on 31 March 2002
"Der Golem" (1920) is an adequate adaptation of the well-known fairy tale about the clay man brought to life to protect the Jews of Prague. Paul Wegener sets down an excellent impression of the Golem, oscillating between a morose slavish servant/worker and the unleashed diabolical destroyer. The tragedy of the Golem is that in both conditions he is but an instrument of either Rabbi Loewe, who created his body, or the demon Astaroth, who animates it.
In this way Wegener precedes that later, more famous Golem of flesh, Frankenstein's Monster (see James Whale, "Frankenstein"  and "The Bride of Frankenstein" ). It is interesting to note that some key scenes in both "Der Golem" and the "Frankenstein" movies are in many ways similar; the Creation finding brief comfort in the innocence of a child, the climatic inferno of the ghetto and the windmill, and the creator's assistant abusing the power of the Creature/Monster (see Bela Lugosi in "The Son of Frankenstein").
There are two drawbacks to this otherwise excellent production. First, this film would have gained greatly in quality had it been digitally remastered. This process has dramatically improved, for instance, Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922). Second, the soundtrack seems horribly out of key with the scenes. Relief or the mundane is accompanied by a loud agitating orchestra, while a dramatic scene such as the summoning of Astaroth sports a tune reminiscent of Mendelsohn's "Frühlingslied". In the last twenty minutes of the movie the same bombastic track just keeps being repeated, which is simply annoying. Nevertheless, a good addition to a horror/DVD collection.
on 10 June 2011
The giant frame of Paul Wegener as the Golem is one of the best known characters from the silent era, and one of the first icons of horror. Der Golem is actually the third film to feature the character, the first being The Golem (1915), and the second The Golem And The Dancing Girl (1917), which is a short comedy with Wegener donning the costume to frighten a girl he is in love with. Tragically, those two films are now considered lost, and only fragments equalling about 14 minutes of the first film remain. This film is actually a prequel, and it's full title is Der Golem: Wie Er In Die Welt Kam (How He Came Into The World), but is now commonly know as simply Der Golem.
The Jews of medieval Prague face persecution from the townsfolk. Terrified of their doomed fate, Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck) uses his skills in black magic to create The Golem, a mythical figure from Jewish folklore. He is made entirely from clay, and has an amulet in his chest that gives him power, and when removed turns him back into lifeless clay. He is initially used as a servant, and then to terrify the townsfolk who are threatening them. The Golem eventually gets tired of being used as a tool of fear and begins to turn on his creator, and starts to lay waste to the Ghetto.
Like the majority of films made in Weimar Germany, the film has an expressionist tone, with lavish, artistic sets that dominate the frame. Similar in feel to the great Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari, it is however more subtle in its artistic flair, and lacks Caligari's rickety (although wonderful in its own way) sets. It is also quite terrifying in its realisation of a segregation that would occur in the country only a decade later, although it does portray the Jews as vengeful and as studying the dark arts.
The Golem itself is a great movie monster. Tragic in the same way as Frankenstein's monster, he is brought into the world without having asked to be, and is expected to carry out terrible acts against his will. Paul Wagener portrays him with all silent intensity and uncontrollable rage, with his towering frame sending his enemies running for the hills. He also impressively co-wrote and co-directed the film. This is an enjoyable film that breezes by in its rather slight running time, and can be forgiven for some over-acting and the occasional tedious scene. It also has some interesting social comments, and is a frightening prelude to one of the most horrific periods in Europe's history.
on 23 November 2002
This 1921 version of "The Golem" ("Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam") is a remake of a 1915 silent film. In both the Golem is played by Paul Wegener, who also played the title character in the 1917 "The Golem and the Dancing Girl" ("Der Golem und die Tänzerin"). The Jewish legend of the goldem is set this time around in 16th century Prague, which is supposedly when Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) created the giant golem from clay to defend the Jews from the persecution by the local despot. However, the rabbi's assistant, Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) takes control of the golem and sends it forth to do his nefarious bidding, which includes abducting the beautiful Miriam (Lyda Salmonova), the Rabbi's beloved daughter. However, the Golem's will can not be perverted in such a manner. Much is made of "The Golem" being one of the first monster movies, and certainly this film incorporates a lot of elements that would become basic components of a lot of classic horror films. But I think "The Golem" deserves to be considered the first superhero film. After all, the creature was not created to be a monster, but to be a heroic figure of deliverance, and I would suggest that is the more important reading of the film in the long run.
None of this detracts from the point that "The Golem" is a classic silent monster movie, that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with "Nosferatu" and "The Phantom of the Opera." I would agree that "The Golem" is a lesser example of German expressionism; certainly it is not as textbook as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" or "Nosferatu." Certainly Wegner, his figure esconced in "clay," is not capable of over emoting in any way. This leads me to another coment: Granted, there are strong similarities between the Golem and Karloff's performance in "Frankenstein" and it would not be surprising if Karloff had seen this silent film. But I would like to point out that the shuffling movements of both performances are logical consequences of being either a figure made out of clay or reanimated dead body parts. Karloff was a fine enough actor to have figured this out, even without the inspiration offered by this film.
Ultimately, I am more concerned over the attempts to make a political reading of the film, premised on the fact that this is a German film (read "proto-Nazi"). In terms of the film this idea is premised on the contrast between the shabby, dark-haired children of the Jewish ghetto shown throughout most of the film with the happy, blonde-haired children that surround the Golem at the end. For the latter, of course, there is a temptation to read the children as being Aryan and to comment on the irony of the impending Holocaust given such the visual oxymoron. But the simpler explanation to me is the contrast between the dark and the light as reflecting the oppressive Dionysian part of the film with its happier Apollian conclusion. Besides, I would have a hard time arguing a film where the main characters are Jewish can be rightly characterized as Anti-Semetic. The film employs stereotypes, but that was a cultural commonplace that extended beyond Jews at that time in popular culture (cf. the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs). Certainly the Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebühr) is a stereotypical despot.
There are lots of ways of reading "The Golem," so in the final analysis the important thing would be that you see it for yourself and make up your own mind on these issues. I think that however you read this film, it will end up high on your list for silent films in this genre.
on 28 April 2004
The Golem may be less familiar than those other Expressionist classics,Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but the scale and imaginationevident in the film more than compensate. The impressive sets and make-upas well as the unusually effective acting bring to life this eerilyprophetic tale of oppressed Jews in 16th Century Europe. A rabbiinterprets signs from the stars which warn of a pogrom in the ghetto. Using ancient Jewish powers, he animates a man of clay to protect theJews, only to find that he cannot remain in control over his creation.
Though the film stands well enough on its own, it is also fascinating froma historical perspective. Made in 1920, it pre-dates the worst of theHolocaust by under twenty years, and by referring to the historicalreality of the pogroms reinforces the fact that the ethnic exterminationof the 20th Century is, depressingly, unusual only in scale. However, theDVD extras concentrate on The Golem's place in German Expressionism. Inan interesting though rather short documentary, the main themes andimagery of Expressionism are linked to German literature. The Golem'sdesign is shown to be at least partly the inspiration for James Whales'version of Frankenstein. I would add that certain classic Gothic/horrormyths are established in the film, such as the need to use certain ancientwords to control the creature (similar to those memorably screwed up byAsh in Army of Darkness). For this reason The Golem is essential viewingnot only for those interested in early cinema, but for those who want tosee where modern horror began.
on 6 December 2011
Having recently visited Prague, and become more aware of the Golem legend, I was intrigued enough to want to learn more. This silent film from the writer, director, actor Paul Wegener supplied that extra knowledge. It is atmospheric and intriguing, an excellent example of early German cinema. The story flows well with only a minimum of intertitles. Whilst it strays from the original legend, it is fascinating to see connections to the Frankenstein story of Mary Shelley. The tinting of various scenes, such as the crimson during the burning of the ghetto, is subdued, but effective.
All told a welcome addition to any collection of early German or Horror films.
The extras whilst not being excessive, are a welcome addition.
on 13 September 2005
I have read so much on the internet that places this film in the context of Weimar Germany in the period that led up to National Socialism and the Nazi's crimes of genocide against the Jews, that when I watched it for the first time it was hard to suspend that thought in the back of my mind, especially when absorbed in the flaming ghetto scenes and when contemplating the pseudo-scientific, bio-political or techno-political overtones of the Golem's fabrication and deployment. On subsequent viewings I successfully put these ideas out of action and managed to submerge myself more fully into those other contexts, the eschatological plight of the Jewish faith per se, and the rich mystical heritage of the Prague Kabbalists. It is on that basis, that of losing myself in the film, of entering its silence, that I felt able to review the film. Not looking back in commemoration of a single historical confluence it may or may not have anticipated, but of what it, in the innocence of story-telling, brought to bear on mystical history as such, and through the vehicle of expressionism.
Sometimes Expressionism gets accounted for as an attempt merely to disturb or dislocate by defamiliarisation or alienation of familiar forms, typically architectural and postural/gestural exaggeration. But besides this (to me) rather redundant and self-qualifying aesthetic interpretation, it is also in my opinion more honest to say that Expressionism tries to capture an external representation of what is felt and realised, what is at bottom experienced, internally and viscerally, throwing into question - and into mystery - any idea of a normative, "objectivistic" conception of community life. The organic, labyrinthine set design places us within this everyday mystery, both concealing and revealing the players, and serving as a visual metaphor for the twisting, torsional, branching fate of a private gated community confronted with an intolerant and puerile imperial context that wants to amuse itself with open spectatorship. Politically, the gothic, ogival complex of the Jewish ghetto, crisscrossing itself and interwoven with rough, laureate, almost sylvan ornamentation sets a mood of nature and innocence that the more rectilinear and finer imperial settings threaten to interfere with and expel.
Trapped in the intricacies of their own law, the Prague Jews look to their elders, one of whom, in accordance with the entire labyrinthine theme, produces in secrecy a Golem, commanding the assistance of ashteroth. Intended as the guardian of the people, a noble servant, the Golem (played by director/actor Paul Wegener with a stultifying array of facial expressions) is a creature of clay given animation by the Shem, the mystical inscription of a secret word in a symbol placed on its chest. The price of the Golem's docile loyalty soon begins to betray itself, when at the Emperor's rose festival the scent of a flower and the interest of young women arouse a more human, rebellious, almost adolescent nature. Despite the (hesitant) rescue of the emperor and his court from their own effete follies, earning the Jewish people a pardon, the Golem remains as an impassive presence, its internal seething captured for our perception only in its diverse facial contortions and menacing glowers. As Uranus comes to eclipse Venus in astrological significance, and as the Golem's masters involve it in more and more emotionally complex errands, this nature becomes more and more evident, with feral facial performances by Wegener showing a nonheritable "rage to live", a different sense of nobility altogether, emerging in the Golem: its increasing resistance to human control and refusal to be "put to sleep". In the end the Golem, after having bust the gates of the community wide open, revealing the true "interior" of the film's labyrinths, is only overpowered by the powerless innocence of childhood, in the absence of suspicion or mercenary motives. In the mole-tunnels of the film a subtext is at work, setting the wisdom and laws of elders and imperial court rulers against a more fragile wisdom of naivety, curiosity, and play. This staple innocence of the mystical tradition redeems itself subtlety, almost obliquely and inconsequentially, possibilising those deep moral meditations that a good story always makes available for an open and involved mind.
Many of the stylistic and narrative precedents for later gothic expressionism (and indeed cinema in general) are found here - moods are indicated by score and liberal use of tinting, lighting, gesture, etc. In fact in the absence of dialogue (the film is of course a "silent") and a minimum of inter-titles, this is almost a film about how to make a "film", or, if you like, about the creation of filmic humunculii.
The film is only slightly marred by the psychology of its era, in which the women appears as a foil for the easily-swayed, swooning and fainting hysterical shadow of the bold resolute man - but this trend is also at the same time undermined by the effete, craven, decadent, and vaguely camp male characters of empire, the desperation and fervour of the rabbi Low trying to fulfil the expectations of his people, and the astonished, puzzled, horror and affectionateness of his assistant.
Prior to watching this, it had been a while since I had seen a silent movie, and this film has really sparked off a liking for them. The power of the silent film today seems to me to be in revealing the wordlessness of our contemporary era, its global network of intercommunications amounting to the incessant drone of spoken silence, whilst shedding light on the ability to communicate affections and meanings as originating on that more visceral, moody level that expressionism fully exploited without constant verbiage and exposition.
Included on my DVD were the original German inter-titles available through selecting an alternative angle, a gallery of publicity material, related photography and illustrations (including some from Meyrink's novel), and a simplistic but pleasing essay on the stylistic features of German Expressionism. The navigation menus are very much in keeping with the film and its reference to secret texts being read in half-light, half-underground settings; practises half-legal, half an aberration of any law: humanity.
This, Wegener's third attempt at the Golem (the first being lost and the second apparently being a send-up) is a true masterpiece, a landmark film that has retained its relevance throughout the maze of 20th century history.