THE GOLEM (1920), originally titled THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam), has an interesting cultural lineage, at least in regards to the lovely DVD put out by Kino Lorber. Introductory texts to the film report that the majority of the footage in Kino’s release was provided by a print from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, originally sent to the U.S. from the film’s German production company, UFA. Additional footage and intertitles were preserved in Moscow. The tinted frames that Kino retains are based on the coloring of an Italian copy from Milan. The fact that a film such as THE GOLEM should even be made in the time and place that it was–Germany, at the dawn of the Twenties when the country’s fascism and anti-Semitism was gaining prominence–is interesting alone, but that the present, official release of the film should sew together remnants from countries that would play such vital roles in the Second World War can’t help but make this picture, co-directed by star Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, strike a wider, global chord with its folkloric charm and truth, further cementing the notion that though our politics may divide us, our art will always bind us.
The story, co-scripted by Wegener and Henrik Galeen (author of other revered classics of German Expressionism NOSFERATU and WAXWORKS), retells the legend of Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück), a revered man within the Jewish ghetto that he and the rest of his people are ordained to occupy under the hard rule of Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebühr). When the Emperor decrees that all of the Jews must vacate their humble premises for committing that most odious of historical mistakes–practicing the wrong religion–Löw realizes that reasoning will not be able to convince the royal head of their worth and decides to use a little strong-arming in the form of an imposing man of clay, the Golem (Wegener), to protect the Chosen People from their persecutors. In a showcase of flaming rings and dancing fireballs, Löw calls forth the ghastly visage of the god Astaroth to provide the life-giving word for his creation. The clay man is given animation and is soon performing menial tasks for the rabbi under the guise of a house servant. Löw and his creation are able to sway the Emperor to lift the edict after the ruler and his royal subjects are nearly crushed under the weight of their own prosperity when they are divinely punished for laughing at Löw’s conjured vision of the Wandering Jew. But when Löw’s fellow Rabbi Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) uses the golem to punish Löw’s daughter for copulating with a cocky knight, the clay creation becomes maddened by his evil influence.
These “Pictures Based on Events in an Old Chronicle” are wonderfully framed by cameraman Karl Freund, later to lens some of Universal Studios’ most famous chillers (DRACULA, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE) and helm his own classics (MAD LOVE, THE MUMMY) after his move to America. The heads of the rabbis bent in prayer under the welcoming arms of the temple menorah is an especially harmonious visual. Fans of Hollywood’s first “House of Horrors” will recognize another familiar name in the credits in the listing of Hans Poelzig, the noted German architect who designed the twisting sets for this film. His name was later to resurface as the moniker of Boris Karloff’s feline-evil Hjalmar Poelzig in THE BLACK CAT (1934). BLACK CAT director Edgar G. Ulmer reportedly worked in the art department for THE GOLEM as a “silhouette cutter,” thus providing the final link in this dark heritage. (As a matter of fact, a black kitty can be seen slinking along a rooftop fairly early in the film, acting as both omen for the Hebrews’ turmoil within the film and prophecy for the creative artists without.) Poelzig’s sets are justifiably lauded; the building-tops in the ghetto look like the fungusy crags of some far-flung planet set against the glowing night stars.
The opportunity that silent cinema offers the willing and attentive viewer is one of complete concentration and focus. We need not worry about the distracting noise of spoken dialogue and incidental noise. Our eyes become more engaged with the moving images, and thus allow us to become more attuned to their artistry. The music, though at times prominent, is more like a delicate augmentation, guiding our feelings and impressions of the film rather than being used as just another sound effect. The tinting used in silent films is also paramount. Though some cineastes may pine for the purity of monochrome photography, color tinting offers more emotional impact; at times it literally colors our perception of a scene. The Frankenstein-green shades give Löw’s chambers a more arcane luster, and the changing of the ghetto’s streets from pale-copper to a fierce scarlet when the Golem sets fire to his master’s house is an inspired touch.
I could really go on for some length more about this film, but I would prefer to pass it along into the hands of the next eager viewer to mold with their own impressions and find whatever knowledge and beauty that they may.