The Golem (1920)
the golem | carl boese | paul wegener | henrik galeen | albert steinruck | ernst deutsch | religion | silent film | monster | creature | fantasy | germany | german expressionism | lyda salmonova | hans sturm | max kronert | otto bebuhr | dore paetzold | lothar muthel
Film: The Golem (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam)
Director: Carl Boese and Paul Wegener
Writer: Henrik Galeen and Paul Wegener
Starring: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück and Ernst Deutsch
This was a movie that I heard about while I was a freshman in college. My Intro to World Cinema class had required reading and this was featured in an early chapter along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. I had always wanted to check it out, but it took awhile and it was due to my podcast that I finally did. The synopsis is in 16th-century Prague, a rabbi creates the Golem (Paul Wegener) – a giant creature made of clay. Using sorcery, he brings the creature to life in order to protect the Jews from persecution.
We start this movie off with Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) as he’s checking the stars. There’s an interesting grouping of them that he reads will bring calamity down on his people. He realizes that he has to do something to prevent this and goes about creating a Golem. This is a creature that is made from clay and will do whatever it is ordered. Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) assists in the Rabbi in the creation of this entity.
They then receive bad news that Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebühr) is forcing them to leave their ghetto in one month. In part is due to their ability to do black magic. The news is delivered to them through Knight Florian (Dore Paetzold), who becomes enamored with Rabbi Loew’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova). Rabbi Loew sends a reply back, begging for an audience for things that he did for them in a time of need. This is granted.
Rabbi Loew then performs a black magic spell that grants him the word that is needed to bring the Golem to life. The creature is commanded to do different tasks for Rabbi Loew. They soon realize though that the monster is a bit unruly, but Rabbi Loew elects to bring it with him on his audience with the emperor. Will it be enough to change his mind? Or is the ruin the stars foretold have to do with what Rabbi Loew created?
Now I will say that I found this to be an interesting film here. It is a bit racist from my point of view with the Jewish people and their faith. Being that it is made in Germany kind of explains that, especially with how Adolf Hitler rose to power and the propaganda that was used against the Jews aiding in that.
That’s actually where I want to start. I like that this movie is using what seems to be legitimate Jewish religion and history here. From the information I can find, this is lore from their culture. It is interesting that I just watched To the Devil a Daughter before seeing this as both movies share the name of the same demon, Astaroth. I find it interesting that these Jews in Prague are being cast out for practicing black magic. The fears are founded as that is how they bring this creature to life. The problem I have though is that in just 13 years after this movie, Hitler took power. It is hard to say that this movie predicted it, but I can imagine after World War I, the sentiment to partially blame them was probably already there. It is also casting them as the villains for bad things happening. It is an eerily similar thing.
What I did really like though were the characters here. I almost see a bit of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ in this movie. Rabbi Loew believes that he has read in the stars that something bad is going to happen to his people. They’re then told they have to leave their ghetto. The events that play out in the city though could almost be the ruin that he is foretelling as well. If he doesn’t create this monster, I don’t think a lot of the events then happen. And that also moves me next to what I wanted to cover as well, which I’ll lump in with the performances.
Wegener does really well as the Golem here. He has some pretty imposing size and I like the make-up to make his face look like clay. This is a black and white film of course, but with the restoration I saw, it looks good. Steinrück is solid as well. I’ve covered what he does previously, but I think he really drives his movie as the rabbi that is trying to save his people while possible misreading the stars. Salmonova as Miriam is interesting. She is secretly seeing Florian, who brought the bad news. I think this is forbidden as he is not of her faith and she needs to marry another Jew, especially being a rabbi’s daughter. Looking at it for when this is taking place, because a modern take is this falls into misogyny and she can see whomever she wants. Deutsch plays along in this with what he does and the problems he causes. I thought that him and the rest of the cast were fine and rounded this out as needed.
Even though I thought the story had some interesting aspects to it, including learning more about the lore from the religious side, I did find this to be a bit boring. It is interesting though as the version I saw only ran 76 minutes. At some point I do want to pick up the 101 minute length one to see what I could have missed. I liked seeing the build up, but after that I did lose interest a bit with how things played out. I did like what is done with the creature though for sure.
Moving this to the effects, I was really shocked with how good they were to be honest. The look of the monster I’ve already touched on, but there’s a scene where a ritual is performed and the face of Astaroth appears. On top of that there’s another cool scene at the emperor’s palace as well. We get the changing of filters to signify day, night and being inside so props to the cinematography there. It is early cinema, but what they did here worked.
The last thing to cover would be the soundtrack which I really liked the version I saw. It is really a classic score, but it fit for what was needed. I even liked that there were some sound effects that matched the screen. It really does build up the feel of the scene, which is good when you’re dealing with a silent film and cannot hear the actors. Again, I don’t know if this is the version that actually goes with it or not, but what was paired I was a fan of.
Now with that said, I’m glad that I finally got around to seeing this movie. It has legit been on my list of movies to check out for 15 years. I liked the mythology that we get with Jewish faith, but I do slightly find it problematic with the portrayal as almost evil. I thought the acting was fine and the effects were really good, even for the time period. The look of the creature I also enjoyed and the soundtrack that was coupled with the version I saw worked. If I did have a problem, I thought it gets boring after the build up, but I still enjoyed it regardless. I would rate this as really good overall. I do want to seek out the longer version to see how that affects my thoughts for sure. I will warn you though, this is originally from Germany as well as being a silent film. There are title cards. I do know on Amazon Prime there’s a ‘talking version’ that was a bit odd. I might eventually give that one a go, but I watched the more traditional version for my first viewing.
My Rating: 8.5 out of 10