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.