BLACK FRANCIS had never even seen The Golem before the organizers of the San Francisco Film Festival approached him about writing a score for a silent film. The former Pixies leader, who performs at the Brookdale Lodge on June 23 (see story, page 136), was drawn to Paul Wegener's 1920 story of monster-making Jews in 16th-century Prague by the form, not the content.
"They gave me a choice of two films, The Golem and something else," he says. "I either recognized the title, or certainly I recognized the description of German Expressionism. When I was at university, I only lasted a couple years, but the only classes I attended with any zeal were film classes. So I said, 'OK, I've seen Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu and everything, I think that's the way I want to go."
I saw Francis' debut performance of the rock score at the Castro Theatre during the SF festival last month, and it blew me away. First, it wasn't at all what I expected. When most composers write a new score for an old film, it's an orchestral score or an electronic score. This was a suite of rock songs whose lyrics added new dimensions to the characters and story in the film. I've seen an organist play to a silent film before, and even a symphony, but never a rock guitarist, bassist and drummer.
Few people familiar with Black Francis' songwriting would doubt that he was an ideal person to undertake such a project. In "Debaser," one of the most famous songs he wrote for the Pixies, he crafted a tribute to Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou: "Got me a movie, I want you know/ Slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know." A few years later, after the group had broken up and he was recording solo as Frank Black, he recorded "Two Reelers," a defense of the Three Stooges' short films.
The most extraordinary thing about the finished score is how the words and tones of the songs bring out the complex relationships of the characters in The Golem, which is a key aspect of the film almost no one talks about. And as a man known for writing some very bizarre songs, Francis found plenty of material when he dug deeper into the story.
"I love the idea of the 11th house of Neptune coming, and when the 11th house of Neptune is there, that's when you can conjure up Astaroth and get the secret word to bring the Golem to life," he says. "In my mind, when he's not at work there for people on Earth, he's in a sort of never-never land state up there on Neptune in the ice. That's where Astaroth lives, I guess. So not only do we have a secret word and a Golem and everything, but we have a demon to actually give us the secret word. The magic mumbo-jumbo element was great for this."
The film, co-directed by Carl Boese, was in fact the third Wegener made about the Golem. Today, it's remembered mostly as a historical artifact, especially in the way Wegener's sympathetic look and performance as the Golem was an obvious influence on Boris Karloff's monster in the James Whale version of Frankenstein. Still, The Golem has never been given its due for the heavy influence it had on German Expressionism and the great films of the 1920s and 1930s. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, released the same year, is popularly thought to have been the catalyst for them.
However, a close analysis of Edgar G. Ulmer's comments in Peter Bogdonavich's interview book Who the Devil Made It? reveals that The Golem's severe look and stylized sets came first. According to Ulmer, his first job as a designer was on Wegener's film. He then served as a designer on Caligari, and later did the same for Fritz Lang on Metropolis, Die Nibelungen and Sione. (Ulmer would go to do some of the wildest B-movies of all time in America, like The Black Cat and Detour.)
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Incredibly, Francis wrote the suite of songs mostly over four days, while recording it in the studio with his band. He hopes to put a CD of the Golem songs out in conjunction with a DVD of the film. And he'd like to perform it again, buoyed by the success—despite a few glitches and miscues—of the San Francisco performance. "Overall, I'm thrilled," he says. "I was really nervous about it, and I didn't have all the time in the world, But I was really pleased with the actual songs."
CULT LEADER is a column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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