Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into The World), the second major surviving landmark picture in the development of Horror cinema during the silent era, emerged from the Weimar Republic’s German Expressionist school of film-making in 1920. It appeared less than a year after Robert Wiene’s ground-breaking Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari had first introduced audiences to a strange, new avant-garde form of cinema which presented psychologically subjective events through the prism of deliberately distorted imagery -- a development which was to play such an intrinsic role in Cinema’s presentation of the Gothic on our movie screens from hench forward. The movie was, oddly enough, also the third entry in what we would now consider the very first horror franchise, and is a clear precursor to (and a huge influence upon) James Whale’s visualisation of Frankenstein’s Monster for his iconic 1931 Universal adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. This influence starts with the visual style of the two films and extends all the way into their thematic approach and their image-making.
Although it’s the only one out of the three pictures to survive, this was actor-writer-director Wegener’s third time wearing his monstrous creation’s lumbering built-up shoes for the role after having first brought this representative of popular Jewish folklore to the screen in 1915 for a much more conventionally shot film called, simply, Der Golem – but also known in the US as The Monster of Fate. Although now a lost movie, this first Golem picture, Wegner’s follow-up to his 1913 Poe and Dostoyevsky influenced doppelganger picture The Student of Prague, was evidently well-liked enough at the time by the public for Wegener to feel able to satirise its popularity in a spoof follow-up made very soon after, in 1917, under the title Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancing Girl), produced, like its predecessor, for Deutsche Bioscop. Once again, the enterprising Wegener appeared to be way ahead of his time: instead of a conventional sequel, Wegener stumbled upon the self-reflexive ‘meta’ movie, anticipating the post-modern games of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare by about seventy-five years -- while experimenting with these ideas virtually as the modern Horror genre as we know it was taking shape. The film relies on a contemporary audience’s knowledge of Wegener as the actor who originally played the part of the Golem in the successful 1915 movie, in a screenplay that has him deciding to dress up in his Golem costume from the first movie for a joke while attending a party, with, one presumes, ‘hilarious results’.
Neither of these works has survived, as far as we presently know, beyond a few stills and fragments which reveal that Wegener did not substantially change the design of his Golem creature across any of the three movies he starred in, despite their very different approaches to the subject; but knowledge of their existence informs how we should view the third and final instalment of the trilogy: once again, Wegener takes the myth of the Golem and certain elements of the plot, and refashions them, concentrating this time exclusively on the folkloric elements in the act of crafting a dark fairy tale that functions as a direct prequel to his 1915 film, which had been set in the then present-day and told the story of an antiquarian who discovers the ancient Golem amid the ruins of a Jewish temple and decides to resurrect him in contemporary times as a protector of the community.
The Golem’s role in Jewish myth dates back to the Polish ghetto and is closely associated with life in 16th century Prague’s Jewish quarter -- an area sealed off from the rest of the city in the medieval period until as late as 1850, after which point the walls were brought down and the extensive list of anti-Semitic proscriptions, which until that time had been placed on Jewish activities, was ended. At this point, stories about the Golem as a ‘protector’ of his people who had been fashioned from the silt and mud of the river Vltava by the famed Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezale, to help defend Prague’s Jewish community from the devices of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf ll of the Hapsburg Empire, became immensely popular. A novel, first published in serial form by Austrian writer Gustav Meyrink between 1913 and 1914, and published in book form in 1915, has since been described by Maya Barzilai (in her study Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters) as ‘the Da Vinci Code of its day’ and provided the catalyst for Paul Wegener’s film-based interpretation of the legend, although none of the three Golem films he authored had any real connection to Meyrink’s hugely popular novel.
Expressionism was a pre-war movement in the decorative arts which percolated into early moving pictures via the ideas of the celebrated theatrical director Max Reinhardt. Under the movement’s influence, Reinhardt incorporated abstract set designs into his stage productions (some of them created by Paul Leni, another important German figure in the early horror cinema of the silent period) -- along with extreme, unnaturalistic choreography and experimental lighting effects. The young Wegener had previously taken roles in some of Reinhardt’s plays, so was well-placed to apply his radical methods to the newly emerging medium of film just as the shattering horrors of the First World War made such emotionally destabilising techniques all the more vital and necessary to the artistic practice of the 1920s. Wegener was an inspired creator of dark fantasy and, standing at an imposing six-foot, broad-shouldered and heavily set, made for a most striking screen performer who tended to gravitate towards macabre material. But Wegener still needed skilled craftsmen around him to help bring his visions to fruition; he always co-directed his films with the help of more experienced practitioners so that he could concentrate on his performance in front of the camera.
The Golem films brought about a set of collaborations that were to prove particularly important to the history of horror cinema: the 1915 film had Wegener collaborating closely with screenwriter Henrik Galeen, who was later to be hired by producer Albin Grau to work on F.W. Murnau’s unofficial Dracula adaptation Nosferatu in 1922, and who also wrote Paul Leni’s horror anthology Waxworks in 1924. Galeen not only co-wrote the first Golem screenplay with Wegener but co-directed the original movie and played the role of the antiquarian who discovers the creature in the ruined temple, as well. When Wegener returned to the subject for this 1920 prequel, set in 16th century Prague and co-directed with Carl Boese for PAGU, Galeen’s screenwriting services were once again called upon -- figuring him as one of the most important artists in horror cinema of the silent era; one who would later make the definitive version of The Student of Prague in 1926 on a much bigger budget and with the great German actor Conrad Veidt in the lead role rather than Wegener. The latter was himself an effective presence, though, when he was cast alongside Brigitte Helm in Galeen’s outlandish 1926 film Alraune -- another stand-out German horror/sci-fi hybrid movie of the silent era, written and directed by this now often overlooked figure.
The cinematography on the 1920 Golem picture was handled by Karl Freund, the innovative man behind the lens on some of German cinema’s greatest visual spectacles by Murnau and Fritz Lang, and inventor of the ‘unchained’ camera technique. He was also, after moving to Hollywood, the cinematographer on Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and would, himself, direct classic Universal horror pictures The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935). When applied to the strikingly bizarre set designs of former architect Hans Poelzig and Kurt Richter, Freund’s stark lighting creates an otherworldly fairy tale aesthetic that takes the jagged abstraction and extreme stylisation of Caligari into a notably less alienating area of visual aesthetics than its predecessor: rather than shadows painted on walls, and sets simplified to the point of their becoming only symbolically representational of objects and places instead of directly believable in their own right, Poelzig, Freund and Wegener created a world for The Golem that seems based in a kind of historically removed reality of sorts, but which is at the same time utterly fantastical – the vast but unconventional village set is full of curved, conical surfaces, created at Ufa’s open-air-grounds in Berlin-Tempelhof, that make the medieval buildings of the Jewish quarter look like they were grown from the earth rather than directly built by human hands; the gargantuan door that seals off the walled ghetto from the rest of the city, with its huge heavy wooden bar-lock, is a clear precursor to a similar design later seen in King Kong (1933), and visually implies in an indirect yet unmissable way both the cultural and the physical separateness of the Jewish people in this heavily partitioned city. The opening scene, in which Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), while gazing through his telescope from the top of the tower above his house discovers an astrological alignment that foreshadows doom for the Jewish people, looks like a magical live-action iteration of one of Lotte Reniger’s later silhouette animations; Wegener’s co-director on The Golem and the Dancing Girl, Rochus Gliese, adds to this potent mix of magical-fantasy grounded in German Romanticism with costume designs that leave historical verisimilitude behind in the cause of their heightened myth-making, but which nonetheless conjure a vivid sense of the film's alternate reality.
The film’s presentation of the Jewish community is notably free of the more extreme racial stereotyping of the period. Life as depicted within the walled-off ghetto, although visualising the rustic poverty of the inhabitants in an extremely stylised manner, is indicative of the Expressionist moniker in general -- with slanting hovel-like buildings, crooked streets, and narrow alleys and staircases. Yet it is still largely free of the most egregious forms of ethnic caricature. The people we can see in the upper-storey windows of the strange, sloping buildings and on the street corners, inspire viewer identification and empathy rather than mistrust or suspicion; when we contrast their lifestyle with the gaudy frivolity of the Emperor (Otto Gebühr) and his court, it becomes apparent who our sympathies should be directed towards: the people who have been separated from the rest of society and are now being cast out of their home by the Emperor’s latest cruel edict, citing all the usual anti-Jewish prejudices such as crucifying the Lord, disregarding Christian festivals, lusting for property and performing Black Magic rituals.
The film makes a point of emphasising something that is just as true any time minorities are demonised for the short-term political gain of a particular class or group: the inhabitants of the Court as shown don’t necessarily have to be driven by any overt malice towards the Jews who will be affected by the edict; instead, they mostly appear callously indifferent, distracted, and almost cynically bored by the whole issue. The film illustrates the fact that it can become easy for cruelty to flourish not necessarily because there is pure unfiltered hatred being directed towards a minority on the part of most of the majority population, but because those not affected choose to live in blissful ignorance of the effects of discrimination on those subjected to it; cushioned by their sumptuous, cosseted lifestyles the Emperor's subjects close themselves off from the possibility of empathy and do not even think about those who will suffer from the consequences of a ruling that has been so lightly made. Later in the film, they bring about a devastating calamity on the Court after mocking an important figure in Jewish mythology, again, out of ignorance rather than active malice.
The Golem legend is a piece of Jewish folklore that is more concerned with demonstrating to its people the folly of seeking revenge on those who might do you wrong, showing how seeking to regain control of one’s fate through violence or mastery of the elements, etc., can have unintended results. Therefore, it directs most of its moralising at the Jewish community itself. As a non-Jewish filmmaker, then, it is gratifying that Wegener also added this other extra element, exemplified by the dandyish, flower-twirling envoy Florian (Lothar Müthel) -- who, sent by the Emperor to deliver his devastating proclamation to Rabbi Loew, ends up having a dalliance with the Holy man's daughter as well -- to also make plain how the petty prejudices and trivial concerns of an indifferent population can ultimately wreak great harm upon society.
In the final reckoning, The Golem stands out today for the same things that wowed its audiences back in 1920: its amazing fantastical visual style and special effects, and its macabre set-designs and make-up work -- all of which still stand out and have even been given a new lease of life thanks to this stunning 4K restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, now given a general release by Eureka Entertainment. The black magic ritual that Rabbi Loew and his assistant (Ernst Deutsch) perform to conjure a demon that can provide them with a life-giving occult word is still a cinematic highlight. When written down and sealed Ironman style into an amulet on the chest of their inanimate clay creation, the word brings the clay Golem to life and endows him with super-strength. Through a tour-de-force of set-piece superimpositions the film fabricates impressive indoor lightning inside Rabbi Loew’s cave-like laboratory (decorated in occult symbols and with astrological writings chalked on the walls) and a flaming circle of fire to protect the two men from the demonic apparition as it emerges from the shadows through a veil of smoke from which the life-giving word eventually forms. Wegener imbues the Golem by turns with humour, pathos and terror: one minute providing laughs when the creature is being sent out on errands to the shops with a basket on his arm for the groceries (in a scene extensively milked for all its comic potential); the next becoming aware of the poverty of his slave-like existence and rebelling violently against his creators by bringing a terrifying conflagration upon them. A scene, during the finale, in which Golem kidnaps Rabbi Loew’s daughter (played by Wegener’s second wife Lyda Salmonova, who played the female lead in most of his movies and all of the Golem pictures) and drags her through the streets of the ghetto by her hair after having murdered Florian her lover at the behest of Rabbi Loew’s jealous assistant, is particularly brutal.
Through cakes of face paint and uncomfortable costuming Wegener portrays a character that can alternate unpredictably between acting as an unfeeling automaton commanded by unseen occult forces, and a sentient being who is occasionally aware of his hopeless predicament. Interestingly, in his excellent recent book Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, W. Scott Poole theorises that Wegener’s Golem may well be rooted in the actor's own experiences of trench warfare during the First World War, quoting a 1933 journal in which Wegener recalls days spent ‘seething in clay’ and his feelings of terror and powerlessness. Poignantly, it ends up being a simple flower, offered by a beautiful woman, that brings about the Golem’s painful realisation of his situation; which is itself an ironic contrast with, and comment upon, the unfeeling dandy Florian’s tendency for absent-mindedly twirling a flower indifferently whenever out delivering unpleasant news from the Emperor to the cowering Jewish populace. The film ends on another note of irony, though: a poignant one, in which the innocence of a small child results in the apparently unstoppable creature’s eventual immolation -- after which he becomes a lifeless plaything for a whole gaggle of small children that is eventually carried away by the elders of the ghetto to be hidden away within its walls, until called upon another day.
This wonderful new restoration, showcased on Blu-ray for Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection, offers up three wonderfully diverse scores for the viewer to choose from. Composer Stephen Horne’s is the most traditional of the bunch, in that it makes use mostly of piano accompaniment and aims to provide clearly defined emotional colour for the film's characters, giving story situations dramatic lift through manipulation of the instrument’s expressive techniques. Electronic producer Wudec, meanwhile, employs a much broader palette that incorporates experimental sound design and modern synthetic instrumentation. Admir Shkurta also scores for a wide range of instruments including operatic and choral voices that underscore the epic quality the film’s visual splendour naturally inspires. Each of these musical accomplishments adds another dimension to the film and demonstrates just how important a good accompaniment is to the process of experiencing and interpreting a silent movie.
The disc also includes the shorter US cut of the movie, scored by Cordula Heth, and has a video piece that extensively highlights the differences between the export and domestic German version, recreated from various sources for this release. A new audio commentary by Scott Harrison looks at the cinematic context and societal conditions under which Expressionist Cinema was created, while various video and audio essays from David Cairns, R. Dixon Smith and Jon Spira add much-appreciated analysis, interpretation and description of this important and still immensely watchable early Horror classic, and the era of Weimar cinema to which it belongs. A booklet featuring essays by Scott Harrison on German Expressionist cinema and a profile of Paul Wegener and The Golem by Philip Kemp is included with the release and initial copies will come with a Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase.