HCF REWIND NO. 142: THE GOLEM AKA DER GOLEM: WIE ER DIE WELT KAM, THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THIS WORLD [Germany 1920]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 64 min, 96 min, others depending on what speed the film is ran
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the late 16th century, Rabbi Loew, the head of Prague’s Jewish community, reads the stars and predicts disaster for his people. The next day the Holy Roman Emperor Luhois signs a royal decree declaring that the Jews must leave the city by the end of the month. Luhois sends the knight Florian to deliver the decree, but Florian falls in love with Miriam, Loew’s daughter. Loew talks Florian into reminding Luhois that it is he who predicts disasters and tells the horoscopes of the emperor, and requests an audience with him. Loew begins to create a large man out of clay….
Germany saw an amazing output of strange, compelling and highly artistic horror classics after World War 1. The extremely influential style of these films with their use of things like bizarre sets and forced perspective to give a nightmarish feel became known as German Expressionism. The best known of these pictures are probably The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu. The Golem isn’t too well known now, though it is a good example of German Expressionism and a very enjoyable combination of historical drama and horror in its own right. Yes, it’s a silent film, but one that is very striking and almost doesn’t even need the few inter-titles that it has. I think a modern viewer will be surprised at how fun it is, and any horror fan will see how influential it was. The Universal horror cycle of the 30’s and 40’s especially was much inspired by The Golem and often used bits and pieces of it.
In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being created entirely from inanimate matter. Golems turn up quite often in Jewish legends. The most famous tale is called The Golem Of Prague and involves a rabbi called Judah Loew Ben Bezalel who brings to life a clay man to defend the Jewish ghetto in Prague against oppression. In 1915 Paul Wegener wrote, directed and starred in The Golem, both a modern day adaptation of the story and a kind of sequel where it’s made clear that the Golem is the same one that Rabbi Loew brought to life four centuries before. Sadly both it and a comedic semi-sequel called The Golem And The Dancing Girl seem to be lost [though fragments survive of the former]. Wegener felt budget restrictions meant that his 1915 version didn’t meet his expectations, so he decided to have another go at the story, this time setting it in the 16th century and retelling it more faithfully, though are so many variants of this particular tale anyway. It did well both in Germany and overseas, and was remade in France as Le Golem in 1935.
Now one of the most difficult things to get one’s head round involving silent films is running times. The DVD of The Golem I purchased very cheaply last week runs 64 min, which seems quite short. Movies were randomly hacked about in the silent days far more than they are now. However, a cursory bit of research reveals that Starlight Digital’s DVD is probably not missing very much, in fact it may even be complete. Longer versions exist on DVD, but this seems to be because silent pictures were and are often projected at different speeds. The tendency in the silent days was to project them fast, but to modern eyes this often seems unnatural and even annoying, so they are often slowed down. The version of The Golem I have is a little speeded up, but in a very stylised picture like this it doesn’t seem to matter so much. You can pick up the Starlight Digital DVD for a two or three pounds and it is worth every penny. More silent films like this should be available on the cheaper labels as many of them are public domain.
The Golem opens with the words “the learned rabbi reads in the stars that misfortune will befall the Jews”, and this film really reminds us throughout of the fact that the Jews were persecuted all through history and not just by the Nazis; the Holocaust was just the most extreme example. The Jews are portrayed in a rather ‘exotic’ way in this movie, though that was the norm for most non-white cultures at the time it was made, and the Christians are not portrayed in the best light either. The film actually seems to be detailing a very extreme sect of Judaism like kabballah with its black magic and mysticism. The Golem is brought to life when the rabbi, who is also a magician, has to summon the demon Astaroth. He first conjures up first smoke with flaming brands flying around, then a large demonic head looms [the bloody thing almost made me jump], and the goblin-like features are quite scary. The head spits out smoke which form the letters comprising the word that will bring the Golem to life. This really vivid sequence is immensely effective, but almost as interesting is one that follows soon after when Leow visits the Emperor’s court and, saying he will show his people to all those there, conjures up a kind of huge TV screen. The Golem himself though is perhaps a little laughable to modern eyes. Though he looks imposing and actor Paul Wegener shows an ability to make his face look really twisted and evil at choice moments, his walk has a tendency to become a funny slow scurry and he never really looks like he is actually made out of clay.
Never mind, the sets are superbly dreamlike in design, mixing the medieval and the surreal in a really creative but very cohesive way. Buildings are misshapen, doors and bridges etc seem to exist at odd angles, yet this also feels, oddly, a very real and convincing world. Karl Freund’s cinematography uses darkness with amazing creativity. Unless you watch one of the tinted versions, this is a black and white film, and yet after a few minutes you won’t miss colour at all, so well thought out are all the shots. There’s a quick love story which is intriguing not just because you actually see them in bed together but because the man looks very much like a woman! Florian initially seems like he’s gay, prancing about and waving a flower around, but when he’s with Miriam in close-up he looks distinctly feminine with all his make-up, something which gives the moment when he places his hand on her breast a rather more erotic charge [if you’re male] than was probably intended. Not much time is spent on this though, and once the Golem is alive he’s rarely off screen. Of course you just know he’s going to go out of control, and the images and plotting become increasingly familiar because we’ve all seen so many films re-using it, with Frankenstein especially borrowing from it, even the final scene which involves a very poetic meeting between the Golem and a little girl.
This print suffers greatly from its music score, which strings together and repeats bits of classical music without thinking whether it’s appropriate for what is occurring at that time. Quiet music sometimes accompanies exciting scenes, and vice verse. The great conjuring of Astaroth scene has lush, melodic music, and I think this film would be more enjoyable if you turned the sound off and maybe put your own music on. Only the use of Holst’s Mars from The Planets really suits the tone and visuals, though it’s repeated endlessly in the second half. The performances are as melodramatic as they come, but that’s often the way it is with silent films. Certainly a minor classic, The Golem remains an important picture in the history of the horror film and quite an entertaining and certainly exciting watch, even if you’re not too partial to silent films. And The Golem himself remains a strong symbol of how a group of people can achieve power to overcome injustices that are done against them and turn that power into something that is damaging for themselves.