DER GOLEM (1920)

der golem (1920)
In 16th-century Prague, a rabbi creates the Golem, a giant creature made of clay, and uses sorcery to bring it to life to protect the city's Jews from persecution.
5 out of 5 stars

Considered an urtext of Weimar German Expressionist cinema and silent horror, Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) receives a welcome HD release from Eureka’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ series this month. It was one of many Expressionist films to have a significant impact on Hollywood horror and film noir in the 1930s, under the influence of many German filmmakers who’d opted to continue their careers in America after the Nazi party rose to power.

Wegener’s Der Golem was, like many Expressionist German films of the era, a response to the Weimar Republic’s post-war political, economic, and social instability. These films reflected a specific movement—led by artists, architects, designers—that valued experimentation and abstraction and the disconnection between subjectivity and reality. They articulated the anxieties and uneasiness of the time and often explored the darker themes of crime, corruption, disfigurement, decay, and the extremes of human behaviour in an increasingly technological society filled with chaos and distrust. Key films of the period included Robert Weine’s hallucinatory horror Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920), where Weine recruited Expressionist painters Walter Reimann and Hermann Warm to create the sets, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a modernist science-fiction parable of class warfare and the troubling interface between human heart and cold machine.

Wegener, having rejected the study of law, instead followed his instinct for writing and performing and briefly joined the Rostock theatre company as an actor, only losing the contract when he had an affair with a married woman. He then worked in various companies across Germany until he came to the attention of impresario and director Max Reinhardt. At Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theatre in Berlin, Wegener sealed his reputation as a leading actor of his generation. While playing in Berlin, Wegener cultivated other interests and a particular fascination for cinema. He believed in the potential of visual effects, then in their infancy, to liberate film as an art form—distinct from the conventions of the stage.

Using these effects, he believed artists would have a license to articulate their dreams and nightmares and capture the romantic tradition in German art. To this end, he collaborated with director Stellan Rye on one of the key films of early German cinema, Der Student von Prag (1913). This tale of a student haunted by his own reflection (a mirror image stolen by a sorcerer after making a pact with him in order to woo a young Countess) anticipated what James Donald described as the “primarily romantic motif - Faustian, Promethean, Frankensteinian” that would echo throughout Der Golem and Metropolis and later re-emerge in James Whale’s masterpiece Frankenstein (1931). The growing sense of alienation and disconnection in German society, as the First World War dominated the cultural zeitgeist, extended into the staging, lighting, and visual effects of the production to create an early iteration of the dreamlike Expressionism that would dominate key fantasy films in Weimar Cinema.

While making Der Student with Rye, Wegener became familiar with the legend of the Golem, a Jewish folk tale he felt would be an appropriate subject for his next film. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the idea of the Golem (a reanimated artificially-created being) can be traced back to ideas in the Old Testament about creating embryonic substances (the creation of Adam is considered one of the first Golem narratives) and the Talmud. A number of Jewish folk legends told of wise men bringing to life an inanimate effigy by placing sacred words or one of the names of God inside the statue’s mouth or attached to its head. The creature could then be deactivated by removing the charm.

Various Golem tales transferred from Jewish antiquity and were introduced into Christian texts. These established the Golem as a popular literary figure and included the story of the Golem of Chełm, originally related in a 1674 letter by folklorist Christoph Arnold, which would rematerialise later in 1808 when Jacob Grimm reinterpreted it for Achim von Arnold’s journal Zeitung für Einsiedler. Arnold would transpose Grimm’s reportage of the original folk tale into his novella Isabella of Egypt (1812), the first to feature a female Golem and use it as a doppelganger figure. It’s ironic that the Jewish legend of the Golem was introduced to 19th-century German culture by the antisemitic Grimm and Arnold and that these Golem stories, emerging during Europe’s own infatuation with German Romanticism, went on to influence Mary Shelley’s ideas for Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus when she set about writing her book on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816.

The most influential version of the story was a 16th-century folk tale (regarded as the classic ‘Golem of Prague’ story) featuring the renowned Talmudic scholar and philosopher Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (known as the Maharal of Prague), who activated the Golem using Kabbalistic incantations to protect the Jews in the Prague ghetto from antisemitic persecution. This folk narrative was actually a German literary invention that originated from a number of Romantic writers of the early 19th-century and were later introduced into the mainstream, in response to Grimm and Arnim’s versions of the tale, with several spin-off bestsellers: Yehuda Judel Rosenberg’s The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal (1909), Gustav Meyrink’s Der Golem (1915), and Chayim Bloch’s Der Prager Golem (1920).

Unrelated to these publications, Wegener starred in Der Golem (1915), the first of his three film versions. He co-directed and co-wrote with Henrik Galeen, who would write Murnau’s German Expressionist horror classic Nosferatu (1922) and eventually direct the 1926 remake of Der Student von Prag. Using a contemporary Prague setting, it tells of an antique dealer discovering the clay statue of the Golem in a ruined Jewish temple. He revives it, employing it as his servant, but when he attempts to use it to prevent his daughter falling in love with an aristocrat, the Golem goes on the rampage. It’s considered a lost film but the surviving fragments clearly show Wegener playing the Golem in a costume very similar to the one he would use in his 1920 version, which in many respects is actually a prequel to this film. In 1917, Wegener then starred in and co-directed Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancing Girl) where he gave the story a modernist comic spin, a meta-textual spoof on his earlier effort, with a story about an actor, played by Wegener, who dresses up as the Golem to try and frighten a young dancer he is infatuated with. Again, this version is considered to be lost.

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem, How He Came into the World) saw Wegener starring, co-directing with Carl Boese, and again co-writing with Galeen. The script combined elements of the Golem of Chełm tale, the folk tale he had heard about during the filming of Der Student, the Meyrink novel, and the classic German legend of Faust. He returned to the story’s 16th-century Prague setting to create a Golem ‘origin’ story, one referred to in flashbacks in the 1915 version. Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), having foreseen impending disaster for the Jewish community in the ghettos, builds the clay figure and communes with the demon Astaroth to acquire the magical word to animate his Golem (Wegener). It is enclosed in an amulet and attached to the clay figure’s chest. At first, Loew uses his Golem as a servant. However, the creature starts to gain a sense of self-awareness.

Although Emperor Rudolph (Otto Gebühr) is planning to issue an edict that expels all Jews from the ghettos of Prague, he invites Loew to a festival at his castle to perform magic tricks. Loew takes the Golem with him and relates the history of the Jewish patriarchs to the royal court’s audience, to much mockery. Insulted, he brings the roof down on them. He uses the Golem to hold the collapsing ceiling up, saving everyone at the court, and the grateful Emperor rescinds his edict. The Golem is deactivated and the ghetto celebrates the repeal.

Meanwhile, a love triangle between Loew’s daughter Mirjam (Lyda Salmanova), his assistant Famulus (Ernst Deutsch), and the Emperor’s knight Florian (Lothar Müthel), sees Famulus’ jealousy turn to violence when he reactivates the Golem, now repossessed by the demon Astaroth, and orders it to remove Florian when he finds him in flagrante delicto with Mirjam. However, the Golem throws Florian off the roof and kills him, sets the house on fire and goes on the rampage through the ghetto, dragging Mirjam with it. As the Golem breaks through the gates of the ghetto, Loew uses his magic to quench the fire, and the clay figure is rendered inanimate after it picks up a child playing outside the gates and the young girl, out of curiosity, removes the amulet in its chest.

The new ‘Masters of Cinema’ Blu-ray presentation of the Murnau Foundation’s 4K restoration is an engaging viewing experience and provides a fresh and powerful reunion with an often-overlooked film; one key to the development of Weimar Cinema and the evolution of the classic horror films produced by Universal. Beautifully restored in all its tinted glory, the film resonates with images that are now familiar to us through their re-purpose in later films, especially Whale’s Frankenstein. Wegener’s portrayal of the Golem, a huge lumbering clay automaton who betrays a sense of self-determination and sensitivity, must have influenced Karloff’s appearance and performance. This is particularly evident when the Golem goes on the rampage and meets the child at the film’s denouement, echoing similar scenes in Whale’s movie. Wegener is joined by several ex-Deutsches Theatre actors: Wegener’s wife Lyda Salmanova, Gebühr, Deutsch and Steinrück, all of whom offer good performances and underline the amorality of the major characters. The affair between Mirjam, a Jewish woman, and Florian, a Gentile nobleman, is at first rendered as innocent but then becomes furtive and seedy as the story progresses, perhaps feeding into the antisemitic undercurrent of the film.

This unease is emphasised when, at the end of the film, the jealous Famulus entreats Mirjam to cover up their misdeeds, which led to the Golem almost destroying the ghetto. As Cairns notes in his video essay on this disc, the film is both sympathetic and ambivalent to the Jewish characters. The “flighty, inconsistent” Emperor, keen to hire the Rabbi for some magic tricks at his festival, discriminates against the Jewish community by aligning them with illicit black magic practices, “which is then shown to be true” when the Rabbi conjures up Astaroth in a spectacular sequence at the start of the film. This uneasy equivocation culminates with the end of the film, as the Jewish community reclaim their inanimate clay man, after it has been felled by an innocent, blonde-haired child outside the ghetto, and immediately return behind their city walls as the Star of David is superimposed on their departure. They are literally sealed back into their ghetto.

The film is full of powerful, beautifully composed images. From the aforementioned raising of Astaroth, through to the Golem’s creation, its rescue of the festival-goers by holding up the ceiling, to its rampage through the ghetto, Wegener’s film is served well by a number of technicians, who had worked on his previous films, and here underpin the way Expressionist artists and designers collaborated with filmmakers in this period. Rochus Gliese’s costume for the Golem incorporates the recognisable design as originally created by Expressionist sculptor Rudolph Belling, for example. The cinematography, including the many innovative visual effects shots, was a collaboration between Wegener, co-director Boese, and Karl Freund, who would cement his reputation as a cinematographer with Lang’s Metropolis, Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), before directing Karloff in The Mummy (1932).

Wegener transfers the dramatic lighting effects he had seen at Reinhardt’s theatre to the film and gives them a thrilling cinematic form. The lighting, together with the sets designed by architect Hans Poelzig, also cultivates the film’s Expressionism which is, as noted by John R. Clarke, “developed in organic rather then abstract, Cubic forms” and was a “tangible, plastic expressionism” that offered a naturalistic approach to the “unexpected shifts of the streets, the winding of the stairs, the proliferation of ‘Gothic’ ornamentation” in the buildings that made up this fantastical medieval Prague ghetto. That image of the ghetto also renders the film as an off-kilter, morally ambiguous, dark fairy tale in tune with the 19th-century resurgence of German Romanticism.

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der golem (1920)

Blu-ray Special Features:

  • Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase (First 2000 copies).
  • Presented in 1080p from a stunning 4K digital restoration of the original film negatives, completed by FWMS in 2017. A remarkable restoration with clear, sharp images, good contrast levels and very little in the way of dirt or marks on the screen. Occasionally, there are some softer, less defined images (presumably dropped in from other sources) and there some white speckles and tram lines briefly seen but this does not distract from a great presentation.
  • Original German intertitles with optional English subtitles.
  • Three fantastic and unique scores, by composer Stephen Horne; acclaimed electronic music producer Wudec; and musician and film-score composer Admir Shkurtaj. Horne’s score will, I expect, be viewed as the more ‘traditional’ of the three. It’s piano-based but quite lyrical. Wudec’s electronic tonalities are very atmospheric and dramatic, while Shkurtaj uses a combination of sound effects and musical tonalities to offer a textural, almost improvised score.
  • Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by Scott Harrison. An informative commentary that covers many subjects in some depth. These include the development of Weimar Cinema and the effect of World War I on the representation of the monstrous and uncanny in films of the period. It’s a detailed examination of what Lotte Eisner termed “the haunted screen”. He also traces the lineage of Der Golem and explores its themes and images, the various cuts and reassembling of the film, the Golen legend and Jewish folklore. There’s even a nod to Doctor Who.
  • ‘Golem Time’, a video essay by critic David Cairns. This is a witty and fascinating contextualisation of the film’s origins, production, themes and ideas. He takes us from Wegener’s film debut Der Student and to his versions of the Golem story. Cairns connects Wegener’s collaborators with the Expressionist cinema of the time and their later influence on Universal’s horror cycle of the 1930s. It’s interesting to hear about the influence of architect Poelzig and how he relied on his wife, sculptor Marlene Moeschke, to work with supervisor Kurt Richter to transform his abstract drawings into fully realised sets. Cairns also examines the ambiguous antisemitism that Der Golem has often been associated with.

  • ‘Where are the Jewish horror films?’, a video essay by filmmaker Jon Spira (Elstree 1976). If you’ve seen Spira’s essay on Arrow Video’s recent Blu-ray release of An American Werewolf in London (1981), then this should be considered as a welcome second chapter in his exploration of ‘Jewish’ horror films. Using Der Golem as his inspiration, Spira shows not only how Jewish filmmakers worked on horror films in 1930s Hollywood and told stories of the demonic and satanic in the religious horror cycle of the 1970s, but also how Jewish folklore, specifically that about the dybbuk, has been interpreted by the genre today.

  • ‘The Kingdom of Ghosts’, an audio essay by R. Dixon Smith. Smith situates Der Golem within German Expressionist cinema and expands upon the other key fantasy and horror films in the movement. It’s a brief and interesting exploration but my only minor quibble is that it might have been visually more interesting to present this over a series of stills rather than one static image.
  • ‘The Golem’ . The 60-minute US version of the film, also fully restored, and featuring a score by Cordula Heth. As noted onscreen, the US distributor edited the German negative and inserted English intertitles for its 1921 debut. It’s also in black-and-white, unlike the tinted original version.
  • Restoration comparison. This video piece compares and contrasts the export and domestic versions used as the basis for the new restoration, using a split-screen presentation to show the difference in many of the shots and the incredible work that went into restoring the film.

  • Collector’s booklet. Including Philip Kemp’s excellent essay on Paul Wegener, the origins of the film, the development of German Expressionist cinema and how the legend of the Golem persisted; Scott Harrison’s insightful essay about the effect of the First World War on German culture and society and how Weimar cinema reflected it; and plenty of stills, posters and illustrations. A lovely accompaniment to the film.

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Cast & Crew

directors: Paul Wegener & Carl Boese.
writers: Henrik Galeen & Paul Wegener (based on the novel by Gustav Meyrink).
starring: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch & Lothar Müthel.

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I am indebted to the following articles and books:

Henry Nicolella and John T. Soister, Many Selves: The Horror and Fantasy Films of Paul Wegener, (BearManor Media, 2013) • Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, (University of California Press, 1969) • Cathy S. Gelbin, The Golem Returns: From German Romantic Literature to Global Jewish Culture, 1808-2008, (University of Michigan Press, 2011) • Elizabeth R. Baer, The Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction, (Wayne State University Press, 2012) • Noah Isenberg (ed), Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era, (Columbia University Press, 2009) • John R Clarke, Expressionism in Film and Architecture: Hans Poelzig’s Sets for Paul Wegener’s The Golem, (Art Journal, Vol. 34, No. 2, Winter, 1974-1975) • Rolf Giesen, The Nosferatu Story: The Seminal Horror Film, Its Predecessors and Its Enduring Legacy, (McFarland, 2019) • James Donald, Fantasy and the Cinema, (BFI, 1989).
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