Director: Paul Wegener
Cast: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinruck, Ernst Deutsch
One of the most neglected and underutilized of all movie monsters has to be the golem. One of the few horror legends not bred from Christian ideologies, this creation from Jewish mythology has sadly seen very few film adaptions, despite a fascinating plot that predates and parallels Frankenstein. Paul Wegener, the great german actor, was fascinated with the legend of the clay statue that was brought to life by Rabbi Loew to protect the people of Prague. Taking inspiration from Gustav Meynrick's classic 1914 gothic novel, The Golem, as well as the old legends, he produced and starred in three adaptions from 1915 to 1920. Sadly, only one remains today in it's entirety. The Golem(1920) that exists is a film classic and one of the most important in the evolution of the horror film. It's also fascinating because it's actually the first prequel, considering that the 1915 version was set in modern times and involved the golem terrorizing Prague.
The plot revolves around the plight of the jewish city of Prague, and it's ensuing persecution by the Christian emperor, Emperor Luhois(Otto Gebuhr). Rabbi Loew(Albert Steinruck) predicts that destruction will fall upon his people, so he forms a clay man and conjures up spirits to help him bring the statue to life, with a sacred word implanted into a six sided star that is inserted into the creature's chest. The Golem(Paul Wegener) is a fearsome giant, but essentially noble, performing odd labor for the Rabbi, before appearing before the Emperor. The Rabbi is asked to perform magic tricks for his court, including showing visions from his people's history, which the nobles jeer and snicker at, only to have the castle brought down upon them. At the final moment, the Golem saves them all and the people of Prague are spared. However, the Golem has tasted emotion and desires to have his own life and grows hostile. The Rabbi removes the star from his chest and believes all is well. Unfortunately, the Rabbi's servant(Ernst Deutsch) becomes jealous over the attention that the Rabbi's daughter(Lyda Salmonovo) ais paying the Emperor's servant(Max Kronert) and he activates the Golem to drive him away.The Golem proceeds to kill the servant and begins a wave of destruction, setting fire to the ghetto and going on a rampage. In a poignant moment, the Golem encounters some children and picks one of the children up, who unknowingly, removes his lifeforce, saving the people of Prague from destruction.
The Golem is an absolutely extraordinary film. It's not as distorted and unreal like the other expressionist films of the time, relying more on the realm of fantasy and conveying a sense of period. The sest are wondrous as designed by Hans Polezig, architect of much of the bauhaus design later on, and a model for Boris Karloff's character in The Black Cat(1934). The dingy and twisted ancinet homes of Prague create a stark contrast with the opulent castle in which the Emperor resides, and that contrast helps the viewer understand the citizen's plight better.
The Golem is one of the more effects-laden and ambitious of the early German classics, particularly in the terrific and frightening vignette, when the spirits are conured up to give life to the Golem. What's fascinating with this scene is how little in common it has with future Frankenstein creation segments. The use of magic to reanimate the creature is fascinating and it would be intriguing if an adaption of the story would utilize this, considering the vagueness of the Shelley narrative. Most adaptions of that story would borrow from the James Whale 1931 version, which likewise was inspired from this. If the creation scene does not resemble the latter film, then the performance and depiction of the Golem certainly did.
Paul Wegener brings a perfect belend of menace and pathos as the clay giant. His subtle facial reactions as he experiences life, albeit briefly, make for the most memorable moments in the picture. The Golem's reaction at recieving a flower from Nosferatu's Greta Schroder, predates Karloff's Monster's similiar reaction in Frankenstein(1931). Of course, the ending with the little girl, which brings about his destruction, is also reminiscent of the later film, and it becomes clear how impactful this film really was. Monsters were largely depicted as broad villains at this time, with little subtlety or character depth. It was Wegener that brought humanity and complexity to the movie monster and for that we should all be grateful.
If anything can be taken from this film, it's Wegener's performance, which is sadly as neglected as his most famous character.
The Golem is a wonderful gothic fantasy, but has it's share of problems. It does not contain the pace of Murnau's Nosferatu(1922) or the sheer zaniness of design that made The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1919) so enjoyable. It will probably appear a much slower film to modern audiences, especially when Wegener is not on screen, but the feel for period and the atmosphere that is evoked is unequatable.
It took me years to track this one down, as it proved much rarer than films like Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera. I finally found it one evening on TCM when I was in Junior High, and absolutely loved it! I was always fond of the Frankenstein legend and had read several versions of the Golem growing up, so this was a treat. I now own the excellent Kino DVD and it's great to have this classic in my possession. Despite it's flaws, this is a horror essential and a wonderful addition to cinema's gallery of monsters. I placed this on my list of the top 100 horror films not just for it's impact, which it had plenty, but for it's uniqueness. I'm not really sure why this character has not been resurrected, because he's a great one. He's both noble and frightening, sympathetic and fierce, all qualities that make a great horror character, and that's just what the Golem is.