Friday, October 14, 2011

The Golem Revisited: Universal Speculations

Golem-blogging, essay 4 of 21:

Universal Speculations

Karloff as the Monster in
Universal's Frankenstein.
In the final section of my Horror 101 essay on The Golem (1920), I confidently asserted that the famous 1930s Universal horror movies were the spiritual offspring of The Golem. Of course, this isn’t an original thought. In horror circles, it’s commonly assumed that the Universal horrors were deeply influenced by German expressionism, and I even borrow a phrase I’ve seen before (perhaps in David Skal’s books?) when I call them “children of Caligari.”  Here’s what I wrote in 2007:

The Golem is one of those rare movies that seems to exist outside of time, like a folk tale come to life or a living woodcut from a medieval book. If you are attuned to the movie’s unique spell, it’s probably because of the quality of the production design, costumes and makeup, the cinematography, and Paul Wegener’s performance. If you can’t catch the spell, you’re probably being distracted by performances in the supporting roles that too frequently fall back on silent film clichés. And that’s too bad, because the inconsistency of the acting is the only element that holds The Golem back from being a no-holds-bar masterpiece, as opposed to merely a very great movie.

“The Poelzig-designed architecture sets the tone. Although Caligari often receives the credit for establishing the look of German expressionism, The Golem takes a different approach that turned out to be much more influential. Caligari’s designs are flat, daringly two-dimensional. The Golem’s production is deeply three-dimensional, with sets conveying an impressive sense of weight and size. They look almost as if they were molded from cookie dough (or, more likely, from the same clay as the Golem himself), with off-kilter rounded shapes predominating and hardly a right angle in sight. The rabbi’s home is defined by a winding staircase that sets the model for many of horror’s great staircases to follow. The huge gate that separates the ghetto from the rest of the city suggests a model for the great gate of Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921) and maybe even the memorable gate of King Kong (1933). The ghetto buildings are the prototype for the production design of the Universal horror movies of the 1930’s, from Frankenstein (1931) through The Wolf Man (1941), the direct spiritual offspring of The Golem.
“The figure of the Golem itself is often presented architecturally.  He’s a mass of clay in the beginning, serves as a column that supports a collapsing roof in one of the key setpieces, and ends as a bench for Aryan children to sit on. None of this would be believable, if it weren’t for the seamless integration of the Golem’s costume, makeup, and acting into the environment of Poelzig’s amazing sets.  Wegener’s Golem is otherworldly, always a monster, but with intimation of the pathos that Karloff would fully explore a decade later as the Frankenstein monster.”

Revisiting this essay, I'll suggest three interesting evolutions from The Golem to Universal Studios.

Frankenstein monster and child
in The Ghost of Frankenstein.
First, the contrast between the monster and the child:  Momentarily forget about the violent conclusion of the 1931 Frankenstein monster-girl scene, and instead just consider the image of large human-like monster and small innocent child. I’m unaware of seeing any examples of this now iconic image in other art forms previous to The Golem. But it quickly gets popular: The Golem to the monster/little girl in the 1931 Frankenstein to the monster/little boy friendship in the 1939 Son of Frankenstein to the monster/little girl kidnapping in The Ghost of Frankenstein. And the image continues to rattle down through the years, figuring prominently in a modern movie like Terminator 2. In each case, the contrast is between monstrous brute strength (temporarily held at bay) and vulnerable weakness; equally important, sexuality does NOT play a role in the threat -– that’s not what these scenes are about. This largely benign image of friendship between unequals has become a well-established part of our collective movie mythology.

Monster in boots.
Second, the monster’s lumbering gait:  Wegener’s Golem is taller than everyone around him partly because Wegener is a very big man (6’ 6), but also because his shoes have large weighted-down platforms. And so, for the first time, monsters lumber. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster did not lumber. Reading her book, I imagine him moving more like De Niro in Branagh’s monstrosity of an adaptation. But in the 1931 movie, the monster lumbers. But let’s step back for an intermediate step now. In the classic Hollywood silent Sunrise (1927), acclaimed German director F.W. Murnau outfitted George O’Brien with these same weighted-down boots, so that he could lumber monstrously towards his wife. Golem-style. And then comes 1931, and the adaptation of this image as one more element in the creation of the iconic Karloff Frankenstein monster.

A Hans Poelzig-designed
watchtower from
The Golem.
Third, the stylized sets:  Here, the influence seems more second-hand, with The Golem first influencing the production design on movies like Lang’s Nibelungen (1924) and Destiny (1921) and Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926). Murnau brought a taste for these in-studio sets to Hollywood, and Sunrise became a model for the soon-to-come elaborate talkie soundstages. Then Universal’s horror movies arise from Sunrise

The largest difference between The Golem’s sets and Universal’s is that The Golem is medieval urban architecture while Universal sets tend toward vaguely 19th century rural environments, with a comparable outside-of-time feeling to the rural Sunrise scenes. But some of the Universal structures do have that Golem feel: there’s Frankenstein’s mill laboratory with its winding staircase, the windmill in the climax, Dracula’s castle, and the graveyard with its catacombs in the Bride of Frankenstein (1935), among others. And then, as a special case, there’s Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), which has an inspired new production design, more Caligari than Golem, but offering an opportunity to salute the great production designer of The Golem. I love that Ulmer worked as an assistant to Hans Poelzig on The Golem and went on to immortalize him in one of the most memorably designed of all the Universal movies. It’s a fitting tribute for a man who’s largely unknown in horror circles today, but whose subterranean influence on the genre remains compelling. After all, what would a Tim Burton movie look like if not for Poelzig?

The staircase to the Frankenstein laboratory in
the Universal Frankenstein (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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