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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.
When I see these old attempts at what amounted to a horror film back then, before my time and I'm an old duffer, I'm always struck at the marvelous Gothic quality wrought by the twisted buildings, the gnarled stairways, the open balconies and the weird angles of things such as doorways, arches, street, bridges and the like. The monstrosities are stark, hardly terrifying by today's CGIs and often terrifying their victims in an almost comical, stylized way. This marvelous film together with Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are marvelous pieces of art. There is an ageless quality to them that transcends the hoary and often corny plots and acting. Each must be taken as a whole because that product is always greater than the sum of their parts. Compare the magical Indian Love Call of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, two rather mainstream singers whose voices blend into something greater than either of their individual talents. So too it is, I contend, with these old Gothic classics. Horror? Hardly. But, their starkness and darkness with its twisted surroundings are still eerie and provoking.
I caught this restored version of the 1920 German silent classic at Lincoln
Center where a new musical score was premiered by the Chamber Music
I had never seen the film before and was frankly amazed at the imagery in
the sets and costumes and editing of the film. The film's director, Paul
Wegener, wearing a thickly padded outfit and wig and high-heeled boots
the main character, "The Golem". A mythical character from Jewish folklore.
For its day, the special effects were also intriguing. I resist describing
the movie as anti-semitic but I believe that the portrayal of the jewish
ghetto was depicted so dramatically to show that the jews in Prague were
outsiders and not welcome in mainstream society. This is evident in the
that when a nobleman comes to the ghetto, he is greeted by a mammoth closed
gate that looks like a precursor to the one used in King-Kong.
And most notably, during the creation sequence, a satanic figure appears on
screen that would coincide with the European belief a that time that Jews
walk hand-in-hand with the Dark forces.
As far as the Golem's performance- this film is really a precursor to "Frankenstein" that Boris Karloff must have seen in its original release - there are so many similarites.
Biggest Image - at the conclusion, the Golem is surrounded by a group of "blond" Aryan-looking children that clearly distinguish them from the ghetto children that we see earlier in the film.
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.
At the beginning of the DvD's "scrapbook", there is a quote from Paul Wegener that says he never thought the Golem was an expressionist film. Watching it right after seeing Nosferatu, that statement becomes believable. Despite amazing sets that would have been at home in Caligari, in story, in acting, and in overall tone, The Golem is a much more naturalistic film. Watching it with my son, who is 16, he was struck by its uncomfortable prefiguring of Jewish persecution. I was impressed by the the scarcity of romantic cliches in the story. The golem itself is clearly the ancestor of the Frankenstein monster. Full of wonderful images and interesting as a predecessor of the Universal monster films, The Golem is also very entertaining as a story and as a piece of dramatic film making. Highly recommended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I've only watched it myself (3 times so far) on VHS but I do have the
Kino edition in my "To Watch" list, purchased as part of the "German
Horror Classics" 4-Disc Box Set.
As for the film itself, I concede that it's the least of the 3 celebrated German Expressionist classics of the early 20s the others, of course, being THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) and NOSFERATU (1922). Still, the production itself is quite impressive to my eyes, the "bizarre set design" being the best of it, but I also love the creation scene (with the aid of the demon Astaroth and some notable special effects) and the scene where the old Rabbi describes the Jewish pogroms (which we see superimposed on the screen) to the unimpressed and downright sneering aristocrats, not to mention the rather moving way the Golem meets its comeuppance which I'm sure even you will concede that it clearly inspired one of the most famous sequences in James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN (1931). In fact, I'd say that even the domesticated monster of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) owes its genesis more to this film than the Shelley original, where we see it carrying errands for its master the Rabbi (before it runs amok for plot, and genre-defining, purposes). Paul Wegener's acting may feel somewhat comical today, but he certainly managed to convey the lumbering creature's brutish strength coupled with its inherent innocence and highly susceptible nature.
Actually, this was Wegener's third stab at the character after THE GOLEM of 1914 (set in contemporary times!) the 1920 version, in fact, was identified by the subtitle HOW IT CAME INTO THE WORLD and the semi-comic sequel THE GOLEM AND THE BALLERINA (1917), both of which seem not to have survived, alas. Happily, though, Wegener's earlier THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE (1913; which is another much-filmed supernatural tale) in which he played the principal dual roles but did not direct has and, in fact was recently released on DVD by, of all people, Alpha. I caught this on Italian TV several years ago and thought it was pretty good; I hope they do a repeat one of these days, or else some other DVD company (like Kino, for instance) will take the trouble to release it in a restored edition preferably with the apparently rarer Robert Wiene/Conrad Veidt 1926 remake in tow
P.S. There was a French remake of THE GOLEM in 1936, which I've seen and even managed to tape off the TV: this, too, is basically a historical melodrama rather than a horror film but I recall it being very adequate and featuring some expensive production values to boot.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the most exciting film I have seen of those made before 'Kane.' It is far better than those usually clumped into the so-called expressionist movement, particularly better than 'Caligari.'
The lighting, framing and rhythm of the thing is about of the same fine quality. Where it astounds is in the sets, which are Gaudi-esque. The Jews are portrayed in a darkly sensual, magical way... far different than the sly banker conspiracy that would later emerge. These Jews are spontaneously powerful, not deliberately so, and the matter is a curious milestone in the history leading to the holocaust.
But I'm more interested in its effect on film. Gaudi's architectural ideas were based on the inherent magic of environmental clay and its movement. The Golem is very much in that tradition. And so is the magic of creating moving images. Three levels in each scene, perfectly folded. The final touch: the enveloping warmth of the Jewess comes from the director's wife.
Absolutely the best film of 1920, and on my 'must see' list.
Ted's Evaluation -- 4 of 3: Every cineliterate person should experience this.
This is, currently, the only silent movie I have ever seen, and I was
how I'd take it. I had heard a lot about this movie and was expecting big
things, and I must say I was impressed.
The only major complain I have is that, as with many older classics, I read a review of it prior to buying in which the reviewer gave WAY too much away (the ending sequence, namely).. this has happened to me far too many times. I really wish reviewers wouldn't assume that everyone has already seen the movies they are reviewing, just because they are 'classics'. It really dampened my experience with the ending of both this movie, and The Man with X-Ray Eyes, just to name a few.
Anywho, the version I saw (the Kino remaster) was great. The picture quality was about as good as you could expect from a film more than 80 years old. The score was very good, maybe a tad repetitive, but it suit the film. The acting is quite good, very reminiscant of the acting style from the mid-to-early 20th century.
The scare factor? Well, probably not much these days. The Jewish ghetto is very well constructed, and really suits the setting. The golem himself is not so scary, more goofy to me, but to people in 1920, I can imagine he could have been quite scary. This is more of an 'interest' movie, than an all-out scare fest. You can really see where so many of the great horror/scare films over the years got their ideas from after seeing early films such as this.
I would definately recommend everyone who is interested in horror to track it down. Don't be put off by the fact that it's a silent film, it took all of 20 seconds for me to forget that completely, and to just enjoy the film.
Imagine shooting a feature-length horror movie with the camera built
into your mobile phone. Now imagine disabling sound and colour on your
phonecam, only being able to shoot a few seconds at a time, each minute
costing a small fortune in recording material, imagine that phonecam
being large and unwieldy and kind of knackered so that the already
low-resolution image is flickery and erratically exposed, and it plays
back too fast so that people look like wound-up dolls. It also exposes
blueish light more than reddish light, so each shoot is unpredictable,
but of course you'll only know that the next day when the film has been
Welcome to movie-making in the year 1920 AD.
Now go shoot a masterpiece that will still be watched, talked about and revered in a hundred years.
I watched this out of historic interest and expected to be colossally bored. But far from it, this is actually a gripping horror flick, and one with a deep side to it to boot. The Golem himself is an immensely scary horror figure en par with Freddy Kruger or the Alien, kind of a proto-Frankenstein's monster -- and he's actually played by director Paul Wegener himself!. I'd like to know how they made his eyes so scary.
Anyway, what can I say, a stupendous film. Watch it from the edge of your seat.
"The Golem" is the perfect companion piece for "The Cabinet of Dr.
Caligari." Both are excellent examples of German expressionism.
Pay attention to the surrealist sets and lighting.
This is skilled film-making, and today's directors can well learn from classics such as these.
However, do not confuse this with an earlier film of the same title. That earlier film is considered lost.
The film inspired a few sequels, but I have never seen them. I read mixed reviews on those movies. Still they would be interesting to watch.
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