I’ve long held a passion for Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of The Golem, based on the Jewish legend of the biddable man made by Rabbi Loew out of clay. (Though of course things don’t go quite as intended and the creature conjured into life develops a mind of its own.)
Wegener recruited architect Hans Poelzig as set designer for what would turn out to be the most extraordinary depiction of a Jewish ghetto made in the style that’s now described as ‘Plastic Expressionism’ after the modelled shapes and textured surfaces of the sets, as opposed to the previous ‘German Expressionism’ used by historian’s for films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in which the sets were flat surface constructions with all elements, from the skewed architecture to the angled shadows and shafts of light, painted onto them.
Poelzig’s atmospheric sketches from his Golem project-book were translated into a Prague Ghetto of perspective-defying labyrinthine streets, alleyways and courtyards where high gables and witch’s hat rooftops twist out of true over buildings that slouch and slump under the weight. Wegener filled it with roiling rivers of extras in a horrifying crush of humanity and it’s hard to believe the crammed effects were achieved with any degree of safety for the participants.
Below: a meandering street of the Jewish ghetto seen here under construction. As the director’s fixed position cameras would be set up to film from carefully selected angles, the buildings could be created as thin facades over scaffolds.
Below: this image demonstrates the wonderful textures of plasterwork on the sets for The Golem as carried out by the UFA scenic department.
For the interiors Poelzig turned to a sculptor – and later wife – Marlene Moeschke, who shaped rooms for The Golem resembling the ribbed and arcing interior forms of seashells.
Above: Moeschke’s model for the Rabbi’s laboratory, and below, the set.
The laboratory was a particular triumph when meticulously recreated at full scale for the filming. Though it’s been over half a century since I first saw fragments of The Golem as a teenager, the images still make the hairs at the nape of my neck stand on end. Marlene Moeschke’s contribution to the film has rather too often been overshadowed by Poelzig’s, so it was heartening to see her acknowledged and her models foregrounded in the excellent 2016 exhibition ‘Golem’ at the Jewish Museum Berlin.