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The Golem (1920)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE GOLEM (1920)

Starring: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinruck, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch, Hans Sturm

Written By: Henrik Galeen, Paul Wegener Directed By: Carl Boese, Paul Wegener

The Short Version

Ancient Jewish proto-horror, anyone?

The early cinema gets a classic that presages another (soon to be more famous) monster.

The visuals are beautifully rendered, and the Golem himself is a marvel of the time.

Pantomime outweighs placards in telling this tale; cinephiles will likely not mind when it starts to feel long.

The Golem is a required stop on the tour for any (very) old school movie lover.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Good stuff that goes beyond the norm.

Pairs Well With...


Earthy goodness.  Mazel tov!

“Who can reveal the word?”

Before the story of “Frankenstein,” there was the legend of the Golem, and before the talking picture of Frankenstein, there was a silent picture of The Golem.

The Golem tells the tale of a Rabbi-cum-sorcerer who calls upon a volatile supernatural power to breathe life into a clay humanoid monster – a Golem – in order to save his community from a pogrom declared by the reigning Emperor.  (“All Jews must leave the ghetto because they killed Christ” and other such unfortunately all-too-familiar racist garbage.)  Of course, any modern audience knows what happens when humans mess with creating their own monsters, but desperate times call for desperate measures, right?  And besides, it’s only a gigantic, unkillable earth-man empowered with extreme strength by the essence of a spirit/demon; what could possibly go wrong?

Yeah; I think we all have a pretty good idea where this one goes, don’t we?  But it is, after all, the quality of the journey that makes it all worthwhile, and though far from perfect, The Golem does make for one incredibly fascinating trip.

The full title of The Golem is actually The Golem: How He Came Into the World, and there’s a half hearted rumor amongst film history aficionados that it may in fact be the oldest motion picture prequel ever, following up an extremely early film from 1915 whose full title is supposed to be simply The Golem.  However, there’s no compelling evidence that the earlier picture ever existed, and any direct references to it invariably lead to a cut of this film from 1920.  Whatever the truth of its origins, to any modern audience, The Golem: How He Came Into the World (referred to henceforth by the colloquially accepted title of The Golem) is a standalone film, and that’s all it needs to be.

The comparisons to Frankenstein are all but unavoidable; indeed, the savvy viewer can watch The Golem and easily pick up analogs to scenes from James Whale’s classic of eleven years later (with an additional evolutionary stop at in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in between) throughout.  But this monster is no knock off of Mary Shelley; rather, it is a product of ancient Jewish mystical lore, and a fascinating one at that, though one can easily question just how much of that lore the filmmakers truly understood.  (More on that later.)  It is a cautionary piece with the bones of a fairy tale; a morality play with surprisingly modern moments and an amazing avoidance of the preaching that characterizes so many early motion pictures.   Sure, one could fly through the plot, call it simple (which it is), and be done with it, but to do so would deny the rich detail that has been poured into this film.

The Golem is presented in not three but rather five acts, and employs a storytelling method that is even more dependent on pantomime than the standard silent film, often going for long stretches without an explanatory title card to spell things out, inviting the viewer deep into the picture to grasp the essence of the story for him or herself.  For some audiences, this might be frustrating, but I for one very much appreciate the limited hand holding approach that lets me interpret the details for myself while the title cards only provide the most essential points.  That approach also forces the viewer to pay closer to the actors, whose pantomime, while expressive, isn’t quite the overzealous shadow of Vaudeville that is oh so common to the silent era.  There’s subtlety and nuance there that enrich the characters just as much if not more than any spoken words ever could, especially from Lyda Salmonova, playing the Rabbi’s daughter, Miriam, and Paul Wegener, the writer-director who also happens to play the Golem.

Remembering that this is a relic of the very earliest days of cinema, the makeup and costuming for the Golem are outstanding.  The artists behind the monster do a marvelous job of creating a creature that looks like a clay sculpture of a man without the performer beneath the greasepaint and heavily stiffened clothes in turn looking ridiculous.  It’s not difficult at all to believe that this is a sculpture brought to life by supernatural forces, and once the hurdle of believability with regard to the makeup effects is crossed, the audience is free to appreciate the brilliantly stutter-stop expressiveness that Paul Wegener brings to the table.  His motions are stiff like one would expect of clay, but with a fluidity that communicates a definite aura of great strength.  And those facial expressions… when a child gives him a flower, when the moment comes for him to anger, when he matter-of-factly proves his inhuman strength…  The Golem lives or dies as a film with the success or failure of its title character, and there can be no denying that the Golem character is very effective indeed.

But there’s more to The Golem than just its leading monster.  There is also a story which, though built on a basic frame, contains some “flavor details” that may seem shockingly modern to a viewer from nearly a century on.  For example, not only does Miriam pursue a forbidden romance with a Christian solider – long before the days of “Fiddler on the Roof” – but the couple is actually shown together in bed, having obviously enjoyed each other’s sexual company.  It’s a reminder that the 20s did indeed could roar before American Hollywood came to dominate the art and pus its puritanical stamp on things.

The Golem also presents an interesting walk into mysticism and magic, emphasized by remarkable visual effects and experiments with color tinting.  (When there is fire, for example, the action tints red, and during the scene when a spirit is called upon to reveal the word of life that will animate the Golem, the screen is a deep, formidable green.)  But scintillating though it is to watch, this mystical bent also presents the first gap in the film’s armor, for while there are indeed traditions of magic and demonology in ancient Jewish lore (Solomon himself is documented as calling up demons and bending them to his will), The Golem often strays far past Kabbalah and into the realm of pure fantasy sorcery that makes the Jewish identity of the community being portrayed – an identity that is essential to making the story work sensibly – turn hazy.  (For me, the shark gets jumped when the people call upon the Rabbi to cast the fire spell.)  For some, it may be easy to look past, but if you’re really following the plot, it can be jarring.

There’s also the matter of runtime (at least as presented in the modern Kino restoration, which is the most definitive print generally available; one of the points to note about a silent film is that projectionists of the era could play them at varying speeds without making the action seem odd, so there could be a natural variance even before theatre managers started playing editor).  I love a longer movie, but roughly an hour and a half, The Golem feels about fifteen minutes too long, dragging at several points, especially between the center points of the later acts.  But given the expressive performances and the beautiful visuals of the production design, it’s a pretty easy sin for cinephiles to forgive… even if the ending can seem a little odd and more than a little cheesy.

Though generally billed today as an early horror film, The Golem plays more as a fairy tale than the horror story its cousin of eleven years later would become.  The term I’ve settled on is “proto-horror;” something close that doesn’t quite cross the line into that genre.  Maybe it’s the lack of Cthulhu-like impossible angles common to German Expressionism that are absent from this picture but not from its contemporaries.  Not that matters, mind; a good movie is a good movie regardless of label, and good, this certainly is.

Bottom line, The Golem is a fascinating piece of early cinema: a tale that treads familiar territory while at the same time focusing on a creature rarely depicted on the silver screen.  Sure, it’s got its share of flaws, but overall, if you love classic cinema, The Golem is absolutely worth your time.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2014

More From The Bar! | The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari | Nosferatu | The Mummy |

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