The Golem (Der Golem, Wie Er In Die Welt Kam) 1920

Directors: Paul Wegener (with Karl Boese)
"The word, the terrible life-giving word, I have snatched it from the Dark Powers. Now I shall call the Golem to life..."
From the mouth of the demon Astaroth comes the word written in fire that will turn the giant of clay into an instrument of vengeance... Paul Wegener creates a work of cinema alchemy from the raw earth of an ancient Jewish legend . . .

Paul Wegener as the Golem
16th-century Prague: the astrologer and mystic Rabbi Loew, "the heart and mouth of the Jews", sees in the stars an omen of disaster for his people. The prophecy is proven to be true when the knight Florian brings a decree from the Emperor ordering the Jews to evacuate the ghetto by the next full moon. Loew persuades Florian to grant him an audience with the Emperor, though Florian pays more attention to the charms of Loew's daughter Miriam.

Loew consults his ancient volumes of necromancy in order to create a Golem, a clay giant that will serve as a protector of his people. With the aid of his assistant Famulus, Loew summons the demon Astaroth, who reveals the secret word -- AEMAET (truth) -- that will breathe life into the creature. The written word is placed within an amulet on the Golem's chest, and his eyes spring open... the Golem obeys Loew's commands until the amulet is removed, and he again becomes an inanimate statue.

Loew sets the Golem to work, chopping firewood and collecting provisions as bystanders look on in astonishment. Shortly, Florian returns to invite Loew to the Emperor's 'Festival of the Roses'. Loew brings the Golem with him, and the Emperor's court is soon charmed by the imposing but benign clay man. Loew attempts to appease the Emperor by manifesting a vision of the biblical patriarchs, but his sorcery is laughed off by the court as a mere conjuring trick. Their mirth angers the gods -- the walls tremble and the palace begins to crumble around them. The Golem holds the ceiling aloft, sparing the lives of those present, and in return the Emperor agrees to allow the Jews to remain in the city.

Wegener's Golem drags Miriam (Lyda
Salmonova) through the burning ghetto
When Loew returns to the Jewish quarter, he finds that the Golem refuses to obey him: the stars are re-aligning, and the giant is falling under Astaroth's evil influence. He removes the Golem's life-giving amulet, and leaves for the temple to bring his good news to the people. 

Meanwhile, Famulus calls on Miriam to bring her to temple, and discovers her in bed with Florian. He unwittingly restores the Golem to life to drive Florian away, but the enraged creature chases the knight to the top of Loew's observatory tower, and throws him to his death. As Famulus escapes, the Golem sets Loew's home ablaze and drags Miriam off into the streets. Famulus rushes to the temple, crying to Loew, "Your house is in flames. The Golem is on the rampage!"... 

It was during location filming for The Student of Prague in 1913 that Wegener's fascination with myth and folklore first drew him to the story of the Golem. According to legend, the Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel created the clay being to protect his people from persecution by the Emperor Rudolf II. Statues of both Loew and his creation still stand in Prague today, and rumours persisted well into the twentieth century that the remains of the original Golem were stored in the attic of the city's ancient synagogue.

The Golem of Prague
Wegener's first version of The Golem was released in January 1915. Never a man troubled by self-doubt, he produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in the film himself, alongside his colleagues from Student of Prague, co-writer 'Heinrich' Galeen and co-star Lyda Salmonova, by that time his third (later to become his sixth) wife. The story was updated to the present day, when an antique dealer (Rudolf Bluemner) resurrects the Golem and it falls in love with his daughter Jessica (Salmonova). Spurned by Jessica, the monster goes on a rampage but is destroyed when the life-giving amulet is torn from its chest and it falls from a high tower. How it compares to the 1920 version we can only guess, as there are barely four minutes of the earlier film in existence today.

The Golem was a great success in Germany, and was released America under the title The Monster of Fate. We can assume that Fate wasn't on the Monster's side as the USA declared war on Germany the same week and the film sank into oblivion. Wegener meanwhile continued to make a speciality of fantasy films, including The Yogi (1916), and a series of subjects drawn from German folklore ('marchenfilme'), most notably Rubezahl's Wedding (1916) and The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918). He also found time to resurrect the Golem once more with The Golem and the Dancer in 1917, in which Wegener plays himself, attending a screening of the original Golem and donning the monster's costume in order to seduce a dancing girl. It is often cited as the first ever horror film sequel.

The Golem (1915): Wegener attacks Heinrich
Galeen, as Lyda Salmonova looks on.
Yet Wegener still felt he hadn't done the story justice. Drawing on the experience gained from his marchenfilme, he moored his third Golem film in the murky waters of the middle ages, allowing his imagination free rein in creating a self-contained fantasy world. Contrast Wegener's concept with Gustav Meyrink's 1916 novel 'The Golem', a contemporary tale in which the monster was portrated as a kind of personification of the ghetto itself, a spirit of the Jewish community; Wegener's Jews on the other hand were Kabbalists in cloaks and wizard's hats, trafficking in alchemy and sorcery. In his defense, Wegener at least portrayed his Jews in a sympathetic light, a perspective that would have been difficult to imagine in the German cinema of a decade later.

The fairytale mood of the film was enhanced by the work of UFA studio's artists and technicians, not least the eye-catching sets designed by Hans Poelzig. His jewish ghetto was a sprawling termite mound of crooked peaks and furrows, like Caligari's painted landscapes come to three-dimensional life. "It is not Prague that my friend, the architect Poelzig, has built", Wegener told the 'Film Kurier' in 1920, "Not Prague and not any other city. Rather it is a city-poem, a dream, an architectural paraphrase on the theme 'Golem'." 

Poelzig was a mysterious figure with many esoteric theories about his profession, including the idea that every building had its own 'music', which could only be heard by the initiated. He made a strong impression on one of his assistants, a young Austrian named Edgar Ulmer; when Ulmer eventually got to direct a film of his own, The Black Cat (1934), he named his architect protagonist, played by Boris Karloff, after his old mentor.

Hans Poelzig's ghetto set
The critics were impressed, too. Wegener was already a respected figure in Europe, and thanks to the enthusiastic welcome given to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari a few months earlier, the Americans were primed for arty European fantasy in a similar vein. A review in the New York Times was typical; "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 its aspects that it always seems remote, elusive even, when one would like to get closer to its meaning." 

Like Lugosi's Dracula or Karloff's Frankenstein Monster, the Golem is a role that Wegener, a perfect fit with his bulky frame and Mount Rushmore face, can claim as his own. Presumably satisfied with his work this time around, he at last laid his man of clay to rest and moved on to another marchenfilme, The Lost Shadow (1921), a tale of Hoffman reprising Student of Prague's deal with the devil. The monster itself was revived a year later for Sascha-Film in Austria for The Golem's Last Adventurewhich of course it wasn't. French director Julien Duvivier remade the story again in 1936, and then 20th-century revival It menaced Roddy McDowell in 1967.

More important than these later efforts is the lasting effect that The Golem would have on the next generation of film directors. It's been well documented that Wegener's performance was an inspiration for James Whale's Frankenstein. Whale, Edgar Ulmer and Karl Freund (The Golem's cinematographer), whose classic monsters came to life through learning the lessons of Wegener and his expressionist contemporaries, all owe this film a great debt.

"Golem, your task is done. Become lifeless clay once again, lest the Dark Power seek vengeance..."

End Credits:
Paul Wegener ('A strange creature, named The Golem'), Albert Steinruck (Rabbi Loew), Lyda Salmonova (Miriam, the Rabbi's daughter), Ernst Deutsch (Famulus), Hanss Sturm (Rabbi Jehuda), Lothar Muthel (Florian, a knight), Otto Gebuhr (The Emperor), Max Kronert (The Temple Beadle), Dore Paetzoid (the Emperor's Mistress), Greta Schroeder (Maiden with Rose), Loni Nest (Little Girl).
Screenplay: Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen, Camera: Karl Freund, Camera Assistant Robert Baberske, Art Direction: Hans Richter, Sets: Hans Poelzig, Costumes: Rochus Gleise, Music Score: Hans Landsberger, Producer: Paul Davidson.
Union-Film, Germany
Running time 85 mins.

The Golem (Kino Video)

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