Monday, October 24, 2011

The Golem: Karl Freund

Golem-blogging, essay 14 of 21 

Atmospheric Karl Freund composition from
The Golem (1920).
Karl Freund

Karl Freund
directing in 1932.
By the time he was hired by Paul Wegener to work on The Golem (1920), cinematographer Karl Freund was a thorough-going film professional. Born in 1890, Freund grew up with the film industry, starting as a projectionist at the age of 15, shooting news reel footage at 17, and moving on to narrative films by 1912. When assigned to The Golem, he was the most respected cinematographer working at Germany’s UFA Studios, the largest of the German studios.

A few years later, Freund would receive acclaim for his innovative elaborate camera movements in The Last Laugh. But despite the bravura work on The Last Laugh, Freund rarely allowed his camera work to take center stage in his movies. He could do nearly anything if requested by a director, but he seems to have tended toward a much more self-effacing style that established mood economically and told a story clearly.

The camera moves several times in The Golem, but not often. The images are beautifully composed but static. Perhaps this was intentional—to reinforce the storybook feel of the material.

In The Golem, I love the deep black backdrops that often exist behind the characters in the foreground. This is especially evident in the creation scene. When the Rabbi creates his magical circle, all the background details of the room vanish and we are suddenly in a world of darkness, broken only by the Rabbi and his servant, the magical smoldering circle, and the appearance of the demon Astaroth. The deep black background that silhouettes the mask-like demon Astaroth very effectively reinforces the magical, other-worldly quality of the scene.

There are many other beautiful compositions: the cat running along the rooftop almost in silhouette, Miriam leaning out of her window to catch a glimpse of the approaching knight, and the Golem in tight closeup as he looks around his new home for the first time. Even without a moving camera, Freund is already a master at his work.

Cat on the rooftop.

Golem with glowing eyes.
There is one fun little trick that showed up memorably later in Freund’s career. When the Golem first awakens, his eyes seem to glow. Just like… the infamous wandering light that was supposed to reflect off Bela Lugosi’s eyes when Freund filmed Dracula in 1931. Truthfully, it worked better the first time around. 

Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931).

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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