The Golem (1920)

One, two, three.  *CRUNCH*  Three.

I have a bin in my kitchen for recycling.  About half of the garbage at my house is recycled.  Yeah, I’m good, but not Hollywood good.  Hollywood recycles everything.  Did you know that there are eleven movies featuring Jason Vorhees?  There are ten films with Michael Myers and something like ten more with Freddy Kreuger.  When all that business ran out of steam, they shoved Jason and Freddy together in one movie.  That’s some serious recycling.  Some out there might attribute that sort of churning to a shocking lack of creativity in Tinsel Town, or chock it up to the audience merely getting what they want.   While both of these are true to a point, there is also a less obvious reason: tradition.  Tra-dit-ion!  Sing it, Tevye!

Hollywood has been spinning hits into sequels almost since the beginning of the industry over a century ago.  The horror genre, a genre that likely has more remakes and sequels than any other, was cranking out the sequels even before the genre itself really began to take shape.  One of the earliest examples of a sequel that I know of, and likely the first horror series, kicks off in 1914 with Der Golem, which was followed in 1917 with The Golem and the Dancing Girl and finally a prequel, The Golem: How He came into the World in 1920.  The first two are lost, with only a few scenes of 1914 original film remaining.  The final film, The Golem: How He came into the World, was restored by Cineteca del Comune di Bologna at the laboratories of L’Immagine Ritovata and is available through Kino.  Nice!

It’s medieval Europe and it’s far from being like the Renaissance fair that comes here every spring, where everyone banters lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and there are hippies selling unicorn shirts.   Life is rather dicey, especially if you’re a Jew.  All is not well in the Jewish ghetto in Prague. The  Emperor, playing politics, is planning a little Jew bashing to satisfy the “values voters” back home.  Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), consulting with the stars, sees that something bad is going to happen to the Jews of Prague and decides to build a Golem, an invulnerable creature made of clay with superhuman strength.  To do this, he must conjure the demon Astaroth and force him to give up the Word of Life which will animate the Golem (Paul Wegener).  This bit of conjuring is still an entertaining and effective bit of special effects. The face of Astaroth first appears in the smoke of the flaming circle that surrounds Rabbi Loew and Famulus, his assistant, and it is easy to imagine an audience in 1920 getting a case of the screaming heebie-jeebies from watching this scene in a dark theater.

Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) has the hots for the old Rabbi’s daughter, Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) and her Crystal Gayle length braids. If you don’t get the Crystal Gayle reference, go ask your mommy or daddy or look her up on Google.  I’ll wait.

*Elevator music*

Okay!  Now we’re all on the same page.  You can see how she might distract a young rabbinical appetence.  Every time Miriam was on the screen I though, “Wow!  Her hair is really long,” and “She looks a bit  like Maggie Gyllenhaal, only less weird.”  Miriam, unfortunately for Famulus, is more interested in pursuing her secret love affair with Florian (Lothar Müthel), a knight of the Emperor’s court and the prettiest boy in Prague.  Seriously, the guy runs around in tights, trying to scare lords and ladies’ alike with his man-bulge, leering at the girls and just generally coming off as a great big creep.  Isn’t that always the way?  She goes for the creep and the long suffering “nice boy” is gonna get the Yiddish version of the “just friends” talk.

Rabbi Loew and Famulus, make an amulet with the Word of Life embedded within, placing it on the Golem they have fashioned.  It comes to life.  Famulus takes the Golem around the neighborhood to introduce it to everyone in the ghetto, who are understandably excited.  It’s a big clay monster-man and it’s walking through town!  If that happened here, I wouldn’t be to stop talking about it.  Rabbi Loew is naturally rather chuffed at all the “ooohs and aaahs” from the locals, and decides to take his Golem to court and see what impression it’ll make on the Emperor.

You gotta believe we are magic.

Loew and the Golem arrive at court and all the lords and ladies are totally impressed.  Golems are totally amazing, especially compared to the puppet shows and lame medieval dancing that normally passes of entertainment in the palace.  The Emperor, impressed, asks to see more of the Rabbi’s mystical powers.  Rabbi Loew says that he’d be happy to comply on the condition that no one speaks or laughs during the magic or something bad might happen.  The Emperor agrees. The Rabbi conjurers up visions of the patriarchs of the Jews, so that the assembled aristocrats and the Emperor will have a greater understanding of the Jewish people.  We see a vision of the Exodus.  The jester, leaning over the Empress’s should makes a joke, presumably something along the lines of “Why did the Jews wander the wilderness for forty years?  Somebody dropped a penny. Ha-ha-ha.” Meh.  The jokes bring down the house as well as bringing down the wrath of Jehovah, who in turn brings down the house – literally.  The Rabbi, the Emperor, his missus and whole lot of goyim courtiers are saved from death by the Golem, who uses its incredible strength to support the collapsed roof, preventing it from crushing everyone.  The Emperor is so pleased to be alive that he forgives the Jews for being Jews, promising not to screw them over, for a little while at least.

Rabbi Loew and the Golem return to the ghetto with the good news – no pogram this year!  Happy days are here, indeed.  All the Jews in the ghetto decide to head to the temple to give thanks and after that, go out for Chinese food or something.  Rabbi Loew, notices that the Golem is starting to act a little sketchy and willful and removes the amulet containing the Word of Life, turning the Golem into nothing more than a clay statue.   Rabbi Loew goes to join the others in the temple.

Famulus, goes to get Miriam, wanting to escort her to the temple.  This  is bad timing for her as she has her bed buddy, the super creepy Florian, hidden in her room.  Famulus, banging at her bedroom door, figures out that what’s going on and runs downstairs, reanimates the Golem sending it upstairs to do his bidding.  Golem mayhem ensues, complete with Florian turning piss yellow and trying to escape only to be rendered, briefly airborne by the angry Golem.  This was a great kill, inaugurating a tradition that will become a horror movie staple: the monster kills the creepy dirtbag.  The audience probably cheered.  I did.

The Golem turns on Famulus, chasing him from the house, before setting it on fire and dragging Miriam into the street by her long braids! Sure, those flowing locks are fetching, but they also provide a convenient handle to get road-hauled medieval-style.   What makes this even more awesome is that Paul Wegener and Lyda Salmonova were married – twice.  She was Wegener’s third and sixth wife out six marriages.  After the third trip to the altar I imagine that reciting  the “until death do you part” section of the marriage vows with a straight face was some Wegener’s best acting.

Tired of dragging the unconscious Miriam by her hair, the Golem sets her on a pile or hay or something and heads to the gateway out of the ghetto, smashing the massive doors open then stepping though passage out into an open area where some children are playing.  All the girls but one scatter.  The Golem walks up to her staring down at the tiny girl, who looks up at it with wonder.  As the Golem picks her up, she reaches out and takes the amulet, rendering him lifeless.  Meanwhile, Miriam and Famulus have a talk.  As he holds her in his arms, he explains that as the Rabbi’s house and Florian’s body have both been burned up in the fire, he’s not going to say anything about her trampy behavior.  The Rabbi and a group of men from the ghetto go looking for the rampaging Golem and find it laying motionless outside the gate with a gaggle of little girls sitting on it like a golem-shaped park bench.  Startled by the appearance of the Rabbi and his men, the girls again scatter.  The Jews thank Jehovah and carry the lifeless Golem back into the ghetto, closing the gate behind them.

Better flowers than a jagged little pill

Trying to put The Golem into some sort of context is a little problematic for even a literate modern audience.  The Golem was made on the heels of Germany’s catastrophic loss in World War One, which left Europe scarred in way that modern Americans can only begin to imagine. After the war there was a wave of antisemitic feeling that washed over Europe along with the political fallout from the collapse of the old monarchies.  The Golem explores the issue of antisemitism, a hot button political issue, without making clear value judgments as far as I can tell.   I’ve read arguments that this movie is antisemitic and I’ve also read arguments arguing the opposite.  The Golem seems open to interpretation, much like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which has been described as a allegory for both the dangers of communism and the stifling conformity and anti-communist hysteria of its time.   Jack Finney, the author of the story on which the Body Snatcher films were based was just trying to write a creepy story.  I suspect that Paul Wegener, like Jack Finney, just wanted to tell a good story and  made this film mostly because he really loved the Golem character, rather than out of pushing any specific political agenda. Though the issue of free will does come up.  One of the undercurrents of the movie is that the Golem clearly envies humanity, though it regards them as fragile and weak.  This longing and jealousy plays out in the conflicting actions and behavior such as the Golem’s increasing independence from rabbinical control, its curiosity regarding the children playing outside the gate, the killing of Florian and the dragging of Miriam from the fire by her hair.

In the end, the only thing I can say with certainty is that everyone in the story is punished in some way:  the Golem loses its life for wanting to go beyond it’ place in the world, the Rabbi loses his home for daring to harness forces that are not his to command, Miriam is dragged by her hair as a result of her indiscretion, the Emperor’s palace is destroyed for his lack of respect, Florian get chucked from the highest tower in the ghetto because he is a scumbag and Famulus is exposed to Miriam as a coward.

The acting in The Golem is of its own time, stagey and pantomime, owing largely to the nature of silent film, but not hammy or bad.  Paul Wegener is best known for his performance as the Golem, a character of immense power which Wegener communicates through skillful body language.  The Golem make-up, costuming and special effects are impressive for their time.  The sets are amazing.  Hans Poelzig’s Jewish ghetto was built with filming in mind, creating a fantastical world for the Golem to stomp and for cinematographer Karl Freund’s camera to roam.  Freund will later go on to work for Fritz Lang on Metropolis and Tod Browning on Dracula creating in those films along with The Golem, the bedrock imagery on which the horror and science fiction genres are built.

Does The Golem: How He came into the World hold up for modern audiences?  For movie nerds or hardcore horror fans with an interest in the genre’s history it’s a definite must see.  Casual film fans will probably find The Golem slow and dated.  My own feeling is that The Golem is as entertaining and watchable as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu.  It gets four and a half Vincents for being a bedrock of the genre that is watchable even though it’s ninety-years-old.  In the context of its time, it’s a nearly perfect movie.

Paul Wegener
Lyda Salmonova
Ernst Deutsch
Albert Steinrück
Lothar Müthel

Carl Boese
Paul Wegener

Henrik Galeen
Paul Wegener

Four and a half of five Vincents

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