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Der Golem (1920), directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese
By Bret Wood

Der Golem (1920)

Director: Paul Wegener and Carl Boese
Producer: Paul Davidson Screenplay: Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Production Design: Hans Poelzig
Cast: Paul Wegener (The Golem), Albert Steinruck (Rabbi Loew), Ernst Deutsch (Famulus), Lyda Salmonova (Miriam), Otto Gebuhr (Emperor Luhois).

While the Hebrew legend of the Golem has undergone numerous retellings and variations in the cinema, the 1920 version of Der Golem, directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, remains the essential version of the 16th-century tale.

Albert Steinruck portrays Rabbi Loew, a scientist/alchemist who prophesies that the Jewish people are soon to suffer persecution. He responds by sculpting a man of clay to act as their defender and brings the Golem (Paul Wegener) to life through supernatural intervention. Because of his talents as a magician, Rabbi Loew is invited to a festival at the palace of the Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebuhr), where the wise man pleads on behalf of his people. When the roof of the palace collapses and threatens to crush all those within, the Golem supports the sinking beams, inspiring the Emperor to end his oppression of the Jewish people. Afterwards, while the rabbi is away, his assistant (Ernst Deutsch) takes control of the Golem in order to chase away one of the Emperor's men who is wooing the Rabbi's daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova). But Famulus is unable to control the Golem, which kills the intruder, sets fire to Rabbi Loew's house and escapes, dragging Miriam by the hair through the streets of Prague.

Gustav Meyrink, Elie Wiesel and Chayim Bloch have all written their accounts of Rabbi Loew and the Golem of Prague, and more recently the figures surfaced as a crucial subplot in Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000). The "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence of Disney's Fantasia (1940) is in fact a retelling of one Rabbi Loew/Golem story, in which the inexperienced pupil commands the Golem to perform his chores, with disastrous results.

The most famous of all variations on the Golem myth is undoubtedly Frankenstein (1931). If one compares James Whale's film with Wegener's 1920 Der Golem, the similarities are stunning: the dungeon-like laboratory, the summoning of life through lightning, the lumbering beast, the fiery climax, the village mob, the monster's interaction with a small girl. For this reason, Wegener's Der Golem is considered a cornerstone of the early horror cinema, even though it is hardly a typical chiller/thriller.

The genesis of the 1920 Der Golem began while actor Wegener was starring in an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story "William Wilson." Retitled The Student of Prague (1913), the film was shot on location in Czechoslovakia, and there Wegener learned of the mysterious Rabbi Loew and became interested in filming his own version of the Golem myth. The following year saw the release of The Golem (1915), a modern-day retelling, starring Wegener, his wife Lyda Salmonova, and co-directed by Wegener and Henrik Galeen. Wegener again portrayed the Golem in a 1917 film entitled The Golem and the Dancer. In this strange, self-referential film (which no longer exists), Wegener portrays himself, an actor who has appeared on screen as the Golem, and who decides to put on his Golem costume and makeup in order to win the affection of a dancer.

By 1920, Wegener was able to achieve his dream of a full-scale version of The Golem, with the proper historical setting (1580) and the necessary degree of spectacle. Former co-director Galeen served as the screenwriter (he would later pen the script of the horror classic Nosferatu [1922]) and Salmonova reprised her role as the object of the Golem's misguided affection.

Wegener was a cinematic visionary who strived to enhance his films with inventive camerawork. "The real creator of the film must be the camera. Getting the spectator to change his point of view, using special effects to double the actor on the divided screen, superimposing other images -- all this, technique, form, gives the content its real meaning," he said in a 1916 lecture. "Everything depends on the image, on a certain vagueness of outline where the fantastic world of the past meets the world of today. I realized that photographic technique was going to determine the destiny of the cinema. Light and darkness in the cinema play the same role as rhythm and cadence in music."

Carl Boese, who is sometimes credited as co-director with Wegener, was really more of an assistant director. "Wegener always preferred to have a craftsman at his side," Boese explained. Boese was primarily responsible for finding a way to execute the ambitious visual effects Wegener conceived for the film, such as the floating, smoke-breathing head of Astaroth and dancing flames in the "creation" sequence (which involved complex double exposure, copper wires, burning nitrocellulose and tanks of carbon dioxide).

The dazzling creation sequence of Der Golem, influenced numerous films that followed, such as F.W. Murnau's Faust (1926). However, it really isn't a creation sequence after all, but an invocation sequence. The Golem has already been sculpted of clay. Rabbi Loew is using the Kabbalah to summon the spirit Astaroth (which can only appear during a rare planetary lineup) so that Astaroth will reveal the spiritually empowered word (the Shem Hameforash, the true name of God which was only known to a few individuals) which will in turn allow Rabbi Loew to bring the Golem to life.

After the spectacular invocation sequence comes the actual animation of the Golem, which is much more subtly executed. The word "Aemaet" (the Hebrew word for "truth") is written on a shred of paper and placed within a compartment on the Golem's chest, transforming the clay statue into a living being. "We were unwilling to cut this shot, which would have simplified the replacement of the clay statue with Wegener himself," Boese later recalled. They accomplished the feat by briefly panning away from the dummy, allowing just enough time for stagehands to put a live actor in its place. "Nobody seeing the film will believe that at a certain moment, in front of the camera, which continues rolling, the immobile statue of the Golem was removed by four men and swiftly replaced by Wegener."

Der Golem was made in the early years of the German Expressionist Cinema but does not share the painted shadows and angular distortion of a film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Instead, it opts for more subtle stylization -- in the towering pitched rooftops of the ghetto of Prague, the organic-shaped spiral staircase at the center of Rabbi Loew's laboratory, and the pyramid-shaped "hair" of the Golem's head, which allows him to form a perfect triangle as he -- like a reverse Sampson -- saves the lives of the people within a palace as its beams slowly collapse.

While there is general skepticism about the actual existence of the Golem, Rabbi Loew  was anything but a myth. The Cabalist scholar was so beloved by the Jewish people of Prague that he was commonly referred to as "The Exalted One." He lived from 1513 to 1609 and today a statue of Loew, in his tall hat and flowing beard, stands in the section of Prague that was once the location of the Jewish ghetto.

Source: © 2004 Turner Classic Movies

Related Links:

  • The Golem -new piece of compelling visual performance that touches on madness, illusions and delusions.
  • The Golem, about a 16th-century Jewish rabbi who constucts a man of clay at Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival.
  • Read more film reviews
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