sets of the Jewish ghetto of Prague are an Expressionist riot of crazed roof-tops and labyrinthine alleyways.

In the scene where Rabbi Loew conjures life into the huge clay statue of a man, the film reaches its imaginative zenith. Poelzig’s set of the Rabbi’s laboratory, with its staircase housed in what appears to be a cross-section of a conch shell, is a triumph of design.

Above: model of the laboratory set

Below: the scene as realised for the film

Below: a demonic mask conjured by the Rabbi

Here’s Carl Boese on the moment when a demonic mask appears, and scraps of magic words issue from its mouth:

“The effect was executed by a mobile camera in front of black velvet, using dissolves and lap dissolves, and the whole was super-imposed on the negative in the camera itself, as we were used to doing, by counting the frames. The letters of the words were cut out in yellowish cardboard, they were harshly lit, and we used the same effect as for the flashes, while using two negative emulsions from time to time in order to light some more than others, and to make them dip and sway.”

Above: film poster for The Golem

In my ‘wilderness’ years – the years after my career in the theatre had ended but before I’d evolved into a painter – I became a mask-maker. I wasn’t very successful at it. It’s very hard to earn a living from making and selling masks. I thought I might stand a better chance if I had a business card, and so set about creating one. First I turned to my ‘project book’, with its pages of  pen and ink mask designs.

I selected a design I’d made with a crown of skeleton horsemen flanking a bird perched on a crescent moon.

I made the mask from a laminate of paper gum-strip, gessoed and painted with metal powders and patinated to mimic weathered lead.

On completion I photographed it and had a student friend design and produce my ‘business’ cards, using the demon-conjuring scene from The Golem as inspiration for the ectoplasmic smoke spelling the word ‘masks’.

Looking at it from this distance it seems to me my friend did a pretty good job capturing the atmosphere I was so enraptured by in the film. However it was probably a deal too imaginative for its purpose as most would struggle to decipher my Golem-inspired lettering for ‘Clive Hicks-Jenkins, designer and maker of masks’, followed by an almost illegible telephone number. I like to keep the card as a reminder of my past and it lies between the pages of that old mask project-book keeping company with the dense ink-hatched drawings. Most of the masks in the book were made and sold though I still have a few. Sadly not the one on the card, which I rather liked.

13 thoughts on “Der Golem: the mask speaks

  1. Wonderful post Clive, fascinating to read the story from early years at the film club to your mask making and business card.
    We also had the Golem exhibition here in Berlin at the Jewish Museum last year. Those sets and designs were stupendous 😀

  2. I love that the origins and purpose of this mask can only be guessed at through its dark and strange symbolism, along with its intended wearer.

    It suggests its own narratives…forgotten tribe…powerful lost relic….a fallen king…..

    Personally I would like to see it worn at a masked ball in Hades….


  3. Pingback: the Beasts of Glimmerglass | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

    • Great set. In imagination I wander through it. Of course in reality it would have been a hollow thing, just frontages and scaffold. But what a construct. All those crazily pitched roofs make a wonderful skyline. It looks as though though the buildings have thrust themselves higgledy piggledy from the earth in a volcanic eruption.

  4. The Golem is new to me Clive but what a great reminder of how innovative early cinema was. Must try and find a sequence to watch online. As for your masks I am in awe of the ideas and execution. What a rich life you’ve had.

  5. wow! you really have done *everything*… those masks are fantastic! full of mystery and atmosphere…they are amazing!
    and…the set of golem….*sigh* … how cool would it be to work on sets like that!!

    • I love that shot of hundreds of extras thronging the street. Imagine the logistics of getting that crowd costumed, rehearsed and on set ready for filming.

  6. First , such serendipity, my local museum LACMA has a splendid exhibition on the Golem and his legacy.

    (Click HERE.)

    But secondly and more importantly, I really love your mask ( and card, well worth the visual challenge). It is wonderfully expressive, archaic and yet quite of our time. Thanks,

    • How funny that there’s a ‘Golem’ exhibition at LACMA. Must be something in the air!

      Glad you like the mask and card. It all seems such worlds away now, that time of masks and indecision. But soon I’d begin painting, and
      it would be ‘all change’ again.

      • A wondrous change, good for you.
        I so wish you were here in LA, it is a very fine exhibition, many interesting bits of ephemera and gorgeous engravings about the Golem. A rich tradition aside from the great film.

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