Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) Review

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into The World) (1920) Director: Paul Wegener, Carl Boese

★★★★☆

A visually arresting example of early German Expressionism, The Golem offers a twisted glimpse into an old European-Jewish ghetto where the fearsome golem creature wreaks havoc. I was immediately struck by the towering set designs which loom like paintings throughout the film. However, other German Expressionist films stand out as much stronger to me, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922). Indeed the film’s cinematographer, Karl Freund, was also the cinematographer of two other classic Expressionist films: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924).

The Golem is an adaptation of a 1915 novel of the same name by Gustav Meyrink, an Austrian writer best known for The Golem. Interestingly enough co-director, Paul Wegener, stars as the golem creature in the film, and this was his third of three films made about the golem (the other two being 1915’s The Golem, and 1917’s The Golem and the Dancing Girl). Both films have now been lost but at the time of its release, the 1920 film was actually considered a prequel to the earlier 1915 film also entitled The Golem.

Many of the stylized and disorienting sets featured in The Golem left the strongest impression on me, and the zig-zagging architecture has often drawn comparisons to other early German expressionist classics. The Golem also invites comparison to Frankenstein (1931), for obvious reasons. The story borrows themes from medieval Jewish folklore, taking place in a Prague Jewish ghetto. The emperor of Rome has decreed that all Jews must leave the city, so a leading Rabbi uses an ancient dark magic (Asteroth, known in mythology as the prince of hell) to animate the golem stone in order to protect and defend the Jews. However, once awakened the golem predictably runs amok killing people and destroying the Jewish ghetto until his mysterious, magical amulet is finally removed in the end.

Who is the mystical Jewish rabbi in the film? The answer is Rabbi Loew, a cabalist scholar (1513-1609) who is said to be the inspiration, at least in part, for Disney’s Fantasia (1940), and he has appeared in the writings of both Elie Wiesel and Michael Chabon. A statue of Rabbi Loew also stands near where the Jewish ghetto once existed in Prague. The local Jewish community refers to Rabbi Loew as the “exalted one.”

The golem creature has appeared in many mythical stories, most notably in Tolkien where he is simply referred to as “gollum,” a gray and sorry creature who is transformed into his ugly state by his greed. In contrast in the 1920 film, the golem is tall, stoic, and almost lifeless. Apparently, Wegener’s inspiration for the film comes from an Edgar Alan Poe short story, “William Wilson” – a story about a person suffering from multiple personality disorder. Indeed, the film carries the duality of existence as one of its themes, for example the cold-hearted golem is, in many ways, an extension of the violent alter ego of Rabbi Loew.

Nosferatu (1922) Review

12/13/14

Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) Director: F.W. Murnau

“No one can escape his destiny”

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★★★★★

Despite being a blatant work of plagiarism, as an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is truly a triumph of the silent horror genre, a masterful classic of the German Expressionism. It was unauthorized because the German studio Prana simply could not afford the rights to the novel. Stoker’s family later sued for copyright infringement, and a court ordered all copies of the film destroyed. Luckily, a handful of rare prints survived and these few have since been preserved in order for us to view the film today –and what a marvel it is! Nosferatu, the sole production of the Prana Film company, stars Max Schreck as the lanky and lurching Nosferatu vampire named Count Orlok who hunts down his victims. An impending sense of dread and foreboding hangs over the whole film. In many ways Nosferatu, along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), has set the standard for all future horror films to follow. Still today, in this contemporary age of flashy special effects and lazy writing, Nosferatu remains a chilling symphony of horrors –a film that accomplishes far more more with a lot less pomp and circumstance.

The story is a framed narrative told by Thomas Hutter (played by German nobleman Gustav von Wangenheim) who lives with his wife Ellen in the fictitious German city of Wisborg (a combination of Wismar and Lubeck, two shooting site locations for the film). He works for a creepy little man named Knock, about whom many rumors circulate in the town. Knock sends Hutter on a long journey to meet a new client in Transylvania, named Count Orlok. Hutter entrusts his wife to a friend named Harding and Harding’s sister Annie. Hutter’s wife remains skeptical of his business trip.

On the road, Hutter stops in the Carpathian mountains at an inn as he nears his destination. The people are horrified at the mere mention of Orlok’s name and they warn him not to go near the castle because a werewolf is on the loose (the creature shown is actually a hyena). In his room, Hutter finds a book about Nosferatu that frightens him. The next day, Hutter takes a coach that refuses to carry him any further past a bridge to the castle. A much darker, black-cloaked carriage appears to take him the rest of the way.

Hutter is then greeted by Count Orlok and he is invited to dinner. At dinner, Hutter accidentally cuts his thumb and Orlok pounces at his precious blood. Hutter goes to bed frightened of the strange Count. He awakens the next day to find an empty castle and two strange mosquito bites on his neck. He writes a letter to his wife to reassure her but privately he begins having second thoughts. In the evening Orlok signs documents to purchase the property across the street from Hutter’s home, but Hutter begins to suspect that Orlok is a Nosferatu, a “Bird of Death.” He runs frightened to his room but there is no way to bolt his door shut and the door opens with the Count slowly approaching. Hutter falls unconscious under the infamous shadow of the Nosferatu.

The next day Hutter ventures down to the castle’s crypt where he finds the Count’s coffin (according to his book the Nosferatu sleeps in the soil of his homeland). Hutter dashes back to his room and he peers out the window to see the Count piling coffins into his carriage and he climbs into the final coffin before departing. Hutter, terrified and thinking of his wife Ellen, escapes out of his window and he falls to the ground. Injured and unconscious, he awakens in a hospital.

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Upon recovering he hurries home whilie the coffins of the Count are shipped downstream. They are transferred to a larger boat, but the crew are skeptical after they see rats crawling out of the coffins. One by one each of the crew members gets sick and dies, until only the captain and the first mate are left alive. The first mate goes below deck to inspect the coffins and he awakens the Count who scares the first mate into jumping overboard. Count Orlok then kills the captain and sails the boat into the Wisborg harbor and leaves undetected with his coffin.

Doctors visit the mysterious ship and after reading its logbook they conclude that the plague was carried by rats and the town is stricken with panic over the plague. Knock had been committed to a psychiatric ward but he escapes after strangling a guard.

Meanwhile, Orlok watches Ellen through his new home’s window, and Ellen reads the book on Nosferatu against her husband’s wishes. The way to defeat a vampire, or a Nosferatu according to the book, is for a beautiful woman to distract him all through the night. That night, she opens an inviting window for Orlok but Hutter thinks she has gone mad and goes to fetch Dr. Bulwer. While he is gone, Orlok enters, in another famous scene of his looming shadow, and drinks the blood of Ellen. He loses track of the time and as the sun rises he vanishes in a puff of smoke at daybreak near the window. Ellen and her grief-stricken husband embrace just before she dies. Apparently, F.W. Murnau carefully constructed this scene using a metronome for the actors.

The final scene portrays the ruins of Orlok’s castle seated amidst the Carpathian mountains.

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