Monday, May 07, 2007

The Golem (2)

Paul Wegener (1874-1948) has a troubling and complex career that mirrors the tensions in the film for which he's best remembered, Der Golem: Wie Er in Der Welt Kam (1920). All but abandoned by a distant father who withdrew emotionally when his wife died near Paul's third birthday, Wegener escaped into acting, eventually tossing up law school (like all good European artists) to pursue the footlights in Berlin. In 1912, he interrupted his burgeoning stage career to direct and act in films for Germany's Bioskop Studios.

Almost immediately, Wegener started developing versions of the Golem story. The legend of a clay statue that comes to life at the touch of a magic amulet, only to crumble when it's removed, had a deep emotional meaning for Wegener, who ventriloquized his own feelings about acting—and by extension the fraught relationship of the artist to his creation—through the shambling, tragicomic figure of the Golem.

Wegener filmed three versions of the story between 1914 and 1920. The third and final film acts as a prequel to the previous two, explaining how the creature "came into the world" and developing the 'sympathetic monster' theme—the robot unwittingly endowed with human feelings, abused and ultimately rejected by its science-addled creator—that would become one of the most popular tropes of 20th-century cinema, recycled in films from "Frankenstein" (1931) to "Blade Runner" (1982). (The lost second installment of the series is also credited as the first sequel in film history.)

Wegener was more interested in the technical possibilities of film than its dramatic power. "I did not go into film as an actor," he insisted. "The problem of this new art form interested me in general. The mysterious possibilities of the camera kindled my fantasies. I conceived the fable 'Der Student von Prag' [1913, Wegener's first film] because here was the possibility of acting opposite myself."

Nevertheless, in the role of the Golem Wegener helped pioneer a subtle, 'face-driven' style of acting which the scrutiny of the modern film camera enabled. "On the screen," Wegener wrote, "the actor is under a microscope." Under heavy makeup and encased in a costume that severely hampered broad physical gestures, Wegener manages to convey the Golem's humanity through meticulous eye movements, slight facial contortions, and slow, strategic turns of the head that contrast sharply with the characters around him, particularly his frenetic creator/doppelgänger, Rabbi Loew (played by Albert Steinrück, acclaimed for his stage roles in Franz Wedekind's plays.)

The film was a huge international success. It played in New York for 10 months running in 1923; along with "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919), it helped to create and popularize the visual language of German Expressionist cinema. ("Nosferatu" followed in 1922.) Legend has it that when Wegener walked through the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam in the late 1920's, residents pointed from a distance, whispering "The Golem! The Golem!" Art paralleled life as well in Wegener's marriage to Lyda Salmonova, who played Rabbi Loew's daughter in the film (pictured above, with Wegener as the Golem.)

Wegener, a pacifist and lifelong student of Buddhism who suffered a breakdown on the Western Front in WW I, kept working through the Nazi era despite the increasing limitations on stage and screen productions. While other German filmmakers fled to Hollywood, Wegener (who was nearly 60 when Hitler came to power) accepted an appointment as "Actor of the State" in 1937 under the Nazis, ostensibly a reward for his collaboration in Nazi propaganda films, and a recognition of the prestige that Wegener's decision to continue working in Germany lent to the regime. According to the German Wikipedia page on Wegener, his relationship to the Nazis was a conflicted one. Unlike Leni Riefenstahl, he remained publicly aloof from the Party's ideology, and is said to have contributed money to resistance groups, sheltered refugees in his home, and graffitied anti-Nazi slogans by night during the war years.*

Whatever the truth of these stories, the Soviets embraced Wegener and allowed him to continue working after the fall of Berlin. (One story has the invading Red Army posting a notice outside his house that read: "This is the house of the great artist Paul Wegener, loved and honored throughout the world.") The Americans also contributed to his rehabilitation; as U.S. cultural officer Henry C. Alter reported after questioning Wegener in 1945:
"He is an uncompromising German of the kind you seldom come across. ... His hatred of everything in any way connected to National Socialism is credible, but his exorbitant belief in the importance of art, theater, and the phrase 'The show must go on' can make dealing with him somewhat difficult. He believes that German art and Germany's more notable artists are the logical means through which the German nation can, must, and will be reeducated."
Wegener's anti-Nazi credentials won him a prominent place in the reconstruction of Berlin, where he served as President of the Chamber of Artists (Kammer der Kunstschaffenden), a cultural arm of the Allies' postwar denazification program.**

Wegener's last stage role was as Nathan the Wise in Lessing's 1779 drama, a plea for religious toleration inspired by the playwright's friendship with Moses Mendelssohn. Wegener starred in a politically pointed production that ran in Berlin and New York in 1946; reprising the role in 1948, he collapsed onstage and died two months later, at age 73.

*Hal Erikson's synopsis of Wegener's career in the All Movie Guide describes him as "a fervent supporter of the Third Reich" and has his 'Actor of the State' designation coming straight from Goebbels in 1941. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, by contrast, characterizes him during the Nazi era as one who "led the life of a star without, like his collegues Emil Jannings, Werner Krauss, and Heinrich George, signaling to the public any express affinity to the regime." His views may have changed as the war deepened; his association with the Nazis could have been one of convenience from the start; or he may have played the role of his life in convincing both Soviet and American officials at the war's end of his anti-Nazi sentiments. Aside from the Red Army's remarkable commendation (which suggests that Wegener may indeed have aided Berlin's antifascist underground), by 1945 he was considered by the postwar German cultural elites "who had not all too strongly associated with the Nazi regime"-- now busy rebuilding Berlin's cultural life under the Soviet occupation--as the logical choice to lead the new Kulturkammer, successor to the fallen Nazi Chamber for Arts and Culture.

Alter's 1945 report on Wegener describes the type of artist who could have made the necessary compromises to continue working within Germany in the '30s and '40s in the misguided belief that 'the show must go on' despite the regime in power, and that art would ultimately trump politics.

** Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. In a Cold Crater: Cultural and Intellectual Life in Berlin, 1945-1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Available online at


Mr. Horton said...


Thanks. This (and the other one) is wonderfully informative. I feel so much smarter about film history now.


AngieC--SarniaKid said...

Did Paul Wegener have children? If so, what are their names and approximate birthdates? Thanks!

Angela M. C.