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This landmark film is one of the earliest surviving expressionist works, and it's art direction and photography-- while not as stunning as a film like Caligari-- is still extremely interesting with its misshapen sets and its use of light and shadow, and light within shadow. Unlike Caligari, the themes of this film were resonant long after its release, and perhaps still are today.
The Golem is a tolerance film that studies in depth the relationship between Jews and Christians in Prague. To his credit, Wegener refuses to impose stereotypes on either party, instead concentrating on individual characters and using mass characterizations only to highlight the themes of the film.
Unlike stereotypical Jews, rich guys with big noses who rub pennies together, the Jews of Prague are decidedly poor. It is interesting to note that the Jews are all dressed in black and with very few exceptions appear to be bent with age, a tribute to an aging and dying religion. However, they are also portrayed to be earnest and hard-working, with strong communal instincts. The Christians, by contrast, appear bright, shiny, and new. They are dressed in light colors and are young and wealthy, and outwardly appear to be God's new chosen. However, they are also portrayed as foolish bohemians who do not take God seriously. In the end, Christian innocents (and blonde-blue Aryan, coincidentally)are able to stop the Golem's rampage, but only because he allows it. The final shot shows the Star of David lying in the dust as the Jews come to carry their fallen champion back into the ghetto, closing the great door behind them and leaving you with a feeling that they are gone forever. However, it should be noted that the Golem is not only a champion to the Jews, but a symbol of revival.
Another interesting comparison in this film is that between the Golem and Jesus. Like man, the Golem is made of sand and clay, then given life by a supernatural force. They are both immaculate conceptions, with the Golem being motherless while Jesus is born to a virgin mother. Jesus in his time was a champion of the Jews, as is the Golem, and each of them rebelled against the wickedness of the authorities that governed them.
This open-ended presentation of the struggle of Christianity vs. Judaism is what makes this film truly great. I suspect that this relevant elevation above the ordinary is the reason for its survival, even though it is the third film of this series. The fact that Wegener was able to make a film that is so ambiguous is a credit to him considering the circumstances surrounding German film-making at the time.
Rabbi Loew is portrayed as a wise and heroic leader of the Jewish community, which lives in a winding ghetto. He creates the Golem for a noble cause-- to protect his people against eviction by the Christians--and in this cause succeeds after the Christian court is saved by the Golem from divine repudiation after laughing at Loew's presentation of the Old Testament. The creation scene is particularly interesting, not only in its visuals, but for the fact that in this scene Rabbi Loew wears white (for purity), yet performs a ceremony that is holy in nature yet seems like witchcraft. The Golem turns on him when he seeks to continue using the Golem's services for selfish purposes after the Golem has accomplished his mission.
Miriam and Loew's servant are portrayed quite differently. Miriam is a dark seductress who is unwittingly the cause of the Golem's destructive rampage. She is only saved from the hands of the Golem by another act of divine intervention, when the communal prayer of the Jews in the streets of the ghetto results in her release. She usually dresses in dark colors. However, there is also a scene before her affair with Florian in which she wears white (purity of a different kind). Also notice how Florian carelessly twirls a flower when he delivers the edict to Rabbi Loew. This is a brief, but effective, example of his character and foreshadows things to come. Loew's servant is the only other young Jewish character in the film besides a few Jewish children in the street, and it is his revival of the Golem during his jealous rage against Florian that sets the Golem on his destructive path. Like Loew, he is unable to remove the Star of David from the Golem's chest once he begins to use the Golem for selfish gain. In the end, he shares a poignant moment with Miriam where they seek forgiveness and confidence about their actions.
The depth and attention to detail that Wegener shows as a director (and writer) in this film helps to place it among the great films in the brief history of cinema. It's message is particularly haunting considering the events of the next 25 years after its release.
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