From the Vaults: ‘The Golem’ (1920)

Golem Actually, this is the second sequel to Paul Wegener's “The Golem” (1915), now lost. In that movie, the golem – a mythical clay creature built and brought to life by Jewish rabbis – is brought back to life in modern times, only to fall in love and go on a murderous rampage when his love is unrequited.

In its first sequel, “The Golem and the Dancing Girl” (1917), a regular modern guy puts on a golem costume to scare the girl he loves. Wacky! But this film, originally titled “The Golem: How He Came Into the World,” is set in medieval times and is essentially the golem's origin story. Wegener, who wrote (with Henrik Galeen), directed (with Carl Boese) and stars as the title character, intelligently keeps the golem out of the love story this time.

Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck) of 16th century Prague, learns from consulting the stars that his people are in danger; to protect them, he decides to build a golem. His assistant (Max Kronert) helps, which requires some time out from romancing the rabbi's daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova, Wegener's frequent collaborator, and eventually his widow). This proves disastrous for him, since a foppish fellow named Knight Florian (Lothar Muthel) quickly takes his place in Miriam's affections.

Unaware of all this, the rabbi and his assistant take the golem to the emperor, who is threatening to expel all the Jews from Prague. With the help of the golem and his own “magic arts” (as the emperor dubs them), the rabbi turns the tables, threatens everyone in the castle, and gets the emperor to rescind the expulsion. While the Jews celebrate, the rabbi's assistant catches Miriam snogging with Florian and, enraged, sets the golem on them. Mayhem ensues!

Wegener is the well-deserved star of the piece. I was impressed by John Barrymore's balletic physical work as Jekyll and Hyde; Wegener's hesitant, lumbering movements are heartbreaking in themselves. The golem is neither good nor evil, just a blind servant who goes the direction he's pointed to go. When he's taken shopping, he stands at the market just staring blankly, a basket placed absurdly over his arm.  Wegener, originally a stage actor who became fascinated by the possibilities of film, clearly knows how to build a character without saying a word.

Golem_child But it's so hard as a modern viewer to watch this film without thinking of "Frankenstein," which was still 11 years in the future. Obviously “The Golem” was a huge influence on “Frankenstein” director James Whale: the lumbering creature made for human purposes he doesn't understand, a central figure who's nonetheless helplessly peripheral to the human drama going on around him.

The most fascinating parallel comes in the climax of “The Golem”: The creature wanders into a crowd of girls and children celebrating the Rose Festival, and everyone screams and runs away except for one tiny child who's too small to run. The Golem picks her up; you've seen “Frankenstein” and fear the worst; but the child, unafraid, starts playing with the magic amulet on his chest and then swiftly pulls it off, deactivating the creature and dropping him flat on his back. It's an interesting reversal of a trope that hadn't even been invented yet.

I really loved this movie's use of space, too. An expressionist classic, it's got nothing like the mad angles and hyperkinetic set design of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919), but the stylized interiors are still very nifty. (The cinematographer was Karl Freund, of "Metropolis" and "Dracula.") All the houses look like they're built out of clay, like the golem itself.

I particularly loved a chase scene that goes up and down a chiseled-looking spiral staircase; and a crowd scene set in a dark temple, with the congregation all waving white hands against the dark walls. Miriam, with her white nightgown, long black braids and fainting fits, is a ringer for Caligari's Jane. (And, like the monstrous somnambulist Cesare, the golem becomes captivated by her beauty; although in this case, he just sets her down and wanders off.)

It's hard to look at a 1920 German film about a Jewish community and not wonder about anti-Semitism. Wegener, who died in 1948, continued to live and work in Germany under the Nazi regime, although he was a pacifist. The movie portrays Jewish mysticism as something supernatural and magic — to a modern viewer, the rabbis all look like wizards in their pointed hats. Then again, this IS the golem legend, which is fairly goofy stuff. And the emperor and his non-Jewish court, particularly the foppish Knight Florian, are not portrayed in a particularly flattering way either.

This would make a fab double feature with any tragically-mindless-monster movie — “King Kong,” maybe, but particularly “Frankenstein.” (As for “The Bride of Frankenstein,” that would make a fab double feature with, I don't know, “The Wizard of Oz” or something.)

Two weeks from now: Lillian Gish!

— Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Photos: Projektions – AG Union

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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