Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Golem: Art Direction

Golem-blogging, essay 10 of 21 

The massive sets of the Prague ghetto in The Golem (1920).

Art Direction 

The Golem (1920) is divided by intertitles into five chapters. By the end of the first chapter, the audience has toured Prague from the poor streets of the ghetto to the emperor’s court. The production design is amazingly ambitious, using very different styles for the various settings to reflect not only the characters’ wealth or lack thereof, but also their psychological states. By contrast, the artistic design of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) is relatively simple, with all scenes embracing the same expressionist aesthetic. This works well for Caligari, but the very different approach of The Golem is equally successful, as well as exponentially more complex. 

The city streets of the Jewish ghetto, built on a scale to rival D.W. Griffith’s great Paris sets for Orphans of the Storm (1921) in the following year, are the most memorable of the movie’s sets. The buildings look ancient and massive—like true storybook structures. They tend to have rounded edges as if they were molded out of clay themselves. 

The emperor signs the decree.
The most extreme contrast with the ghetto is found in the design of the imperial court where the emperor resides. Ably assisted by cinematographer Karl Freund, production designer Hans Poelzig emphasizes an artfully balanced symmetry with the emperor’s throne at the center. Graceful ornamental ironwork provides a royal backdrop for the throne, and soft textures dominate the foreground. There’s only one jarring element, but it’s an extremely important one. Note the scene where the emperor signs the decree. It’s one of the few off-center compositions in this scene, and it’s framed to include a curious wooden structure to the right of the throne, intentionally distorted so as to be barely recognizable. It’s a cross, ominously twisted in the background, perhaps suggesting the perversion of Christianity represented by the decree that the emperor is signing in the foreground. 

The winding staircase.
Rabbi Loew’s home anchors the movie and it is surprisingly varied in its artistic designs. Most of the house, especially the magnificent winding staircase that leads to the rabbi’s rooftop observatory, is in the massive, molded style of the buildings of the ghetto. But the Rabbi’s house contains other chambers that break away from the prevailing design in interesting ways. 

Miriam’s room is a pre-Raphaelite delight, with walls decorated with delicate lines and flourishes suggestive of William Morris and his Kelmscott Press designs. It is a feminine room, more in keeping with a courtly style of storytelling than the rest of the house.

Rabbi Loew descends to the secret chamber.
Most significant of all is the secret chamber where Rabbi Loew designs and sculpts his Golem. The secret entrance is hidden beneath a carpet, where a door in the floor opens to reveal a staircase. The rabbi descends to a lower door, where he must break a seal to enter. And inside is the one room in The Golem which genuinely shows some influence from Caligari, in the form of expressionistic irregular shapes etched onto the door. Fittingly, this is the most magical chamber in the house, the room where reality crosses into dream/nightmare. As Rabbi Loew descends the stairs and enters here, it is almost as if the movie is descending into a deeper level of consciousness and tapping into the wellsprings of the subconscious, the world of the horror movie proper.

Atmospheric silhouette of the Prague ghetto at night.
Watch The Golem (1920):
Purchase through Kino International
or at Amazon,
rent through Netflix,
or sneak a peek at YouTube.

© 2011 Lee Price

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