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S1E10: A Ghastly Expression

On the last episode of Horrid, I discussed the very first full-length horror film made in America. D.W. Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience is a fantastic example of movies beginning to evolve into their current form; not just in terms of length, but also in the development of the language of film. While The Avenging Conscience was moving the film medium forward in the United States, other equally important developments were occurring across the great big pond known as the Atlantic Ocean. In Germany, an artistic movement was growing, and its effects on cinema were quickly felt in the burgeoning horror genre. 

German Expressionism

The creative movement I speak of is known as German Expressionism. This was a movement that extended beyond the cinema, and which affected everything within the purview of the performing arts. It didn’t end there though, expressionism also touched the other arts, like painting, sculpture, and even architecture. In fairness, the expressionist movement extended beyond Germany, to all of north and central Europe. However, within cinema, expressionism is most closely associated with a handful of films that were produced in Germany in the years following the end of the first World War. 

The tenants of expressionism are notoriously difficult to describe, but the most straightforward explanation might be that it is a rejection of reality and the natural, physical world. In the expressionist’s view the world is seen through a lens of distortion, allowing the physical world to better reflect mood and emotions. Light and shadow are emphasized, and physical dimensions exaggerated to create geometrically absurd angles. The conventions of perspective and proportion present in traditional forms of art tend to be completely disregarded here. 

In films, then, expressionist principles would obviously affect the cinematography and the set design. However, performances may also serve as agents of expressionist ideals. The incorporation of exaggerated mannerisms by actors, combined with unnatural makeup and costumes, can all help contribute to the portrayal of physically distorted figures. 

You can probably already see how these developments might be of particular interest to the horror genre. Expressionism is ultimately about using aesthetics to impress emotions onto the viewer. Horror movies in particular are all about conveying atmosphere and eliciting an emotional response in their audience. Conveyance of mood would become integral to the Universal monster films of the mid-1920s and 1930s; the dark and foreboding atmosphere of Dracula and Frankenstein simply would not have existed were it not for earlier films experimenting with the foundational aspects of light and shadow. It really cannot be understated, German expressionism provided the visual aesthetic that led to modern horror.

A Portrait of Alfred Hitchcock

Further proof of this comes from the “Master of Suspense” himself, the filmmaker that many might call the grandfather of modern horror, Alfred Hitchcock. In 1924, Hitchcock went to Berlin to work as an assistant director and art director on a film called The Blackguard. Hitchcock himself admits to the strong influence that his time in Berlin had on him, and how the style and tone became incorporated into his signature style in later films. It was through working with classic expressionist filmmakers, like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, that Hitchcock would gain his proclivities for unusual camera angles and moody lighting.

The Rise of German Cinema

As you might have gathered listening to Horrid, filmmaking was a worldwide industry in the early days of cinema. It wasn’t until the latter 20th century that much of filmmaking coalesced around Hollywood, California in the United States – a trend that is now slowly being reversed. However, back in the early 1900s, countless movies were being produced by filmmakers everywhere. So then, how did German Expressionism come to be a dominating force in the film industry? 

There were a number of factors that allowed expressionism a chance to flourish within the medium of film. Many of these had their basis in policies enacted by the German government during World War I. As a bit of context, the Great War, as it was called at the time, lasted for four years, from 1914 to 1918. During this time finances across Europe became tighter as governments focused on their wartime efforts. Commercial pursuits, like movie production, slowed across the board. 

Ufa Logo – Circa 1917

In 1916 the German government banned the importation of all foreign films, in an effort to censor international voices. This move helped to prop up the domestic film market in Germany by eliminating all other competition. Then, late in 1917, the German government consolidated all the country’s commercial film production companies into a single entity which eventually came to be known by its acronym, Ufa. The original purpose of Ufa was to create propaganda films in order to boost morale at home and for distribution in neutral countries.

With the end of the war in 1918, Ufa turned to making commercial films for the purposes of entertainment. The consolidation of the film industry into a single entity had the additional benefit of bringing all the best film talents in Germany under a single roof. This confluence of events allowed Ufa to experience a boost in both talent collaboration and financial resources. Combined with the earlier ban on importing foreign films– the ban was not lifted until 1921– these conditions allowed German film production to flourish in a way unmatched throughout the rest of Europe.

The Student of Prague (1913)

A Portrait of Paul Wegener

Let’s step back for a moment to the year 1913. This was the year that one of the earliest German films to incorporate aspects of the expressionist movement was released. That movie is The Student of Prague. The film was directed by Stellan Rye, who would go on to serve in the German army during World War I and died in France as a prisoner of war in 1914. The titular role, that of the student, is played by Paul Wegener. Wegener was a staple of German cinema, and as you’ll hear throughout this episode, his contributions to the expressionist movement make him one of the forefathers of the horror film genre.

The film’s plot is loosely based on an Edgar Allen Poe short story entitled William Wilson, and features elements of the legend of Faustus. The student’s name is Balduin. He is popular and well-known, desired by women and renowned by men for being the greatest swordsman in Prague. One afternoon, Balduin saves the life of a local noble, the Countess Margit, after her horse runs wild and she nearly drowns in a lake. For Balduin, it is love at first sight, but there are complications. The first is that he is poor and, as such, would never be considered as a viable suitor for the Countess. Worse still, the Countess is already engaged to her cousin, Baron Waldis-Schwarzenberg. 

Balduin is approached by a sorcerer, a stand-in for the Faustus character of Mephistopheles. The sorcerer offers Balduin a deal. Balduin will receive 10,000 gold pieces, enough money that he might be rich enough to court the Countess. In exchange, the sorcerer merely asks for possession of any one item of his choosing from Balduin’s dorm room. Balduin looks around his room and quickly takes the sorcerer up on the deal, after all there are no items of any real value within the room. The deal made, the sorcerer approaches the floor length mirror. He beckons, and Balduin’s reflection steps forth from the mirror. 

The film makes good use of double exposure effects to show Wegener as both Balduin and his reflection in the same scene. The two play off each other, with Balduin terrified with the physical manifestation of his mirror-self. The doppelganger appears and disappears, causing chaos in Balduin’s life and preventing him from successfully wooing the Countess. The film builds to an extended chase sequence, in which Balduin flees from his mirror-self running all across town but continually coming face-to-face with the imposter. As the film comes to its climax, Balduin flees back to his dormitory and retrieves his pistol. When his double appears, he shoots it. The doppelganger disappears and Balduin himself falls to the floor, dead. 

I think it is in Wegener’s performance as the doppelganger that we see the most influence of the German expressionist movement. The mirror version of Balduin is stiff, holding itself in a rigid and unnatural posture. Its movements are slow, and deliberate, and I get the impression that its face is expressionless. It can be difficult to tell at times due to the overall quality of the surviving film prints. Wegener’s exaggerated performance falls well into the Expressionism movement’s penchant for physically distorted characters. Watching the double move and emote, there’s simply a feeling that something just isn’t right. With its face frequently contorted into an unnatural, ghastly expression, the doppelganger’s appearance falls squarely into the realm of the uncanny valley. 

If you aren’t familiar with the term, the uncanny valley is a concept in aesthetics where human-like figures provoke feelings of eeriness or even revulsion in observers. Typically, the effect becomes stronger as the figure becomes closer to being life-like. The unconscious part of the brain detects that something about the figure’s appearance that just isn’t quite right. It’s become a fairly common problem in modern special effects, as computer generated graphics come closer and closer to rendering photo-realistic human actors in films and video games. Along those lines, even now, a hundred years later, I found Wegener’s performance as the mirrored-Balduin unsettling.

Paul Wegener & The Golem (1915)

While Paul Wegener gives a great performance in The Student of Prague, he is perhaps best remembered for creating and starring in a trilogy of films about the Jewish folktale of the golem. While there are several versions of the tale, the most famous is probably the version widely known as The Golem of Prague. All three films starred Wegener as the Golem, and he shared writing and directing credits with other filmmakers.  

The Golem – Promotional Photo

According to folklore, the golem itself is a sort of Frankenstein-esque monster. A rabbi seeking to provide aid to his community sculpts the creature from clay or mud, and brings the creature to life by placing a religious scroll in its mouth or forehead. Physically, the golem is a hulking humanoid figure, incredibly strong and tireless. It was said to have served the people living in the Jewish ghetto, sweeping the streets, chopping wood, and helping with other chores. The golem would also violently repel attacks by would-be invaders. 

The first film of Wegener’s trilogy was simply entitled The Golem. It was first screened in Germany in 1915 and is purported to have been 60 minutes in length. As a film made shortly after the beginning of World War I, the budget for the film was limited. While Wegener had originally envisioned creating a period piece, the production company forced him to update the tale to the modern day in order to save money on costuming and sets. Only a few minutes of this film are known to exist today, and these fragments were found and restored in 2009. As a result, about three minutes of restored footage from The Golem can now be viewed online. 

It is said that Wegener first heard the tale of the golem while The Student of Prague was filming on location in Prague. This makes for a great story, as where better to learn of the lore than in its very place of birth? However, this may be another case of a good story being taken for truth. In their book on the life of Paul Wegener, Many Shelves: The Horror and Fantasy Films of Paul Wegener, authors Henry Nicolella and John Soister, provide a well-sourced and contradictory account of the film’s genesis:

It seems that back in 1908, Wegener was to be cast as the title character in “Der Golem,” an Arthur Holitcher play that had been offered to Max Reinhardt for production at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater. Per Marcel Comis-Pope and John Neubauer, Reinhardt passed on the play because he perceived it as a “challenge for the stage.”. . . Nonetheless, at least some of the elements of Holitscher’s original found their way into Wegener and Henrik Galeen’s screenplay – in both legitimate and cinematic treatment, for example, the clay man falls in love with his master’s daughter – and Holitcher subsequently accused the scenarists of plagiarism.

The modernization of the film’s setting may have also helped the film avoid the scrutiny that might otherwise have come with accusations of plagiarism. In the Jewish tale, it is a common ending that the golem is not destroyed, but rather inactivated by removal of the holy scroll, and hidden away for when it might be needed again. The Golem picked up from the natural conclusion of the folktale, with the golem being reanimated in the modern world. Other than the setting, the story of the film seems to be rather similar to that of the third film, so I will hold off on describing the plot more fully just yet.

The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917)

The Golem and the Dancing Girl – Poster

Wegener followed The Golem with a sequel, The Golem and the Dancing Girl, which was originally released in 1917. This is also a lost film, and no portion of it is known to exist today. Historians have found a photograph from the production and a poster, but no other materials are known to survive. An interesting aside, as I was reading about The Golem films, I found records of a review for The Golem and the Dancing Girl that had once been posted to the Internet Movie Database, before the site eliminated User Reviews for this lost film. 

The review was written by Fergus Gwynplain MacIntyre, a New York City-based novelist and poet, who had claimed to have seen a print of the film. The print itself, MacIntyre claimed, is currently held in the vault of an unnamed collector in Eastern Europe. He provides a very detailed synopsis of the film, describing what might very well be the first meta-film, and which might be better described as a sex comedy than a horror movie. The plot is about an actor, played by Wegener, who plays the part of the Golem in a theatrical performance. He learns about a dancing girl, a euphemism for a prostitute, that is infatuated with the Golem and fantasizes about having sex with the monster. The actor dresses up in the Golem costume in an attempt to fulfill the prostitute’s desires. Antics ensue. 

The Golem and the Dancing Girl – Sole Surviving Photo

It’s a fun synopsis, but there really is no way of validating whether it is true or not. All information about the film’s plot that I was able to find online seems to be based on the information in MacIntyre’s review. I wasn’t able to find any independent, third-party sources to validate the authenticity. The fact that MacIntyre does not name the collector of the print, and that the print has never been seen by anyone else, makes his claims suspect by default. Further, MacIntyre was known to suffer from depression and other mental health-related issues. He published articles online detailing different aspects of his life, including accounts of serious abuse he had suffered as a child. After MacIntyre’s death via self-immolation, his brother publicly stated that much of MacIntyre’s personal history had been made up and had no basis in reality. Ultimately, given the context, I don’t think that MacIntyre’s account of The Golem and the Dancing Girl can be assumed to be accurate.

The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920)

The Golem: How He Came Into the World – Poster

Although the first two parts of the trilogy are lost, the final installment, The Golem: How He Came Into the World, still survives. Perhaps inspired by Wegener’s original intentions for the first Golem movie, this third film is actually a prequel. It is a period piece, taking place in the 16th century, and it recounts the story of the creation of the Golem. Originally released in 1920, the 85 minute film was co-directed by Carl Boese. The script was co-written by Henrik Galeen, a name that we will see again, as Galeen would go on to write the script for the 1922 vampire classic Nosferatu, another film that is considered a triumph of German Expressionism. 

The Wikipedia entry for this third film erroneously claims that the story is an adaptation of Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 novel also titled The Golem. The article cites the book Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the Silent Era written by Christopher Workman and Troy Howarth as the source for this claim. I wasn’t able to access the text of Tome of Terror to cross reference their sources, but I do know that this is an oft-cited claim on various online articles. Some online sources report that Wegener once said this himself, but I wasn’t able to find a primary source supporting that claim. 

Further, scholars familiar with both the film and Meyrink’s novel note that there is little to no similarity between the two works in a narrative sense. Meyrink’s novel is largely about a narrator living in a Jewish ghetto. While a golem is present in the story, it is largely an unseen background presence, as the novel itself largely focuses on surreal and perhaps hallucinatory accounts of the narrator’s life. If Wegener did ever make this claim, perhaps he was simply trying to deflect comparisons to Holitscher’s 1908 play by claiming a basis on another contemporary work.

At the beginning of the film, we see Rabbi Loew as he reads the stars, predicting a coming disaster for the Jewish community of Prague. He shares the news with his assistant and his daughter, Miriam. It is clear through their first interaction that the assistant is smitten with Miriam. Meanwhile, the Holy Roman Emperor decrees that the Jews must leave the city of Prague. The news is delivered to the city by the knight Florian, who is also quickly smitten by Miriam. Rabbi Loew requests an audience with the Emperor, but he also secretly takes steps to save his people. Loew sculpts the golem from clay and recruits his assistant to help him perform an ancient ritual to learn the holy word that can imbue the golem with life. In this version of the tale, the word is written upon a scroll that is placed into an amulet and attached to the golem’s chest. 

The Rabbi is granted an audience with the Emperor, a last effort to stop the banishment of his people from their home. Loew goes to the court, bringing the golem with him. As the Rabbi astonishes the court with his creation, Florian sneaks away for a romantic rondevu with Miriam. While the Rabbi and the Emperor are distracted, maidens from the court surround the Golem, one offering a flower to the towering creature. Here we get the first sense that the golem may be more than a simple, command-following giant. He takes the flower and seems to take pleasure in breathing in its scent. He reaches for one of the maidens, as if to also take pleasure in her beauty, but she quickly backs away with fear.

The Emperor is impressed by the golem, and he asks the Rabbi to show more of his supernatural talents. The Rabbi agrees, but under the condition that no one in the court may speak or laugh or else risk a great calamity. The Emperor agrees and Loew begins a magical presentation depicting the history of the Jewish people. The supernatural display proceeds until the appearance of Ahasverus, the wandering Jew, whose appearance prompts laughter from the audience. True to the Rabbi’s warning, this causes the palace to begin to collapse. The Emperor and his subjects are saved by the golem, who props up the collapsing ceiling. This act causes the Emperor to cancel his decree, pardoning the Jewish people and allowing them to stay in Prague.

Rabbi Loew and the golem return to the ghetto, bringing back the good news of the Emperor’s pardon. As they return to the Rabbi’s home, we get another hint that the golem is more than it seems. His task now complete, Loew tries to remove the shem in order to inactivate the golem. As he reaches to do so, the creature recoils from the rabbi’s touch. The golem becomes enraged, but the Rabbi manages to quickly snatch the amulet away. The golem falls to the floor, lifeless once again. Confused by what occurred, the rabbi reads more from his religious text and learns that the golem will eventually turn on its creator. Loew takes up a hammer with the intent of destroying the golem’s form once and for all.

Before he can do so, however, revelers arrive at the Rabbi’s home and request that he come immediately to the temple to pray and celebrate. Word of the Emperor’s pardon has already spread all across the city. The rabbi leaves, and his assistant returns to the house so he can accompany Miriam to the temple. On his return, the assistant finds Florian in Miriam’s room. Outraged, he returns the amulet to the golem and commands it to get rid of the knight. A scuffle occurs, and the knight is eventually thrown from the Rabbi’s star-gazing tower by the golem, falling to his death. 

Miriam is overcome with grief and faints, and the golem carries her from the tower to a room where he lays her down on the table. He looks at her in much the same manner as he did the maiden at the Emperor’s court. As he moves to touch her hair, the assistant returns and tries to remove the amulet. However, the golem defends itself, inadvertently lighting the Rabbi’s house on fire.

The celebration at the temple is interrupted by word that the Rabbi’s house is burning. As everyone runs out to the street, Rabbi Loew is told that the golem was seen dragging Miriam away by her hair. The rabbi uses his supernatural powers to stop the fire from spreading throughout the city, eventually extinguishing the flames but not before his own home collapses in the raging inferno. Meanwhile, the golem sets Miriam down on a large stone just outside of the city and wanders away. The rabbi and his assistant find Miriam, and the Rabbi leaves Miriam in the care of his assistant while he continues his search for the golem.

Just outside the city, a group of young Jewish girls are playing together. The golem comes across them, and all of the girls flee except for one. The girl offers the golem an apple to eat, and he takes her up in his arms, smiling. As the golem holds the child, she curiously takes hold of the amulet, removing it and bringing his rampage to an end. 

The influence of the expressionist movement is far more obvious here than in The Student of Prague. There are a score of unnatural performances, with the most obvious coming from the statuesque performance of Wegener as the golem. However, stark performances are also delivered by the rabbi’s assistant, and Florian, the Christian knight. Beyond the performances, the unnatural elements of expressionism are also conveyed in the scenery. The outer gates of the village jut up into the sky at a sharp angle, and the twisted, organic looking spiral staircase leading up the star-gazing tower instill a sense of dread. The sets for the film were designed by Hans Poelzig, a famous German architect, and they are highly regarded by film scholars today.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I quite enjoyed my time watching The Golem: How He Came Into the World. I previously admitted to struggling a bit with some of the longer-form silent films, like the 26 minute version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1913. At the time I speculated that the lack of dialog and the longer runtimes made it more difficult to hold my attention, but I’m increasingly finding that this may not be the case. I enjoyed both The Avenging Conscience and The Golem, both of which are feature-length silent films. In retrospect, perhaps I just didn’t enjoy the 1913 adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde. 

As mentioned, surviving fragments of the 1915 film The Golem can be viewed online. You can watch these on the transcript page for this episode on Additionally, you can also watch the full versions of both The Student of Prague and The Golem: How He Came Into the World on that page as well.

If you’ve noted any factual errors in this episode, please send a message to [email protected]. That email address is working now, I promise. You can follow Horrid on Twitter and Instagram, @HorridPodcast, and you can follow me, @DocManson.

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Until next time, stay scared.

Related Media

The Student of Prague (1913)

The Golem (1915)

The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920)

References & Further Reading

  1. “German Expressionism.” Wikipedia, 22 Sept. 2020. Wikipedia
  2. Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Wiley, 2006.
  3. The Student of Prague (1913 Film).” Wikipedia, 10 Dec. 2020. Wikipedia.
  4. The Golem (1915 Film).” Wikipedia, 9 Dec. 2020. Wikipedia.
  5. The Golem and the Dancing Girl.” Wikipedia, 6 June 2020. Wikipedia. 
  6. Soister, Henry Nicolella and John T. Many Selves: The Horror and Fantasy Films of Paul Wegener. 11 Dec. 2020. Google Books.
  7. The Golem: How He Came into the World.” Wikipedia, 3 Dec. 2020. Wikipedia.
  8. Howarth, Troy, and Christopher Workman. Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the Silent Era. Midnight Marquee Press, Incorporated, 2016.
  9. Clarke, John R. “Expressionism in Film and Architecture: Hans Poelzig’s Sets for Paul Wegener’s The Golem.” Art Journal, vol. 34, no. 2, [Taylor & Francis, Ltd., College Art Association], 1974, pp. 115–24. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/775885.