The Golem (1920)
This German feature film directed by Paul Wegener enters our History of Horror among the first movies modern fans easily recognize as “really” a horror movie. But its place in history remains disputed, with many possible interpretations available, so let’s take a closer look.
The movie begins with a shot of a starry sky above gnarled rooftops, with seven stars in a strange over-lapping configuration. We cut to an old man atop one of those rooftops, peering through a telescope and learn in an intetitle that he is Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), and that he sees bad days ahead for the Jews of Prague in the stars. Close-ups then introduce us to his household – an assistant named Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) and a daughter named Miriam (Lyda Salmonova, in reality the wife of Wegener). These two are both young adults, and they gently flirt as they assist on some alchemical experiment or other. Rabbi Loew interrupts to tell them of his prophecy, then he puts on a tall peaked hat and goes out to inform the other elders of the Ghetto. He advises them to begin a 24-hour vigil of prayer to avert coming disaster. Since he’s a respected rabbi, the community elders follow is advice.
Apparently it’s not enough, however, because we see the stars in the sky again, followed by an insert showing a “Decree Against the Jews,” issued by the emperor. It demands that all Jews leave the city of Prague before the New Moon. This is followed by the image of the emperor in his court, signing the declaration and assigning a dandyish young knight named Florian (Lothar Mütel) to deliver it to the Ghetto. His trip to the Ghetto is intercut with Rabbi Loew poring over documents that show him how to create a Golem out of a large clay figure and beginning this process in a secret room in his house. Florian seems to have no idea what is in the decree he is delivering, and to be easily distracted by the charms of Miriam, but the Rabbi begs him to ask the Emperor for an audience, and he agrees, perhaps because returning with the Emperor’s reply will give him another chance to see Miriam, who seems quite interested in him as well.
The next chapter now begins by showing us the face of the Golem (director Paul Wegener) with a super-imposed Star of David, and the Rabbi Loew announces that the stars are right for the spell to bring it to life. It’s heavy though, so accordingly he summons his servant to help carry it and then witness the spell, which involves drawing a circle of protection on the floor and invoking the spirit of Astaroth in order to learn the secret word that brings life to the inanimate clay. While they are doing this in the attic, Florian has returned with the Emperor’s positive reply, and he and Miriam spend time holding one another in the foyer. When Loew finally reads it, he finds that the message tells him he has been invited to attend the Rose Festival and put on a magic show. He sends Florian off with a smile, but warns Miriam that she will soon have a “guardian” to protect her from the likes of Florian.
The next day, the Rabbi has a “strange servant” (the Golem) chopping wood for him in front of his house, drawing stares from the neighbors, and Famulus has him go to the market, where he terrifies the shopkeeper and his wife, until they perceive that he has brought a shopping list for the Rabbi. The Golem, who has only just come to life after all, shows a certain amount of child-like wonder at the city, and he attracts hordes of children following him in the streets. Famulus also tries to have him run the bellows for the stove, but the Golem’s great strength causes the flames to leap dangerously high, and the Rabbi has to put a stop to it.
Rabbi Loew takes the Golem with him to the castle, and the servants and guards are once again intimidated by his hulking bulk, though the Emperor and his court are, like the children, fascinated. Florian, realizing that no one will miss him and that the Rabbi will be out, rushes over to the Ghetto to see Miriam while the festival proceeds. The Emperor asks Loew to do some tricks for his guests, and he uses magic to evoke images from the history of the Jews. He warns the crowd not to speak or laugh, but of course the court jester has to make fun of Ahasuerus, or the Wandering Jew. This causes the ceiling to begin collapsing, and the crowd panics as it looks like everyone will be crushed, but Rabbi Loew orders the Golem to hold up a pillar, averting the disaster. In thanks for saving his life, the Emperor orders that the Jews may remain in their homes. The Rabbi Loew returns home with his servant, who seems to be becoming taciturn. He realizes that the Golem will inevitably rebel against its master, and decides that it should remain deactivated, since its job is now complete.
Meanwhile, Miriam and Florian have spent the whole night in her room together, and he can’t get out without being seen. She tries to hide him, but the whole Ghetto is being called to temple to give thanks for their salvation. Of course, Famulus, wants to go to temple with Miriam, but she doesn’t dare open the door to him. He listens at the door and hears the lovers talking, which fires his jealousy. He awakens the Golem and orders it to break down the door and remove the intruder. The Golem is now happy to perform its task destructively and smashes through the door, pursues Florian and hurls him from the roof, then grabs Miriam by the hair and starts destroying the house, setting fire with the bellows and running amok. Famulus runs to the temple to get help, but soon the whole Ghetto is ablaze and Rabbi Loew has to help with fire fighting and crowd control, while the Golem escapes unseen.
The Golem exits the Ghetto, breaking through the gate to find a group of children playing on the streets. The children run in terror, but the Golem seems to have spent its destructive force. It approaches the one child who remains, the smallest one of all, who is perhaps too innocent to be afraid. It picks her up and she seems delighted. Playing with her new friend, she removes the star from its chest, which holds the parchment on which the secret word of Astaroth is written, and suddenly it is a clay statue again, and falls over, inanimate. The child crawls away and the Jews find the Golem’s body, giving thanks once again for their salvation.
It may seem illogical for me to discuss this movie first, before “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the Expressionist horror film that came out earlier in 1920 and is generally seen as starting the trend for Expressionism in Germany that this movie is a part of. There were several reasons for my choice, not least is that I’ve been trying to show in this blog that “Caligari” may not have been truly the first Expressionist film, depending how we define that. Take a look at “Homunculus” for one example. In this instance, this movie is actually the third time its writer/director/star, Paul Wegener, had returned to the theme. His first “Golem” movie came out in 1915 and it was followed in 1917 with a sequel “The Golem and the Dancing Girl.” Both of these movies are lost, so we only have this one to judge the series by. It is a prequel (or perhaps a reboot of the concept), based on the medieval story that had intrigued him in the first place.
I’ve only seen a couple of stills from the earlier films, so I don’t know whether they had an Expressionist look or not, but I would say that “The Golem” has a very distinctive Expressionist style, which doesn’t seem to me directly derivative of “Caligari.” Where “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is all sharp angles and bursts of paint, this movie’s production design has a much more organic, dare I say feminine look (indeed, some of the arches and doorways remind me of female genitalia). The city in “Caligari” in bizarre and irrational, while the Ghetto in “The Golem” is more like the dream-version of a real medieval inner city. Peaked roofs reach across to one another, windows follow the contours of slanted walls, and trap doors and secret chambers abound, but the style seems ancient, not modernistic.
The film making however, is decidedly up to date. Close-ups are frequently used and even open many scenes without an establishing shot to tell us where people are in relation to one another. The camera moves, sometimes drawing back from a subject to reveal their environment. Scenes are edited together to show simultaneity and to keep the audience’s interest, rather than completing a scene before moving on to the next. Cinematographer Karl Freund would go on to be important to horror cinema, as the cameraman for “Dracula” and the director of “The Mummy” and “Mad Love.” He may have been assisted on this movie by Edgar G. Ulmer, who would direct Lugosi and Karloff together in “The Black Cat.” Wegener’s co-writer, Henrik Galeen, would later work on “Nosferatu” for Murnau and “Waxworks” for Paul Leni. For horror fans, then, this is a powerhouse of a movie.
In that sense, this movie is frequently cited as a “precursor” to “Frankenstein” and its sequels. The relevance is obvious – a man is created by artificial means and proves to have great strength and power and ultimately runs amok out of the control of its creator. The story that Wegener based this and his other Golem movies on seems to have arisen in German folklore about the same time or shortly after Mary Shelley’s book, and quite a number of early German movies, including “Homunculus” and “The Student of Prague” involve beings whose origins are unnatural in some way and who take on their own identities apart from that intended by their creators. Even Cesare, in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” is a kind of powerful slave who revolts against his master, although it’s never suggested that he was built or made by Caligari. In short, these ideas were in the air, and “The Golem” is only one variation on the theme.
I think what struck me most when I first saw this movie is that it is told sympathetically from the point of view of the Jews living in a Ghetto and facing persecution. Anti-Semitism was long established in Germany, of course, and at the time of this movie Hitler was already politically active in Munich and the Nazi Party was slowly starting to make its presence felt elsewhere as well. I fear however that many anti-Semites may have been able to watch this movie without having their core beliefs deeply challenged. After all, Rabbi Loew uses black magic to achieve his goals, consorting with a demon to complete his spell, and resorts to blackmail to get the Emperor to withdraw his decree. I don’t know that Wegener intended this as an attack on Jews, but it’s noteworthy that, unlike Freund, Galeen, and Ulmer, among others, he was one of the filmmakers who did not leave Germany when Hitler came to power, and he continued to work, sometimes in propaganda films, unsupported claims about his contributing to a barely-existent “resistance” aside. Still, in 1920 it would seem to me that his intention wasn’t to make anti-Semitic propaganda so much as to tell a thrilling supernatural story, and the Jews were exotic enough to him to be a likely locus for such a tale. For modern viewers, medieval Prague is at least as exotic by itself, and the movie remains among the most well-known of the silent era, over 100 years after its release.
Director: Paul Wegener, Carl Boese
Camera: Karl Freund, Guido Seeber
Starring: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch, Lothar Müthel, Otto Gebühr, Max Kronert
Run Time: 80 Min (although supposedly originally 117 Min).
You can watch it for free: here.