June 19, 1920
Henrik Galeen and Paul Wegener
Carl Boese and Paul Wegener
Paul Wegener as Der Golem
Albert Steinruck as Der Rabbi Low
Ernst Deutsch as Der Rabbi Famulus
In the 16th century, the Holy Roman Emperor sends out a decree banishing all Jews from their homes in the ghetto. In response to this threat to his people, Rabbi Low constructs a strongman out of clay and brings it to life with the help of the demon, Astaroth. Although, the primary purpose of Rabbi Low’s ‘golem’ is to protect his daughter, he utilizes it for menial chores, as well. When summoned before the emperor to present a demonstration of his magical prowess, Rabbi Low’s incantations lead to the collapse of the palace’s great hall. Only the mighty strength of the golem prevents the support beam from collapsing and thus saves the people inside. Yet, like the rest of the rabbi’s magic, the golem himself eventually runs amok, causing havoc and devastation.
Using the magical power of the pentagram, wearing pointed hats like wizards, summoning demons through incantations and casting spells to bring a monster to life are depicted as synonymous with Judaism in an absurd manner that would be laughable, if we forget the place of this film in history – post-Great War Germany. Since these national sentiments would ultimately lead to the Holocaust, watching anti-Semitic propaganda from this era, makes the film as disturbing to contemporaries as the appearance of the golem was frightening to audiences of the early 1920s.
The expressionist style adds to the dark and fearful atmosphere of The Golem. The streets are narrow. The rooms and buildings are tall with abrupt, steep angles – creating shadows that visually enhance the dark character of the plot and make relatively simple scenes somewhat scary. For example, the appearance of the demon Astaroth, although only a floating mask, becomes creepy amidst the arrangement of light and shadow. The grainy quality of the photography further augments the unnerving sensation, since it makes the film seem more historical than fictional and more believable if only because we understand its role in bringing about a hell on Earth for European Jews. The two surviving English language versions have tinted frames – providing some color variations from scene to scene – with more violent scenes depicted through a red frame. The tinting does little for the film, except provide some color variation.
Silent films have many delightful curiosities due to their close proximity to the birth of cinema. Actors were called players, since the troupe of a play was more similar to the cast of a film than other established forms of entertainment. Wegener also separated his scenes by ‘chapter’ (The Golem has five chapters). Yet, filmmakers, even in the twenties, were beginning to understand the advantages of motion picture over live performance. Crude tricks were employed to simulate effects. For example, lines were drawn on the actual film to simulate lightening. Then there’s the music… Purists would insist you listen to it, but the intended effect of a silent horror film seems better accomplished without it. There is already a necessary disjuncture between the movement of the players’ mouths and the dialogue frame, creating a somewhat unsettling effect independent of the content. The music does more to distract from this quality than enhance it. (Maybe find some creepy organ music on Pandora, or iTunes, to listen to while watching.)
Despite the unsettling aspects of The Golem, the chances of anyone being frightened after watching it are slim. The depiction of the Jews in the film is dark and disturbing enough, however, to make it a horror film. Furthermore, any Frankenstein fan owes themselves a viewing, if only to see how much content James Whale (director of the Universal classic) stole from Wegener when creating his monster a decade later. Indeed, the behavior of Frankenstein’s monster has more in common with the behavior of the Golem, than anything Mary Shelley ever imagined – right down to the golem’s interaction with a little girl.