It’s early January, and worthwhile new releases are as thin on the ground as Bay Area snow. Cabin fever sufferers are therefore best advised to head to Pacific Film Archive this coming weekend, where two intriguing features will be available for starving cinéastes.
Screening at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 10 as part of the series ‘Fritz Lang and German Expressionism’, The Golem (1920) is one of the gems of Weimar cinema. Though not the first screen adaptation of the ancient legend of a retributive creature brought to life to save the Jewish people, it’s the earliest one that survives (though fragments of others exist) and has recently undergone digital restoration.
Directed by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener (who also plays the title character) and shot by Karl Freund, The Golem begins with a Melies-like shot of Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück) watching the stars, which warn him that “grave misfortune threatens the Jewish community.” The stars aren’t lying — shortly thereafter, the Emperor (Otto Gebühr) issues a decree outlining the “many serious charges” against his Jewish subjects.
The accusations are the usual anti-Semitic boilerplate: in addition to bearing collective responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion, the Jewish people are practitioners of “the black arts.” The Emperor dispatches foppish Knight Florian (Lothar Müthel) to deliver the bad news: all Jews must leave the ghetto before the next new moon or face the consequences.
At this point I feel obliged to point out that The Golem is strictly fantasy, and shouldn’t be considered some sort of early warning about the rise of Nazism: the Beer Hall Putsch was still three years in the future and Hitler was very far from a household name. If the situation had been otherwise, it hardly seems likely that the film’s Jewish co-writer Henrik Galeen would have allowed Rabbi Löw to summon a demon in defense of the Jewish people. Black arts, indeed!
With that in mind, note the lumbering golem’s striking similarity to James Whale’s Frankenstein Monster of 1931, marvel at Hans Poelzig’s Caligari-esque sets, and appreciate the film’s vibrant tinting – all of which should look even better thanks to the aforementioned restoration, which I haven’t had the privilege of seeing yet. As with many of the Archive’s silent screenings, The Golem will be accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on the organ.
‘Not Wanted:’ Stories of unwed motherhood
If you need a reminder that some things have actually improved over the last 70 years, Not Wanted — a 1949 drama screening at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 12 — provides one. Produced by Ida Lupino (who co-wrote the screenplay with blacklist victim Paul Jarrico and finished the film when original director Elmer Clifton fell ill), the film tells a story that, according to its prologue, “is…told one hundred thousand times each year”.
These are the stories of unwed motherhood, and the picture it paints is thoroughly depressing. Sweet young thing Sally (Sally Forrest, trying hard but not entirely convincing) is taken advantage of by frustrated pianist Steve (Leo Penn, father of Sean); abandoned to her fate, she meets-cute with disabled war veteran Drew (perpetual Gong Show punchline Keefe Brasselle, actually very good), who wants to make an honest woman of her.
This being the 1940s, there’s a massive amount of unnecessary suffering, and you’ll pull your hair in frustration as Sally makes things difficult for herself before the final fade. Recut with a ‘birth of a baby’ sequence for adults-only roadshow screenings as The Wrong Rut, Not Wanted screens at PFA in its original form, rightly returning the focus to Lupino’s sterling writing and Henry Freulich’s impressive cinematography.