Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Golem Revisited: Movies as Cathedrals

Golem-blogging, essay 3 of 21:

Movies as Cathedrals

Disney's The Old Mill (1937):  Looks like the mill at the
end of the 1931 Frankenstein, doesn't it?
I intentionally shaped my original essay on The Golem (1920), published in Horror 101, to be anti-auteurist.  My current approach to movies is to regard each movie as a collaborative effort, until documented history establishes who actually made the key artistic choices.  In some cases, it really is a single person.  But not in many… Alfred Hitchcock used to envy Walt Disney for his ability to tear up an actor who wasn’t coming out right, but that gives Disney way too much credit. When you look into the making of a brilliant Disney short like The Old Mill (1937), just eight brief minutes of celluloid, you realize that it is the product of a chemistry between many artists. No one single person deserves to sign the final frame.  It certainly wasn’t all Disney.

For my Horror 101 essay, I chose to spread the Golem honors among four people:


“The genius of The Golem sprang from a collaboration of some very talented people, namely Paul Wegener, Henrik Galeen, Karl Freund, and Hans Poelzig…

“For the 1914 Golem movie, Wegener recruited Henrik Galeen, who shared writing and directing credits with Wegener and had a co-starring role. Subsequently, Galeen plunged deep into the dark heart of German expressionism, serving as co-writer on the 1920 Golem, screenwriter on F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), and writer/director of the 1926 remake of The Student of Prague and Alraune (1928).

“The legendary cinematographer Karl Freund was assigned to The Golem team in 1920. Already solidly established at Germany’s famous UFA Studios, Freund had been in the movie business since 1907, when he was just 17. His future horror credits would eventually include his cinematography of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and his direction of the Hollywood horror classics The Mummy and Mad Love.

“The influence of Hans Poelzig on The Golem is enormous, felt in nearly every frame of the movie. He created the massive, strange sets that dominate nearly every scene. Already firmly established as a leading German architect, The Golem was Poelzig’s first movie, and he only worked on a handful of others during his brief time in the movie business. Working under Poelzig, as an uncredited set designer, future director Edgar G. Ulmer served as an uncredited set designer on The Golem. As a tribute to his mentor, Ulmer would eventually assign the name “Hjalmar Poelzig” to Boris Karloff’s villain in the The Black Cat (1934).”

Ely Cathedral, from a print in The
Cathedral Churches of England (1925).
This quote established the historical background, and the final section of the essay (called, “The Convergence of Genius”) then attempted to show how this particular collaboration resulted in art.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of film as being more like a medieval cathedral rather than, say, a novel (which really can claim to have a single auteur). You can receive a vast number of aesthetic experiences from a visit to a medieval cathedral, all of which add up to a single artistic impression. You may be moved by the architecture, the stained glass, the carved gargoyles, or the religious ritual being observed. It’s so complex that every single person in the building may be responding to entirely different aesthetic stimuli. The chill down my spine may be 50% derived from the play of light through the stained glass windows, 40% from the acoustics, and 10% from the vast architectural space. Another person may have a full artistic experience by responding 50% to the delightfully grotesque gargoyles and 50% to contemplation of the magnificent flying buttresses. And still another may be 100% annoyed by the religious gibberish and the perceived enormous waste and therefore fail to have any aesthetic experience, other than smoldering anger.

I think people respond to movies in similar ways. My friend David hates The Godfather (1973) because of its ethics; another friend loves it for the exciting story, fine performances, and cinematography. Both impressions are legitimate experiences of the Godfather cathedral.

Returning to my original essay, the analogy would be that Wegener can stand for the architect, Galeen the priest, Freund the stained glass artist, and Poelzig the sculptor. The total experience of the movie will be different for each of us viewing it. Our aesthetic nerve endings may be triggered at any moment by the work of any one artist, or by some mysterious chemistry of one or more artists working in synch.

From The Golem (1920), a beautiful Karl Freund composition
showcasing Hans Poelzig's atmospheric sets.
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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