(1920) Directed by: Paul Wegener and Carl Boese; Written by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen; Starring: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Ernst Deutsch, Lyda Salmonova and Lothar Müthel; Available on DVD
“Venus enters the constellation Libra. The time is favorable for the invocation. From the dreaded spirit Astaroth I must wrest the life-giving word that will bring the Golem to life to save my people.” – Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück)
Much like Frankenstein, The Golem, or its full title, The Golem: How He Came into the World (aka: Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam), concerns a powerful creation, made in man’s image, gone amuck. Various incarnations of the myth have appeared on stage and screen over the years, but none perhaps, approached the material with the same level of fervor as co-director/co-writer/star Paul Wegener. Wegner’s fascination with the 16th century lore* led him to create three films over a five-year span. Unfortunately, the 1915 and 1917 versions are lost to history, but I like to think the third time’s the charm.
* Look here for more information on Golem folklore and its origins.
The Golem is set in 16th century Prague, at least a stylized version of the city. The story opens with Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück), his eyes cast to the heavens, as he uncovers a disturbing prophecy (“The stars foretell disaster.”). Meanwhile, the emperor (Otto Gebühr) declares an edict, calling for the expulsion of the residents of the Jewish ghetto. Knight Florian (Lothar Müthel) sets off, on the emperor’s order, to deliver the edict. The officious knight initially shows nothing but disdain for the residents of the ghetto, but after he makes goo-goo eyes with the rabbi’s daughter Miriam (played by Wegener’s then wife, Lyda Salmonova), it’s love at first sight. While his daughter has a forbidden love affair behind his back, Löw sculpts a hulking figure out of clay, the Golem. With a little help from the malevolent spirit Astaroth, he brings the Golem to life. He requests an audience with the emperor, where he manages to save the day for the royal court and the Jewish ghetto. But of course, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, as the Golem turns against his creator. The only way to stop the rampaging figure is to remove the star-shaped amulet, or “Shem” (containing a magic word on a scroll), from its chest. Unfortunately for Löw and his community, stopping the Golem proves harder than he thought.
Wegener’s performance as the title creation is a real standout. In his portrayal of something neither living nor dead, he finds the perfect balance in his movement, somewhere between a robotic gait and a fluid, human-like stride. In less capable hands, the Golem would have come across as a caricature, rather than the imposing figure of destruction that appears in the film. He set the standard for decades to come, starting with Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg assassin in The Terminator. The Golem stands along with Count Orlock in Nosferatu and Maria in Metropolis as some of German silent cinema’s greatest inhuman characters.
Over the years, The Golem has invited debate over its intentions, with some viewing the film as a fable about creation run rampant, while others finding a more derogatory interpretation. Although I can’t summarily dismiss all the criticisms, it’s difficult to accept that Wegener and crew’s choices were made from malice. At worst, the film is told from a naïve perspective that perpetuates certain myths and stereotypes, with the residents of the ghetto living closely with mysticism and astrology. A more measured interpretation would be that the film is best taken as a fable, rather than a pseudo-historical document of life in 16th century Prague. The decision by Löw to unleash the Golem is not taken lightly, but as a desperate effort to save the Jewish community from further oppression by a decadent ruling class.
A minor quibble with The Golem is that the Rabbi’s assistant (Max Kronert) is let off the hook far too easily. When Löw realizes the destructive potential of his creation, he aims to destroy it. Before the Golem is smashed into bits, the assistant, in a fit of jealousy, reactivates the statue to drive Knight Florian away from Miriam and out of the village. (SPOILER ALERT) Considering his actions result in the Golem killing Florian,* destroying the rabbi’s house and almost succeeding in burning down the ghetto, it’s a tall order for him to request her forgiveness.
* Even though Knight Florian was an insufferable twit, he didn’t deserve the cruel fate of being thrown off a tower. Oddly enough, the emperor doesn’t seem to miss his knight. Perhaps he was just as annoyed by him as we were?
The Golem* is an enduring classic about good intentions gone astray. In an effort to save his people from exile, Rabbi Löw nearly causes their annihilation. The theme about an immensely powerful creation taking its own initiative continues to be explored, in endless permutations. One doesn’t need to look very far to find The Golem’s influence in many science fiction and horror films, from The Colossus of New York, to The Terminator, to Ex Machina. I also couldn’t help but wonder if the film also served as an unconscious template for the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Fantasia (commonly credited to a poem by Goethe), with the impulsive rabbi’s apprentice usurping his master’s creation to satisfy his own whims. The Golem was a giant leap forward in genre film that will continue to reverberate as long as movies exist.
* Fun Non-Sequitur Fact: The film features stunning cinematography by Karl Freund, who went on to a long career in Hollywood. He was also a fine director in his own right, with The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935).