This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series
Movie Review – The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)
While filming The Student of Prague (1913), Paul Wegener heard the 16th century legend of Rabbi Loew, who tradition says saved the Jews of Prague from persecution by creating a Golem – a clay statue infused with life – to protect them. Wegener became captivated by the story and made a film version inspired by it in 1915 called The Golem, and then in 1917 The Golem and the Dancing Girl, considered the first film sequel (if one does not count serials). Wegener was dissatisfied with the first film, which was set in a modern Germany in which a Golem is found and raised by an antiques dealer and goes on to commit murders before falling to its own demise from a tower, and also with the sequel which was more of a comical take on the legend. Unfortunately, both movies are lost, though a few minutes of footage from the first remain and serve to confirm Wegener’s feelings about it. Nevertheless, his 1915 performance appears to have affected viewers much in the way Boris Karloff would do sixteen years later. As one reviewer, Arnold Zweig, writes in a contemporary issue of the theater magazine Die Schaubühne, “What makes the film worth discussing is only Wegener’s embodiment of the Golem… In lyrical passages Wegener demonstrates possibilities of the film which transcend those of the theatre” (as quoted by S.S. Prawer in Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror).
In his 1916 lecture Wegener described his inspiration for the creature and what his first Golem film meant for his vision of the future of cinema:
“I got the idea for my Golem from the mysterious clay figure brought to life by the Rabbi Loew, according to the legend of the Prague ghetto, and with this film I went further [than The Student of Prague] into the domain of pure cinema. Everything depends on the image, on a certain vagueness of outline where the fantastic world of the past meets the world of today. I realized that the photographic technique was going to determine the destiny of the cinema. Light and darkness in the cinema play the same role as rhythm and cadence in music.”
In 1920 Wegener again returned to the legend, rounding out his horror trilogy (another first), with The Golem: How He Came into the World. As the title implies, this story establishes the origins of the creature, making it perhaps the first prequel, as well. In it Rabbi Loew reads danger in the stars for the Jews and soon he’s informed that the Christian Emperor has decreed that the Jews must be expelled from Prague. Loew creates a Golem, possessed by a demon, to help his people and brings it to the emperor’s court where he has been called to entertain, not so much to intimidate as to astound. As Loew shows them magical images of the Jewish patriarchs the court laughs and the palace begins to crumble, but the Golem is instructed by Loew to save them and does so, securing the promised safety of the Jewish people by the emperor, at least for the time being. The Rabbi returns to tell the good news, however, the Golem begins acting odd and Loew soon learns that the Golem is destined to turn on its creator and so decides to deactivate it by removing a star, the source of the Golem’s power, from its chest. However, another plot involving an illicit affair collides and the Golem is reactivated, causing havoc in the ghetto.
The Golem is a prime example of German Romantic cinema, though it’s often mistakenly classified as Expressionist. As Steve Haberman writes in Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film:
“Expressionism and Romanticism have much in common. Both emphasize emotion over intellect, and both conjure dreamscapes of the mind over objective reality. But Expressionism responds with despair over the lust, violence and hate of society, especially following the horrors of World War I. In cinema, this results, of course, in distorted sets and sharp, tortured camera angles, all lit with chiaroscuro shadows” (pg. 52).
The Golem is Romantic in nature because, though it is still stylized, it is meant to be a believable world, unlike the nightmarish landscapes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which resemble shards of broken glass. Expressionism seeks to evoke negative reactions from its audience – to shock and disturb them – while Romanticism seeks the general acceptance of its viewer, even if certain aspects of the film are exaggerated for artistic effect. Indeed, though Caligari deserves credit for influencing the genre to immeasurable degrees, it remains that the majority of silent German horror films which followed took their cues mainly from Wegener’s work.
Rather than embracing Expressionism, Wegener was most influenced, as were most of his fellow German filmmakers, by the experimental stage director Max Reinhardt. Reinhardt was a pioneer in the use of lighting on stage to evoke atmosphere and to signify scene changes, making the most of limited budgets and churning out productions at near lightning speed. Many of Reinhardt’s most successful innovations would be lovingly imitated by German silent film directors and production designers. The production designer which Wegener chose for The Golem was the revered architect Hans Poelzig, who in his lectures proclaimed that, “The effect of architecture is magical”. When Poelzig conjured images such as magic, he wasn’t just speaking figuratively. He was a student of the occult and an adherent of mysticism, hosted séances in his home for his medium daughter. In his notebook he wrote: “Film… the magic form… the form of magic… Devil’s Mass”. During his time working on The Golem he mentored a teenaged Edgar Ulmer who would go on to direct 1934’s The Black Cat, and Ulmer showed his appreciation by naming Karloff’s villainous character (who was also an architect and Satanic high priest) “Hjalmar Poelzig” in his honor. When Poelzig died in 1936 Wegener, in his eulogy, called him a “gothic mystic” (Haberman, pg. 45).
What Poelzig designed was indeed impressive. It did not resemble reality but still felt real and created a world unto itself. As Wegener boasted proudly in an interview, “It is not Prague that my friend, the architect Poelzig, has built. Not Prague and not any other city. Rather, it is a city-poem, a dream, an architectural paraphrase on the theme ‘Golem.’ These alleys and plazas are not intended to resemble reality; they create an atmosphere in which the Golem breathes” (Haberman, pg.45). The architecture of the Jewish ghetto of which Wegener speaks is made of leaning lines, as though the buildings have grown organically from the soil, like hovels, or have been crafted from clay like the creature. Many of the set pieces are massive and triangular, and I wonder if this was meant to evoke the Star of David which is featured heavily in the film.
The Golem’s birth scene is imaginative and memorable, and the difficulty of pulling off such effects at that time, which had to be accomplished in camera, is no doubt underappreciated by most modern viewers. The unblinking performance of Wegener, cinema’s first horror icon, as the Golem effectively evokes menace and inhumanity. His vision for the Golem had an undeniable influence upon James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), and many scenes here clearly inspired those in that later film. Unlike Karloff’s monster, the Golem is at first far less sympathetic, especially as it drags a young woman around by her long pigtails as though she were a plaything that has captured its curiosity. However, like Karloff’s monster, the Golem shows eventual signs of yearning for humanity, which ultimately proves its undoing.
All of this is filmed with the terrific lighting and cinematography of Karl Freund, a master of his craft, who would go on to film Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which many consider to be a defining masterwork of the silent era. In 1929 Freund immigrated to the United States and in 1931 he filmed Dracula for Tod Browning. However, the scheduling was so chaotic that Browning was sometimes absent, and therefore many consider Freund to be an uncredited co-director (ironically, there’s little cinematography to appreciate in that film). The following year Freund would sit in the director’s chair to helm The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff, and then again in 1935 for Mad Love, starring Peter Lorre. In 1937 he would briefly return to Germany to fetch his daughter as the Nazi pogroms began to protrude their claws. His ex-wife would be interred in Ravensbruck concentration camp during the war. (As an odd addendum to his career, given his horror credentials, Freund would be hugely influential in television as the cinematographer for I Love Lucy, designing the “flat lighting” system which eliminated shadows and allowed cameras to be moved between shots but the lighting to remain the same. It’s still the standard for TV sitcoms.)
The Golem was well-received upon its release, and when it arrived in the U.S. in 1921 American critics were once again forced to concede the superiority of the German offerings at that moment in time. A review from The New York Times sums up the sentiment:
“The black magic of the Middle Ages, sorcery, astrology and all of the superstitious realities of people so legendary in appearance and manners that the unnatural seems natural among them have been brought to screen… in The Golem, the last motion picture to come from the explorative innovators of Germany. The photoplay gives the impression of some fabulous old tale of strange people in a strange world, fascinating, exciting to the imagination and yet so unfamiliar in all of its aspects that it almost seems remote, elusive even, when one would like to get closer to its meaning… This power is derived mainly from a combination of exceptional acting and the most expressive settings yet seen in this country” (Haberman, pg. 47).
All of this is well and good and entirely deserving of praise, however, one cannot discuss The Golem, given its subject matter and the time and place in which it was made, without addressing the subject of anti-Semitism. Is the film anti-Semitic? Wegener would go on to become the actor of the state for Nazi Germany, making many propaganda films, so one might assume the answer is an obvious affirmative. The Jews in the film are depicted as the exotic “other” who dabble in black arts, and some stereotypes certainly make themselves shown, such as the camera locked onto the hands of a bribed Jewish gate-keeper, eagerly taking the silver coins being offered to him. Wegener clearly had no real understanding of Jewish religion, as the symbols and rituals which are shown have nothing to do with actual Judaism. The Jews in this film have about as much in common with real Jews as the “Injuns” of classic Western cinema have with real Native Americans. They’re stage Jews, meant to reflect the existing notions of the viewer. Furthermore, is the Golem meant to be evidence that Jews can only make flawed works of art? Perhaps.
Nevertheless, there’s more nuance here for which Wegener deserves credit. The Jews here are seen as the sympathetic party. We’re meant to feel their plight as they suffer in poverty. Their very safety is at the whim of a frivolous Christian emperor. Loew is well-intentioned and, though flawed, not at all a villain. He simply wants the best for his people. The Christians, on the other hand, are entirely depicted as self-centered, arrogant, and vain. When the Christian women of the court see the Golem, they are clearly sizing him up, if you catch my meaning. The anti-Semitism in the film is more by circumstance and perhaps Wegener’s own limited understanding than in anything intentional.
To further focus on Wegener and his intentions, and rather than present only the opinions only of this author – a white male American humanist of Christian upbringing – I offer a quote from a website offering rabbinic commentary on films called “Rabbi at the Movies”. It states, “Paul Wegener was no Nazi. He was an actor and a pacifist, interested only in telling his stories… [The film is] worth studying by the student of anti-Semitism, precisely because Wegener had no axe to grind: he was simply telling a good story, using images that he thought would captivate. What those images reveal about the hearts of his audience, however, may be truly chilling.”
Additionally, S.S. Prawer, whose family was among the last to flee the Nazis in 1939, has said this about the subject of the anti-Semitism of this era’s German cinema, and may very well help to support the claims above:
“Each age, each nation, incarnates the uncanny in a different way. It is fed by, and may be made to nourish, popular prejudices: sinister monks and nuns invade the Gothic novel in the wake of the Gordon Riots, sinister scientists appear in greater and greater numbers in the course of the nineteenth century, and the use made of grotesque Jewish figures in the consciously uncanny works of such writers as Meyrink, Ewers, Panizza, and Strobl should have given the wise food for thought.
The same might be said of the use of actors with pronounced Jewish features, or made up to simulate such features, in German films made during the Weimar Republic. There was rarely any conscious anti-Semitic intent in this… [Most often just copying what they saw] the film-makers were usually oblivious of what they were doing; but the subliminal influence of their work was none the less powerful for that” (Caligari’s Children, pg. 132).
I’ve been unable thus far to substantiate the claims, but I’ve read that Wegener secretly hid people from the Nazis, financed resistance groups, and scrawled anti-Hitler speech on walls. After the war he indeed helped to rebuild Berlin’s art scene. It’s of course difficult to know just what Wegener thought as he made The Golem, but it appears to me that he was perhaps accidently anti-Semitic in certain aspects of his storytelling, but considering what the film could have been it is remarkably and undeniably on the Jews’ side, perhaps for the last time in Germany until the fall of the Third Reich.