This week in my Art and Craft of Film Editing class at UCLA Extension, we covered the silent era and how editing got started, from simple cuts, to cross dissolves, to match cuts, cutting on action, parallel action and more. It was really interesting watching these movies, learning how editing evolved and how filmmakers of that era had to discover the film editing language by trial and error.
Part of our homework was to watch a silent movie from the 1920s to 1930s and write about its plot, its influence and the kind of editing they implemented.
I chose to watch “Golem: How He Came into the World”, a German silent horror film directed by Paul Wegner and Carl Boese, created in Germany’s PAGU film production company, and distributed in Germany in 1920 through UFA and later, in 1921, distributed in the US through Paramount Pictures. Paul Wegner not only directed the film, but also played the title role of the Golem. What’s interesting about this film is that it was the 3rd film in what is now considered to be the first horror trilogy in cinema history. Unfortunately, the editor was not listed in the credits of the movie, and a semi-thorough search of online resources returned no results for who edited the film.
The movie is about the Golem, a creature made out of clay from Jewish folklore, that is brought to life to help the Jewish people living in a ghetto in Prague in the 16th century from the oppressive emperor who issued an eviction order against them. This film is an origin story, as there were two other films made prior to this, The Golem in 1915 and The Golem and the Dancing Girl in 1917, which was actually a short comedy.
You can learn more about the Golem by watching this great short YouTube video.
The movie is definitely influenced by the German Expressionist movement, as most of the production design feels very fantastical and surreal. The lighting is also very harsh and with lots of high contrast scenes. The acting seemed to have been overly exaggerated, more than the typical silent film of its era, another characteristic of the German Expressionist movement.
You can learn more about German Expressionism in films by watching this YouTube video.
There seems to have been 2 plots going at the same time in this movie. One of using the Golem to save the Jewish people and another, of a love story between the emperor's messenger and the Rabbi’s daughter. It seems that the second plot, the love story, was used as a tool to show how the Golem was slowly becoming (or trying to become) human as in the end, the Golem seems to be attracted to the Rabbi's daughter.
One thing I noticed, although the movie is clearly on the side of the Jewish people, there seems to be a hint of anti-semitism, as the Jews were portrayed as people that practice dark magic and should be feared. I also think that there were some undertones of anti-war or at least anti-weapons, as the Golem was used as a weapon that the creator, in the end, could not control himself.
The editing involved optical blending of images (for the special effect shots), match cuts, cutting on action, many cross dissolves and fades to black. As a side note, the scene where the Golem comes to life was actually shot without any editing, through camera trickery, swapping the “model” Golem for the real “actor”.
I actually ended up enjoying this film a lot more then I thought I was going to. I was mesmerized by its visuals, the sets, especially those of the Jewish people, felt very much like a fantasy. The acting, though at times a bit overacted, was actually really good, especially that of Rabbi Loew, played by Albert Steinrück.
I do recommend you watch this film through the eyes of an audience member from the 1920s, so you get to appreciate the special effects, editing and cinematography that was clearly ahead of its time.
You can watch it for free, if you have a library card, at Kanopy.
Until the next journal entry!