Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) Review

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into The World) (1920) Director: Paul Wegener, Carl Boese


The Golem is a visually stunning film: its scenes are impressive, particularly with regard to the towering set designs. It beautifully captures an old European-Jewish ghetto while the terrible golem creature is fearsome and unpredictable, however, the film falls short where other early Expressionist films succeed, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis.

This film is an adaptation of a 1915 novel of the same name by Gustav Meyrink, an Austrian writer best known for writing The Golem. Co-director, Paul Wegener, stars as the golem creature, and this was the third of three films he made about the golem (the other two being 1915’s The Golem, and 1917’s The Golem and the Dancing Girl). Both films have now been lost. The 1920 film is a prequel to the 1915 The Golem.

Many of the stylized and disorienting sets of the film are stunning, and the zig-zagging architecture has often drawn comparisons to other early German expressionist classics, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It has also drawn comparisons to Frankenstein, for obvious reasons.

The story borrows themes from medieval Jewish folklore. It takes place in a Prague Jewish ghetto. The emperor of Rome has decreed that all Jews must leave the city, so a leading Rabbi uses an ancient dark magic (Asteroth, known in mythology as the prince of hell) to animate the stone golem to life, to protect and defend the Jews. However, he predictably runs amok killing people and destroying the Jewish ghetto until his mysterious, magical amulet is removed at the end.

Who is the mystical Jewish rabbi in the film? The answer is Rabbi Loew, a cabalist scholar (1513-1609) who is said to be the inspiration, at least in part, for Disney’s Fantasia, and he has appeared in the writings of both Elie Wiesel and Michael Chabon. A statue of him stands near where the Jewish ghetto once was in Prague. The local Jewish community refers to him as the “exalted one.”

The golem creature has appeared in many mythical stories, most notably in Tolkien as “gollum,” a gray and sorry creature who is transformed into his ugly state by his greed. In the 1920 film, the golem is tall, stoic, and almost lifeless. Apparently, Wegener’s inspiration for the film comes from an Edgar Alan Poe short story, “William Wilson” – a story about a person suffering from multiple personality disorder. Indeed, the film carries the duality of existence as one of its themes, for example the cold-hearted golem is, in many ways, an extension of Rabbi Loew. The golem is the violent alter ego of Rabbi Loew.

The film’s cinematographer, Karl Freund, was also the cinematographer of two other classic Expressionist films, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh.

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