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Although this 1920 German silent does not really rank alongside the truly great silent films, it remains a fascinating oddity. Based on European Jewish folklore, it tells the story a Jewish community in Prague which is threatened with expulsion from the city. In an effort to protect his people, Rabbi Loew creates a man-like creature made of clay and uses it to impress the Emperor. Unfortunately, the magic backfires, and when the Golem falls into the hands of the Rabbi's perfidious assistant disaster results.
Much of the film's charm is in its visual style. The sets by Hans Poelzig are a strange but cohesive mixture of medieval, nouveau, and surrealism, and the cinematography by legendary photography Karl Freund uses high contrast black and white to truly remarkable effect. The Poelzig-Freund combination would cast an extremely long shadow, and THE GOLEM would influence not only such German films as Fitz Lang's METROPOLIS but the entire cycle of 1930s American horror films that began with the 1931 Bela Lugosi Dracula.
Several plot devices and the look of the Golem, as played by Paul Wegener, would also prove particularly influential for director James Whale's famous 1932 FRANKENSTEIN. Whether or not Boris Karloff or make-up artist Jack Pierce knew the film is uncertain--but Whale, who was fond of German cinema, certainly did, and traces of THE GOLEM can be seen throughout his most famous works.
Over the past several decades a number of film historians have attempted to reinterpret THE GOLEM in light of the Holocaust. There may actually be a certain validity to this, for although the Jews are portrayed sympathetically they are very clearly outsiders, and their religion seems less like religion than witchcraft--and indeed Rabbi Loew might be said to practice black magic in bringing the Golem to life. This sense of social estrangement and religious stigmatism does seem indicative of the anti-Semitism that will ultimately explode into furnaces of Nazi Germany. All the same, it is worth noting that THE GOLEM is a fundamentally Jewish story to begin with, and it is perhaps best to think of it in those terms instead of using hindsight to impose modern meanings upon the film.
There are several home market releases of the film. While I have not seen it, I am told the Timeless Studios VHS release is weak; I have, however, seen the Gotham DVD release, and although there are some quality issues this inexpensive DVD is not at all bad. Still, my preference and recommendation is the Kino DVD. Unlike many Kino editions, it does not have anything significant in the way of bonuses, but the overall presentation is very fine and likely represents a best-possible presentation short of full digital restoration.
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