silent-mm-poster.jpg Fantastic double feature at the Paramount’s Silent Movie Mondays (unfortunately for them, they make it impossible to link directly to the schedule, so no link for you! Get out!) last night which featured really clean prints of both Der Golem and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Both prints were tinted, as originally distributed, and the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari also featured an astonishing duo-tone solarization effect in the intial framing sequence (the narrator, seated on a bench, begins his tale).

I’ve seen Caligari umpteen times since I was a teenager, and much of the novelty and freshness of the wild staging wore off long ago for me, leaving a slightly boring film that suffers from the tacked-on framing sequence. (The site I’ve linked to includes a breathtaking lobby card for the film at the end of the page).

This print was awesome, however, and reinstated much of the impact of the production. It’s also probably the first time I have seen the film in an optimal viewing enviroment.

The other film, Der Golem, is a film I’ve wanted to see since, what, at least 1976 when I received a book that reproduced a still from the movie in the context of an article about the Golem legend. The film was a huge hit when it was released, and is generally credited with being the first feature length horror film (or is it science fiction? fantasy? alchemical film? hermetic cinema?).

I awaited the inevitable racial crudities with bated breath, and was relieved when they did not show themselves in any exeptionable way. No unfortunate racialist caricatures, with the possible exception of the Golem himself, whose makeup lends him a resemblance, probably accidental, to a player in blackface getup. However, he plays the same role as a slave in early cinema – he’s simple, dangerous, superhuman, has trouble with the lusty feelings, and so forth. In Der Golem he’s played by the director, Paul Wegener, and I thought it was interesting that in this German film, based on Czech legends, the person playing the Golem should have Slavic features.

(This thoughtful review of a DVD edition notes that the depiction of Rabbi Loew in the film as a secretive practioner of the black arts still reinforces the underlying antisemitic attitudes of Northern and Central Europe at the time. Well, maybe. But then there’d be no movie, I think.)

It was somewhat unsettling to watch this legend of a pogrom averted in the Prague ghetto while knowing that the same ghetto had a fate unimaginable to the players in the film lying in wait, about 20 years down the road.

A major, incredibly cool element of the film was its’ fantastic set design – imagine if Antonio Gaudi designed a crude medieval village and you’re right in the neighborhood, so to speak.

The film appeared to me to be a more fluent and carefully designed film, cinematically, than Caligari.

TCM offers their usual thorough and informative writeup on Der Golem. Here’s a site with a bunch of stills (definitely a deifferent version than the print we saw).

Next week is the official end of the cycle this time through. However, last week, Dennis James (the organist for the shows) mentioned that they were trying to put together one extra showing – of the eagerly awaited Wings, the first film to win Best Picture in the Academy Awards and the first airplane spectacular – and by howdy, is it spectacular. If you like old canvas and wood airplanes as much as I do, this film presents a curious spectacle of enthrallment, inaccuracy, and tragedy – the filmmakers crashed countless surplus WW1 biplanes in making the film. The inaccuracy resides in the many creative ways the set dressers were able to rework the U.S.-made and readily available Curtiss JN-1 Jennies to resemble other models. They’d been made in huge numbers here for export to the front when peace broke out, so they were sold for as little as $25 each, so my unreliable grey cells inform me.

(But, uh, if you’re not a plane nut, it’s – like all too many Best Pictures – kinda mediocre.)

When he mentioned that was what they were trying to do, applause broke out. Boeing may be leaving town, but this remains a city of airplane people.

Here’s the whole run this cycle:
JANUARY 6, 2003: the monster, 1925
Starring: Lon Chaney
JANUARY 13, 2003: the lodger, 1926
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
JANUARY 20, 2003: cabinet of dr. caligari, 1919 & der golem, 1920
Directors: Robert Wiene (Cabinet) / Carl Boese & Paul Wegener (Der Golem)
JANUARY 27, 2003: the women in the moon, 1929
Director: Fritz Lang

And just for good measure, some linkylove:

Silent Era, the indispensible resource for this stuff.

Silents Are Golden, a bit more homey in feel.

3 thoughts on “DER GOLEM and CALIGARI at Silent Movie Mondays last night

  1. Yes, the 1920 “Der Golem” is one of the great masterworks of film. I’m bummed I missed this screening, but I’d rather see the complete 115 minute version (see for it on VHS) instead of the heavily truncated version you saw (which I’ve seen many times) — tho I’ve never seen it tinted. (Alas the new Kino DVD edition is only the 86 min. version.)

    I thought your comparison of the Golem to American black stereo types was curious. The resemblance to a blackface performer…I dunno. I think it’s just the prominence of white eyes amidst the very dark “stone” make-up. In the context of the film’s story, the eyes are actually even more important: a gleaming symbol of life emanating from a body of stone. Eyes, after all, are windows to the soul. And of course, Wegener-the-actor consciously uses them to great effect throughout the film. (For more than seeing, obviously.)

    The pronounced mane of hair harkens to the actual legend, which says “hair sprouted on its head” as the animation ritual unfolded.

    But it shouldn’t be all that surprising that Wegener treated Jews in general and the legend in particular with respect. (He himself was raised Catholic.) After all, he made and appeared in no less than 3 different films using the Golem legend as its basis. (The first, made in 1914, was long thought lost until a single print was discovered ca. 1958.) It was he himself who instigated the first production after learning of the historical Rabbi Loew and the legend of the Golem while in Prague shooting “the Student of Prague.”

    Many of the threads of ambiguity are there in the original legend. Rabbi Loew creates the Golem to protect the Jewish people — but it is itself a slave and an “untermensch” (if you’ll pardon the Germanic intrusion into a Czech legend). Golem is created to do good, but it’s task is inherently violent. In some versions of the legend, God himself instructs Rabbi Loew to create the Golem and tells him how to do it; in others he finds the information himself in the Khabbala — a divine text concerned with mysticism and thus with communing directly with God. Yet this “godly” creation must ultimately be destroyed because it is tainted by man’s folly. (The film takes some license with this, but it’s still within the spririt of the legend.)

    What’s more, Wegener had great affection and affinity for Buddhism — which is to say he was not only sympathetic and tolerate of non-mainstream religions, but he had a taste for mysticism as well. No wonder the Khabbalic tale of Golem appealed to him.

    To expand on the Buddhism connection, according to — and I did not know this:

    “In 1923 Wegener formed his own company Paul Wegener AG. and invested heavily into a production about one of his primary interests, Buddhism. Since his days as a student, Wegener had been fascinated by the arts of the Far East and in this film he planned to take the role of the Dali Lama. A zepplin hanger in Staaken was hired to house an entire reconstruction of a Tibetan town designed by Hans Poelzig, but unfortunately although the film was completed it was never released. Wegener’s hard work and images never got to be seen, leaving him severely in debt. A test copy and the negatives were acquired by someone, but to this day they have never been found leaving only a few stills to confirm the film’s existence.”

    But one is left with consternation when you learn that Wegener not only remained in Germany during the Nazi period, but actually produced propaganda films for them and acted in several Nazi feature films. (This is not nearly as confounding as Leni Reifenstahl’s tale, of course.)


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