The Golem (1920)

“Be lifeless clay once again–lest the powers of darkness take vengeance.”

Golem the 1920 silent German film from directors Carl Boese and Paul Wegener is set in 16th century Prague, and it’s a simple story with fantastic overtones based on Jewish folklore. Elderly Rabbi Low (Albert Steinstruck) goes to the top of his tower and reading the stars, he predicts a great disaster will soon befall the Jewish people. To prepare for the disaster, Rabbi Low, dabbling in sorcery creates a man from clay known as the Golem. In theory, the Golem is supposed to protect the Jewish ghetto dwelling community from the impending disaster, and Rabbi Low works furiously against time to finish his creation before disaster strikes.

But disaster comes in several ways. The Emperor delivers an edict that all Jews must be banished for the city, and this order is delivered by the knight, Florian (Lothar Muthel). He arrives at the Rabbi’s dwelling with the declaration of expulsion in one hand, and a flower that he sniffs occasionally in the other. Just this small gesture of idly waving the flower back and forth before his nose conveys the knight’s lack of humanity towards the ghetto dwellers. While the knight’s errand is ostensibly over, he begins casting his eyes on the Rabbi’s daughter, Miriam (Lyda Salmonova).

With the Golem created, the Rabbi brings his creature to life during an elaborate ceremony of the Black Arts. The Rabbi intends to use the Golem as a demonstration of his power and his brilliance–and hopes that by doing so, the Jews will be allowed to stay in the city. Unfortunately, his plans go awry. The Golem’s emotions seem to lean towards the negative side of humanity. Is this a corruption of black magic, or is this human nature at its basest?

It’s impossible not to watch Golem without being struck by some similarities to James Whales’ Frankenstein (especially one scene at nearly the end of the film). The film’s sets are incredibly complex–the ghetto is within a walled section of the city and entered only by a huge, locked gate. Winding cobblestone streets are lined with tall, stone multi-level buildings. The Rabbi’s home is quite fantastic–gothic arches, and a stairway carved from stone. Those interested in German Expressionist cinema will want to watch the film for its historic value alone. The Alpha DVD print is quite acceptable, and my copy had no blemishes.

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Filed under German, Silent

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