Hans Poelzig’s and Marlene Moeschke’s work on Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of ‘The Golem’

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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.)

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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Below: this image demonstrates the wonderful textures of plasterwork on the sets for The Golem as carried out by the UFA scenic department.

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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.

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Above: Moeschke’s model for the Rabbi’s laboratory, and below, the set.

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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.

 

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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.

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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

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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.

the links to german expressionism

The Haunted Screen by the film historian Lotte H. Eisner (1896 – 1983) has been an inspiration to me since I read it in the early 1970s. So revered was Eisner by German film director Werner Herzog, that in 1974 on hearing she was dangerously ill, he began to walk from Munich to Paris to see her, convinced that she would stay alive because he was on his way. She recovered, and he wrote a book about the experience, Of Walking in Ice.

Above: Lotte Eisner

The Haunted Screen is an account of the ‘Golden Age’ of German cinema, which began at the conclusion of the First World War, and ended shortly before the coming of sound. (1918 – 1927) German film-makers during this period were influenced by two primary sources: literary Expressionism, and the work being pioneered in the theatre, particularly by the director Max Reinhardt. Eisner demonstrates the connections between German Romanticism and the cinema, through the influence of Expressionist writings.

The following quote from an interview with the film director Paul Leni in the magazine Kinomatograph, is included by Eisner in The Haunted Screen, and has stayed in my mind throughout my working life. Leni is speaking of film design, though for me what he says applies equally to painting.

Paul Leni on set designing

‘If the designer merely imitated photography to construct his 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 colour.’

Above: from Leni’s film Waxworks

‘This is particularly necessary for films set wholly in a world of unreality. For my film Waxworks I have tried to create sets so stylised 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 the inner event, which is more profound, effective and moving than what we see through everyday eyes, and I equally believe that the cinema can reproduce 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 with an adroit apprentice carpenter.’

(From Kinematograph, 1924)

At this distance Leni sounds to be a tad bombastic, but at the time I first read his words I was drawn to the visual  ‘Expressionism’ he posits. However, even better is Eisner’s description of the Jack the Ripper episode from Leni’s Waxworks. (It’s quite short and comes at the end of the film.) In fact so thrillingly does she write, I’ve always found the sequence itself palls in comparison with her words.

Above: the Jack the Ripper sequence from Paul Leni’s Waxworks. 1924. Multiple exposures create a transparent layering, and the Ripper seems more a phantom than corporeal. That’s him in the centre of the image, his back to the viewer, heading toward the fairground.

‘The most Expressionistic episode in Waxworks is incontestably that of Jack the Ripper, with its sliding corners, its continually shifting surfaces, its walls yielding without revealing what they conceal. It is a chaos of forms: triangles and rhomboids pierce space, sudden cascades of light collide against an infernal darkness. The sequence of all these unconnected objects is completely incoherent, their form offering no point of support. Throughout the turmoil of this setting glides the phantom of Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss), elusive, insubstantial. Like the surrounding space the ground is without limits, it dissolves underfoot, cracks, congeals, becomes unreal.The big wheel and the merry-go-round become decorative forms for a few moments, casting shadows which resemble birds of prey.’

Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen, 1952

It was Eisner’s description of that sequence… rather than the sequence itself…  that guided me in 1986 when I worked on the design and the lighting for the ‘Expressionist’ production of Little Shop of Horrors that I directed at Theatr Clwyd.

Above: Eisner-inspired lighting-design sketches for the Little Shop of Horrors set

Below: Expressionism in my 2001 series of drawings titled collectively The Mare’s Tale

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And it was the same description that I returned to when I first heard Mark Bowden’s music for The Mare’s Tale, which for me was redolent of the Expressionist imagination Eisner had so evocatively conjured in The Haunted Screen.

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Above: Expressionism revisited for the set of The Mare’s Tale

Below: the great Lotte Eisner, who opened a door for me.