For many years, Paul Wegener and Carl Boese's 1920 expressionist classic The Golem was a difficult film to see on video, available as it was only in bad dupes of bad prints. Now, with its release as part of Kino's remarkable "Masterpieces of Geman Horror" DVD boxed set, we finally have a definitive version of the film. And what a bewildering, strange work it is.
The film tells a story with mythic overtones: Rabbi Low (Albert Steinbruck) is informed through supernatural means that an unseen threat faces the Jewish people of Prague. Sure enough, the Emperor (Otto Gebuhr) is about to decree that the Jews must move out of the ghetto, thus destroying their community. For protection, Low creates the Golem (Paul Wegener), a mythic, massive automaton made out of clay and brought to life by the placement of a magic amulet upon his chest. The Emperor withdraws his decree after the Golem saves the court from certain disaster, but Low is soon tormented by the knowledge that this indestructible creature will eventually use his powers to do evil.
The oddest thing about The Golem (whose subtitle, "How He Came Into the World" distinguishes itself from several other Golem films, a couple of which were also directed by Wegener) is how much it relies on suggestion for effect. For all its lavish production values, it shows us very little in terms of its story's darker turns. Rabbi Low is told of an impending catastrophe for the Jews, but we never see what that catastrophe actually is. When the Emperor issues his decree against the Jews, all we see is the decree. When viewed against today's fantasy and horror films, The Golem's plot is downright quaint. This creature exists for protection and prevention, to avert catastrophes - not for revenge, or to right wrongs already committed. He's an imposing figure, but not a threatening one. His most evil act in the film ultimately consists of an attack on an imperial messenger who romances the Rabbi's daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova). Indeed, the film's most engaging moment comes early on after the superman's creation, when he enters a store in the ghetto, basket in hand. Those inside begin to flee in horror, but are soon reassured that the giant, stone-faced brute is just there to do some shopping.
All throughout the film, Wegener and Boese undercut the suspense with such moments of levity. When the Golem is finally felled, it occurs by simple means. He picks up a little girl who has approached him (whether this is to do her harm, we are not certain, although the implication, as in the Frankenstein stories, is that she'll probably come to harm in the monster's arms). The girl, curious, observes his amulet, and promptly takes it off his chest, to examine it closer. The Golem stops dead in his tracks, a figure of stone again. It's a surprisingly warm and comic end to this dark, supernatural menace.
As danger may lurk in the shadows of the frame, so too does it lurk in the dark possibilities of the tale. The Golem is not so much a horror film as a suggestive piece of fantasy. The film exists in a world where powerful rabbis conjure up spells and see visions of the future, where figures from the past directly alter events in the present. (As such, some have accused it of an undertone of anti-semitism, perhaps because it presents the Jews as a mysterious and otherworldly people, although based on the German films that followed it 15 years later, it's pretty much off the hook.)
In fact, it
might be rewarding to see the film as an intriguing counterpoint to F.W.
Murnau's Nosferatu (also included in Kino's collection), where
the physically frail, though certainly gruesome, vampire has powers that
can transcend space, can cause madness and disease. The Golem,
physically imposing as he is, is just a large, unthinking brute, at the
mercy of those around him, even small children. The whisper-thin vampire
and the burly automaton are in a sense the two great monsters of 1920s
German cinema. History insured that this nation would eventually be overcome
by far greater, more real monsters, but it's certainly nice to have the
cinematic ones back among us after all this time.