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The Golem: how he came into the world

by Glenn Erickson May 05, 2020

A top movie monster is back from filmic perdition, restored to his full might and power. Rabbi Lowe’s answer to the persecution of the ghetto is a mysterious unthinking automaton capable of terrible destruction. Paul Wegener’s indelible clay statue stands as a core myth in Jewish lore. But he’s still here, usually in allegories about mankind losing control of its own creations. With its imposing architecture and impressive special effects, this early expressionist masterpiece is one of the design highlights of silent cinema.

 

The Golem
Blu-ray
Kino Classics
1920 / B&W with tints / 1:33 silent ap. / 76 min. / Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam / Street Date April 14, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch, Lothar Müthel, Fritz Feld.
Cinematography: Karl Freund, Guido Seeber
Art Direction and design: Hans Poelzig, Kurt Richter, Edgar G. Ulmer
New Music scores: Stephen Horne, Admir Shkurtai, Lukasz ‘Wudec’Poleszak
Written by Henrik Galeen, Paul Wegener
Produced by Paul Davidson
Directed by
Paul Wegener, Paul Boese

 

It’s big. It’s made of clay. It’s an unstoppable mythological Juggernaut that will obey its master’s every command. But who wants the responsibility for such power?

Back near the beginning of DVD Kino put out a disc set of silent German horror greats, that couldn’t help but disappoint, quality-wise. The film sources were the same incomplete and visually weak prints we’d always seen of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with unstable and contrasty images, erratic continuity. Did that tattered copy of Nosferatu survive only because it had been set aside as a misprint?  It had mis-registered frame lines printed right into the picture.

In the case of Paul Wegener’s The Golem: How He Came into the World the improvement on this new Blu-ray is so extreme, it’s fair to say that we’ve never really seen the picture until now. Germany’s Murnau Stiftung has rescued dozens of classics, enabling us to finally get an idea of what the great German silents looked like when new. The restoration finally gives us a Golem that resembles the fascinating still images we studied in reference books and in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland.

The 1920 classic was Paul Wegener’s third go at the character. He had played the same clay monster in a 1914 film set in the present day. Only one reel and a few fragments of that first version have been recovered. In 1917, the actor reprised the same costume and makeup for a comedy, Der Golem und die Tanzerin. Wegener co-directed both that movie and this third version that became a hit world-wide.

The original golem myth has its origins in the Bible and the Talmud, and has been reinterpreted many times. In one story, the man made from clay was created as a source of heavy-lifting labor; the conflict came when it began to develop human feelings. Not exactly Pinnocchio but not quite Frankenstein’s monster, the golem usually rebels, either out of unhappy love or frustration with its lowly status. The end result is usually a warning about meddling in forbidden matters.

This 1920 retelling relates the golem to its human masters, who use it for political and personal ends. Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück) of the Prague ghetto is a master of good magic. Informed by Emperor Rudolf of Prague that the ‘criminal’ Jewish population must leave the city, the Rabbi summons the demon Astaroth to learn the magic word that can animate the golem, an all-powerful man of clay that can defend the Jewish quarter. The monster seems to resent being put to work, but it does whatever it is told to do. But it also responds to the gentleness and beauty of the Rabbi’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova). The royal messenger Florian (Lothar Müthel) brings the news that the Rabbi has been granted an audience at the Emperor’s court. Löw brings the golem with him, and uses magic to relate the history of his honorable people. The assembled courtiers laugh, which causes the palace to collapse. Rudolf offers to pardon the Prague Jews if Löw saves him, and the Rabbi orders the golem to come to the rescue.

The ghetto celebrates. The golem’s mission is done but Löw doesn’t destroy him as he should. Florian and Miriam have fallen in love, and when Löw’s jealous assistant Famulus discovers them in her bedchamber, he re-activates the golem in anger. The clay monster goes berserk when commanded to kill. In its rage it sets Löw’s house afire. The misuse of magical power may cause the entire ghetto to be destroyed.

The Golem is a great picture, and not simply because it inspired elements of Universal’s later horror classics of the early 1930s. The story has substance and power, and its rich imagery creates its own special fantasy world, original, unique and self-contained.

 

Paul Wegener’s golem character is unforgettable. He begins as an unfinished clay figure stored in a sealed chamber in the Rabbi’s house, waiting to be put to use if desperately needed by his people. Impressive visuals show Löw and Famulus standing in a protective circle of fire as a demon is summoned from… Hell?  The setup is identical to the Devil-raising ritual in The Devil Rides Out. The horrid face of Astaroth materializes to obediently disgorge the magic word that can animate a golem. The Word Of God was enough to create life in the Old Testament, and when Rabbi Löw writes the word in a star ornament, and plugs it into the golem’s chest, he pops to life as if someone had thrown an electric switch.

What doesn’t turn on and off like an electric switch is the golem’s human aspect. The slightest change of expression on his neutral po-face encourages us to interpret his emotions. The golem seldom looks happy, but he likes pretty women and flowers. He instantly obeys his master the Rabbi, but does not like the nervous, frightened Famulus. Does the golem absorb the essence of those around him?  When ordered to smash through Miriam’s door, the monster seems to magnify Famulus’ hateful rage.

 

This non-Jewish writer tends to step carefully around unfamiliar ethnic subjects. Elements in this version of the core Jewish myth appear to send negative messages about Jewish life in the ghetto. Even though he’s a good man, Rabbi Löw has the power to summon dark forces from the underworld, just like the evil Karswell in Night of the Demon. The magic he uses is undiluted warlock Black Magic, and the spell he casts even requires a written ‘rune.’ Wouldn’t anti-Semites cite the golem myth as evidence that Jews are in league with the devil?

The Rabbi’s dealings with the Emperor are presented as sincere. He seeks to persuade the Christians to accept the Jews as a good people, and let them stay in Prague, albeit isolated behind the ghetto wall. Did the Emperor build the wall built to keep them in, like a cultural prison, or did the Jews build it to keep corrupting non-Jewish influences out?  Received at court, Löw merely IDs his strange clay man as a new servant, not as a potential Ultimate Weapon. The Christians break their promise and laugh at Löw’s ‘CinemaScope’ visual aid, which brings about a major calamity. Instead of making threats to get his way, the Rabbi and his clay monster become heroes and save the day.

But the Rabbi revived the golem to serve as an intimidating persuader to aid his negotiations… he’s the bad cop Gort to Löw’s good cop Klaatu. The Rabbi saves the ghetto without violence … or does he?  One might think that the presence of the golem could justify Rudolf’s banishment edict — as evidence to back up the prejudice that the suspect Jews are in league with The Devil.

Is The Golem anti- Semitic?  It’s a tricky subject. In his commentary on an English disc release critic David Cairns says that the movie’s attitude toward the Jews is ‘ambiguous,’ and leaves it at that.

 

The story certainly demonstrates that our acts have consequences, yet it doesn’t dwell on the issue of of crime and punishment. Miriam and Florian are carried away by love. Their illicit relationship is surely forbidden on both sides of the ghetto wall, and they pay dearly for their transgression. Does Miriam even understand what has happened?  Famulus basically commits First Degree Homicide. But with the evidence destroyed, he is last seen advising Miriam to stay mum about the events of the day. We don’t know if her father ever learns what transpired. There’s no retribution for a murder.

When Famulus commands the golem to commit a crime, has Rabbi Löw’s ‘contract’ with the spirit world been violated?  The golem apparently decides that he’s no longer under anybody’s command — he’s free of his ‘prime directives,’ like the title character in RoboCop 2. After wandering about and randomly injuring people on the street, the clay man crashes through the ghetto gate. It’s implied that he’s simply out of control, without direction.

Once through the gate, the golem’s finish comes in a way that a Christian bigot would find very satisfactory. Little blonde kids dressed in white and decorated with flowers play and dance. As this is outside the wall, I’m guessing that they’re gentiles. Calmed, charmed and tamed by their play, the clay man lets down his guard. The unstoppable supernatural monster is finished for good by an innocent gentile girl — it’s Murder by Shirley Temple.


Restored to a close approximation of its original brilliance, UfA’s The Golem is now revealed as an impressive epic. In the silent era, its spectacular designs are surpassed by only by giant super-productions like Griffith’s Intolerance and William Cameron Menzies’ The Thief of Bagdad. For all their ingenuity, the sets for the expressionist Caligari look like 2-D pasteboard, and F. W. Murnau filmed his vampire movie in a real castle. But everything in The Golem is a solid architectural construction in a movie studio. The ghetto gate with its crossbar reminds us of the giant wall in King Kong. It’s the law: monsters just can’t abide confining walls.

The extravagant production can boast many of the best settings in silent German expressionism. The chambered interiors of Rabbi Löw’s house look as if they were carved out of gourds. The interiors of Rabbi Löw’s house do look like internal organs (as pointed out in Tim Lucas’s commentary). The massive sets for the ghetto exteriors are a maze of twisted buildings. Fifty-four rickety, twisted structures were built, seemingly without benefit of a straightedge or plumb bob. Art critic Rudolf Kurtz wrote that architect Hans Poelzig and his sculptress wife Marlene animated “…facades into faces…(insisting)… that these houses are to speak in jargon — and gesticulate!”

When the Rabbi begins commences sculpting the golem’s head and face, it looks as if the camera were run backwards. If you watch, the final form of the face begins to take shape. In one of the first scenes, Miriam carries a candle across a room in her father’s house. An electric cable trails across the floor behind her, a detail that one would think could easily have been hidden. When the Rabbi gets set to awaken the golem, we see a brilliant piece of scene blocking, especially for 1920. A stiff mock-up of the inanimate statue is stood upright in the middle distance. Then Löw walks forward to the camera to show us in close-up the action of placing the magic word rune into the star-shaped amulet. Does the camera lens ‘pull focus?’  When Löw backs away, the golem mockup has been replaced by the actor-director Paul Wegener. Tim Lucas points this out in his commentary as well.

And how about that amazing, nightmarish face of Astaroth?  It swoops out of the blackness like a Lovecraftian apparition, a thousand times more convincing than the disembodied, floating stone head of Zardoz. The nightmare image of a giant ghostly face with huge eyes looming over a character would be repeated, to equally haunting effect, in Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. George Lucas gave his Star Wars a link to the expressionist past in his The Empire Strikes Back, when Darth Vader kneels before a giant video-face of the Emperor. Before Lucas’s own 1997 revision-mutilation of the movie, the emperor had enormous mantis eyes, just like Astaroth and the ghost of Mabuse.

 

The Frankenstein parallel is obvious enough: God made Man from dust, and an alchemist that does the same thing with clay is cheating the celestial system. But the general idea of a golem turns up in many other interpretations. At any time in history, most any scientific discovery would be considered dangerous, and condemned as heretical for meddling with the status quo. In the 19th century it made perfect sense than many would think the invisible force of electricity to be a frightening, potentially uncontrollable magic. James Thurber wasn’t entirely joking when he wrote that an elderly relative was afraid that electricity would leak from the plugs, and do unpredictable mischief.

In the 20th century the obvious symbolic connection was made with atomic power. We may be able to coax the magic genie out of its bottle, but getting it back under control is not so easy. Add human envy and greed to that equation, and the result is usually havoc. The golem myth can be seen, updated, in ‘uncontrolled power’ stories like the Karel Capek’s Krakatit (1948), and it’s another classical allusion informing the ending of Kiss Me Deadly. In Disney’s Fantasia the Goethe- sourced segment The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a golem story but with the substitution of an army of animated brooms. The basic point remains the same — how can the sorcerer prevent the misuse of his magic powers, or control his creations when they that take on a life of their own?

I’m sure the connection wasn’t intentional, but in a completely trivial, consumerist vein, the mighty golem also found expression in a novelty character and song from a 1950 hit record. I guest that’s a WASP golem…

How about the other golem movies?  The many parallels between Paul Wegener’s influential classic and the Universal Frankenstein films are obvious enough. Paul Wegener’s interpretation of a hulking, lumbering, stiff-legged brute man, with limited equilibrium and dexterity, became the norm for most large humanoid monster-men. Karloff didn’t imitate Wegener’s motions, but Glenn Strange’s less humanized monster was more golem-like, as were most of the other screen Frankenstein monsters. The same goes for most monster-suited ‘things’ that weren’t supposed to be shape-shifted animals, like the amorphous Curse of the Faceless Man, who is simply a golem-mummy with an Etruscan back-story.

Two more official golem movies were made in the sound era, starting with Julien Duvivier’s 1936 Le Golem starring Harry Baur. Many of us have seen the not-very-satisfying 1967 It! with Roddy McDowall. It looks like a melted candle. More intriguingly designed is a 1952 Czech version called The Emperor’s Baker – The Baker’s Emperor Císaruv pekar – Pekaruv císar. In that Agfacolor comedy, the golem is sixteen feet tall, and only partly humanoid. Popular golem figurines sold in Prague appear to use the design of this 1952 version’s golem. ( → )

The 1920 The Golem is still the best. I wonder if the subject matter is suitable for a remake, or if the ethnic politics would get in the way. Perhaps the concept has already been appropriated so widely and so often that the best bet going forward would be more ‘golem-inspired’ transpositions. When I worked at Cannon Films in the 1980s, a project called The Golem was announced, supposedly to star Charles Bronson. The basic storyline reads like a re-hash of Death Wish adding a clay monster. I always thought that Bronson’s craggy face already looked like a Golem, but to play that role he would have had to be twice as big.


 

The Kino Classics Blu-ray of The Golem is so exciting, it makes me want to see any and all golem-like movies. The Murnau-Stiftung 4K restoration is a quantum improvement on the sad remnant copies I’ve seen before. It was pasted together from a variety of sources. Maybe 70 or 80 percent of the picture is from a beautiful original element that has crystal clarity and impressive detail, the equal of all those high-quality stills we remember from old film books. Apparently the original German version’s good negative was cut down to create the shorter American cut. Scenes and shots from other versions, not quite of the same quality, fill in to bring the continuity back to full original length. Where possible, original German artwork titles are present, with removable English subs to translate.

Every part of the movie is now more substantive, and scenes that were once shrunken, dark or contrasty in previous prints now make their proper impact. The ‘Astaroth’ scene now plays as an intact set-piece instead of a rudely truncated digest version.

A heavily tinted U.S. version is included as well, just for comparison. A twenty-minute side-by side video piece does the comparing for us, showing how two separate original negatives were assembled. Sometimes different takes were used, and other comparisons show a ‘B’ camera running to one side of the ‘A’ camera, capturing the exact same action. Tim Lucas’s commentary helps identify the important visual differences. The heavily tinted American version is so contrasty that a great deal of visual information is blotted out.

Tim’s full commentary on the German version is a good listen, as it’s packed with research tidbits and references to literary and mythological lore about the core Golem legend. Any doubt that Rabbi Löw is a necromancer is cleared up when Tim identifies Astaroth as one of three underworld rulers — Lucifer being one of the others.

Only now do I connect actor Ernst Deutsch (Fabulus) with one of the nefarious black marketers in Carol Reed’s The Third Man — he’s the one who greets Holly Martins holding a copy of one of his cowboy books. Actor Fritz Feld (Bringing Up Baby, Phantom of the Opera) has been identified as the Emperor’s jester. Leading lady Lyda Salmonova is not the expected slim ‘n’ slinky vamp, but a full-bodied woman, as was the fashion of the day. Ms. Salmonova was Paul Wegener’s wife, and played the love interest in more than a few of his films, including his early The Student of Prague and both previous Golem movies.

The fully-restored German version comes with three separate music scores, as noted below. The Golem now goes on the shelf of films set aside to show visitors … if and when the lockdown lifts and social screenings resume at CineSavant central.

Back in November, a Region B Masters of Cinema/Eureka disc was released in the U.K. with even more extras. Kino Classics’ disc is of course Region A, for domestic U.S. players.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Golem
Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: German release version carries three alternate music soundtracks: by Stephen Horne, Admir Shkurtai, and Lukasz ‘Wudec’ Poleszak’. Audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, who also comments on a 20-minute comparison of the German and U.S. release versions; the full U.S. release version, with music by Cordula Heth.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 2, 2020
(6260gole)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.