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

★★★★☆

A visually arresting example of early German Expressionism, The Golem offers a twisted glimpse into an old European-Jewish ghetto where the fearsome golem creature wreaks havoc. I was immediately struck by the towering set designs which loom like paintings throughout the film. However, other German Expressionist films stand out as much stronger to me, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922). Indeed the film’s cinematographer, Karl Freund, was also the cinematographer of two other classic Expressionist films: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924).

The Golem is an adaptation of a 1915 novel of the same name by Gustav Meyrink, an Austrian writer best known for The Golem. Interestingly enough co-director, Paul Wegener, stars as the golem creature in the film, and this was his third of three films 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 but at the time of its release, the 1920 film was actually considered a prequel to the earlier 1915 film also entitled The Golem.

Many of the stylized and disorienting sets featured in The Golem left the strongest impression on me, and the zig-zagging architecture has often drawn comparisons to other early German expressionist classics. The Golem also invites comparison to Frankenstein (1931), for obvious reasons. The story borrows themes from medieval Jewish folklore, taking 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 golem stone in order to protect and defend the Jews. However, once awakened the golem predictably runs amok killing people and destroying the Jewish ghetto until his mysterious, magical amulet is finally removed in 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 (1940), and he has appeared in the writings of both Elie Wiesel and Michael Chabon. A statue of Rabbi Loew also stands near where the Jewish ghetto once existed in Prague. The local Jewish community refers to Rabbi Loew as the “exalted one.”

The golem creature has appeared in many mythical stories, most notably in Tolkien where he is simply referred to as “gollum,” a gray and sorry creature who is transformed into his ugly state by his greed. In contrast 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 the violent alter ego of Rabbi Loew.

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