Tag Archives: german expressionism

Der Golem

In 1920, at the very beginning of the Weimar era in Germany, director Paul Wegener released the 3rd movie in his Golem trilogy and effectively fired one of the first shots in the expressionist film movement.

After 2 movies using the Golem creature in a modern-day setting, Wegener finally had the resources and budget to make a full scale movie in which he retells the Golem myth he had learned about while filming a movie in Prague in 1913. (That movie was the Edgar Poe story William Wilson, later re-titled The Student Of Prague, which is itself a seminal embryonic expressionist film)

The idea of a Golem dates back to early Judaism.Psalm 139:16 says “Your eyes saw my unformed body;” and in Yiddish “my unformed body” is the word golem. The Talmud, the book which discusses the Jewish Oral tradition, a tradition extending back much longer than the Written Tradition which is the Bible, discusses golems on several occasions. A wise and holy man, who in his wisdom and holiness is becoming more like Gd, could do miraculous things like create life also, but his creations would be inherently flawed. He too could create a man out of mud, but this man would be a lumbering thing, unable to speak.

This eventually led to the most well known Golem myth, which takes place in the Jewish ghetto of Prague in the 16th century. Rabbi Loew created a Golem to protect the ghetto from violent antisemitic attacks. He put either a Hebrew word, or in some accounts the secret 24 letter name of Gd into the creature’s forehead, and the creature was brought to life. The Golem kicked the asses of the Jews’ enemies. In some versions the Golem goes out of control and in others the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II begs Rabbi Loew to stop the Golem, promising to end Jewish persecution. The Golem is dismantled by erasing the word of power on its forehead and stored in an attic to await the day when it is needed once more. (WWII would have been an ideal time…)

So, in 1920, Paul Wegener makes his movie retelling this story and changes cinema forever.

The screenplay was written in conjunction with Henrik Galeen who went on to write Nosferatu. Henrik Galeen was an enthusiastic occultist and Rabbi Loew’s bringing to life of The Golem is peppered with imaginative occult imagery as opposed to anything even remotely Jewish (other than a rather ridiculous waving around of a Star of David). The Golem in the movie goes out of control when the Rabbi’s assistant takes control of it to stop one the Emperor’s men from wooing the rabbi’s daughter, Miriam, and much mayhem ensues.

The film is so important, because like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, also released in 1920, it put a great number of the ideas defining German Expressionist Cinema on the map. Dark, deep, eerie, otherworldly moods; non realistic, symbolic sets;  incredibly inventive and brilliant lighting; and fantastic plots open to interpretation which would keep generations of artsy people debating excitedly over coffee, cigarettes and wine, Der Golem has it all.

Wegener’s aim was : “The real creator of the film must be the camera. Getting the spectator to change his point of view, using special effects to double the actor on the divided screen, superimposing other images — all this, technique, form, gives the content its real meaning. Everything depends on the image, on a certain vagueness of outline where the fantastic world of the past meets the world of today. I realized that photographic technique was going to determine the destiny of the cinema. Light and darkness in the cinema play the same role as rhythm and cadence in music.”

The film is behind the 1931 Frankenstein movie, and even, yes, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Mickey Mouse anyone?). It was a major inspiration for the cyborg in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Indeed, The Golem is one of the first movie monsters ever. More so however, most of the major German Expressionist films are influences upon the next century of film making in ways that cannot be counted. This Golem myth, of powerful man made creation created to help but spirals out of control and causes an orgy of destruction is so well known and well trodden it’s not even worth it to list all the variations of this idea in film i can think of. We’d be here all day. This is one of the first movies in cinema to play with that concept and its influence is immeasurable.

Here is the famous scene in which the Golem is brought to life:

I would be remiss i didn’t include the full movie which is indeed available online, like everything else that has ever existed in the past 100 years. It is available to watch in its entirety at

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Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

MetropolisAfter WWI, Germany entered the Weimar era, an explosive era of creativity rarely seen in any culture at any time. Amongst the incredible artistic forays was film making, still a relatively new art form. One of the Weimar era takes on this new media was German Expressionism. Films at the time, much like today, were mostly adventure films, romance films, and comedy films (and it should be noted, all silent). German expressionism went hog wild with crazy tales of madness, horror and fantasy, full of elements waaaay outside the safe and comfortable bounds that Hollywood in the US was producing. Since The expressionists couldn’t match Hollywood’s budget they went for inventive, and indeed their use of angles, shadows, moods, absurd sets, non realistic but highly stylized backgrounds were creatively so far past the Americans or any other European nation trying its hand at film making that films like The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and of course Metropolis are still showing today and poured over by film makers and movie buffs. In 1927, at the height of the Weimar era director Fitz Lang made what is considered the first science fiction movie ever made and one of the gems of the German Expressionist movement: Metropolis.

It was written by Fritz Lang and his wife Thea Von Harbou and takes place in a future city where capitalism has caused a horrific rift between the insanely wealthy few, and the poor, pathetic working masses. (As i’ve noted before in my many posts on weimar era arts, you can pretty much assume going into any work of anything that there will be a critique of capitalism somewhere in there if not dripping all over it. The horrors of the industrial revolution were still fresh on everyone’s minds and not hidden away in 3rd world countries like today.) The plot involves the wealthy son of the city’s founder falling in love with a poor worker woman (Maria) who has accidentally appeared above ground with some children. He follows her and finds the hidden underground of the city where the great mass of workers live out their miserable lives. After this the plot gets really insane, and there’s a mad scientist (whose lover the city founder once stole from him before she abruptly died) who’s creating a robot that ends up looking like the poor worker woman Maria and a myth involving the Tower of Babel and the coming of the Mediator… look, either see the film or trust me it gets kind of nuts. So we’ve got a pretty crazy story (little communist clichéd, but we’ll look past it), first sci fi film, all this is well and good, but what has made it so beloved for 80 years is it looks amazing. For 1927, the look is astonishing. The directing of it is nothing short of brilliant. Every aspect of this film, from the mad scientist to the city angles and futuristic look have been soaked up by directors and used as inspiration ever since. metropolisVisually, this is probably the most inventive film ever made. None of these ideas existed before. Every visual idea in Metropolis has been used since by almost every director who has ever made a sci film: Stanley Kubrik, Georoge Lucas (the robot in Metropolis and C3PO are not so similar in appearance by chance), Tim Burton, Ripley Scott, and the list goes on. The film is not without faults: for one thing the story is a little too ‘hit you over the head’ preachy and the ending is moronic. If you enjoy sci fi films today, you must appreciate that these sets may look fake to you now, but this was all made in a day where special effects didn’t exist, they were literally inventing it as they went. Much as Star Wars did but with even LESS (to no) film history to draw on. Over the years several attempts to preserve and rerelease the film in better formats have been tried. Indeed, some of the film is simply lost forever. Issues of how fast to show the film (these days films are made at 24 frames a second but Metropolis was made at 16), edited versions (in America back in the day it was initially edited the hell out of due to all that nasty capitalist critiquing) have made it difficult to actually see the film as it was intended. However, in 2001 a major restoration project to reconstruct and restore the film was made, and then in 2008 a long forgotten copy of the original was found in a Cinema Archive in Buenos Aires. Thus in 2010, a remastered, restored version was finally released. there’s still a few parts missing, but he look has been masterfully restored. The original score was rerecorded. Here is a trailer for it: If you wish to view the entire movie (although the subtitles are in German. However, it being a silent movie and all it’s not really all that based on words), you can on YouTube (of course!) starting here: (there’s a bit at the beginning from the ceremony where they unveiled it)

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Posted by on April 14, 2011 in Uncategorized


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