Directors: Carl Boese, Paul Wegener
Screenplay: Henrik Galeen, Paul Wegener
Starring: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Ernst Deutsch, Lyda Salmonova
Running Time: 76 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Until a little more recently, there have been very few Jewish horror films produced over the past 90 years, which is surprising given the large number of successful Jewish directors in Hollywood. It’s also surprising as Jewish folklore and mythology contain a handful of frightening spirits, demons and creatures such as Dybbuks, Ibbur and the Golem that are ripe for cinematic treatment. Perhaps the Jews felt they had more realistic horrors to portray on screen after the Second World War, but it’s still odd that more dark Jewish legends haven’t been produced into films.
Back in the 1910s and early 20s though there was a spike in interest in one of Jewish folklore’s most famous creatures, the Golem. The actor/writer/director Paul Wegener was key to this boom. His first film, The Student of Prague, is thought to be one of the first supernatural films in German cinema, as well as the first German ‘art film’. It was a huge success and his next film as director was another horror, Der Golem. It isn’t the film I’m reviewing here though. Wegener actually made three Golem films – making it perhaps one of the first horror franchises. Unfortunately, the first two films are now lost, other than a few short segments of the first. The third film, originally titled Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (translated as ‘The Golem, how he came into the world’, the American title of the film) is an origin story, released as a prequel. Thankfully it survived, though it was incomplete for a long time until being restored and re-released in more recent years. Eureka, after releasing the film on DVD in their early days as a label, have revisited it on Blu-ray from a gorgeous new 4K restoration. I got hold of a screener to see how it fared.
Der Golem is set in the Jewish ghetto of medieval Prague. The Emperor doesn’t think kindly of the people there and signs a decree stating that the Jews must leave the city, claiming they practise black magic and can’t be trusted. Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), who predicted something bad was coming to his people, creates a Golem to defend them. A Golem is a creature formed in clay and brought to life by magic and the summoning of the demon Astaroth. The creature is incredibly strong and follows the will of his master. It can only be stopped by removing a special amulet it wears on its chest which houses the magic word that brought it to life, written on paper.
First using the Golem as a slave, Loew eventually uses it to save the emperor’s life (after deviously putting it under threat through his own magic), causing the ruler to pardon the Jewish people. All seems good and well, until the Golem is used for selfish means by Loew’s jealous assistant (Ernst Deutsch), after the Rabbi’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova), whom the assistant loves, cavorts with the Emperor’s envoy Florian (Lothar Müthel). After being used in such devious ways, the Golem then starts to become sentient and goes against his masters, wreaking havoc across the ghetto.
Released 8 months after Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Der Golem is another important classic of German expressionism and early horror cinema. Unlike the angular, unreal expressionism of Caligari, Der Golem uses more subtly surreal production design that has a biological, natural look to it, yet still heightened and unusual. These wonderful sets are brought to atmospheric life by some striking lighting too. Guido Seeber, who worked on Wegener’s previous films, was the cinematographer alongside the legendary Karl Freund, who would go on to shoot classics such as Metropolis and Dracula (1931). I’m not sure if one was sacked or fell ill half-way through so it’s hard to say who shot what, but, regardless, the film looks stunning. On top of the expressionistic sets, the film also used some lighting techniques Wegener liked from the theatre that were bold and dramatic. Some fantastic early in-camera special effects appear too, particularly in the fire and brimstone ‘creation’ scene when the Golem is brought to life.
The characterisation of the Golem is well handled too. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster, the Golem is an often sympathetic character and the film takes time to show it intrigued by the outside world. Wegener himself plays the creature and his performance is excellent, going a long way to fleshing out the character, with stiff movement and awkward reactions towards those around him highlighting the fact that the Golem has only just been ‘born’. The performance is so strong in fact that you can see how it clearly influenced Boris Karloff’s legendary turn in Frankenstein. Indeed, James Whale, who directed that film, has acknowledged The Golem as an influence. There are quite a few similarities beyond the performance too, though you could argue Wegener was influenced by Shelley.
Overall, it’s an incredibly atmospheric, taut and occasionally quite exciting early horror classic. Its ‘villain’ is given depth too, allowing for a rich and rewarding experience. Its fairly simple story may seem familiar now, but it’s well told and the film is still moody and thrilling almost a century later. Any fans of silent cinema or early horror should certainly seek it out.
Der Golem is out on 18th November on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. For the most part, the picture looks absolutely stunning, but due to the fact the restoration was made up from a couple of different sources, some of the previously lost sequences can be soft and stand out. There’s a bit of wobble in places too. However, these blemishes are infrequent. The majority of the time you’re treated to a wonderfully sharp and detailed print that looks astounding given the age of the film. I’ve seen from the 80s that don’t look as good on Blu-ray.
You’re spoiled with a choice of 3 different scores. I didn’t listen to all of them fully, but opted for the Stephen Horne track for my watch through and gave the others a good listen, skimming through a bit to get a good sense of them. They’re all nicely varied so different bases are covered. Horne’s score is quite classically composed with a lot of piano, though there are some subtle sound effects, particularly at the start. It provides an effectively dramatic backing for the film that I enjoyed a lot. Wudec’s score is more modern and electronically created, with a moody, atmospheric sound. Admir Shkurtaj’s music is abstract, unusual and rather unsettling.
Extra features include:
– Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase (First 2000 copies)
– Presented in 1080p from a stunning 4K digital restoration of the original film negatives, completed by FWMS in 2017.
– Original German intertitles with optional English subtitles
– Option of THREE fantastic and unique scores, by composer Stephen Horne; acclaimed electronic music producer Wudec; and musician and film-score composer Admir Shkurtaj
– Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by Scott Harrison
– Brand new and exclusive video essay by critic David Cairns
– Brand new and exclusive video essay by filmmaker Jon Spira
– Audio essay ‘The Kingdom of Ghosts’ by Dixon Smith
– The Golem [60 mins] The US version of the film, also fully restored, and featuring a score by Cordula Heth
– A video piece highlighting the differences between the domestic and export negatives of the film [22 mins]
– PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Scott Harrison; and reprints of illustrations from the original 1915 novel
Scott Harrison’s commentary is decent for the most part but flounders a little in places, though it might just seem that way due to his style of speaking which has an uneven ebb and flow. It makes it sound like he’s struggling to know what to say at times, even if this is likely not the case. It’s a minor quibble though as the track still makes for interesting listening.
Jon Spira gives an illuminating look at Jewish horror in his essay. David Cairns’ detailed look at the film’s production is superb, packed with fascinating information and quotes from various sources. Dixon Smith’s piece is solid too and well worth listening to. I haven’t watched the US version of the film, but it’s nice to have the option there for completion’s sake. The video piece on the differences between the cuts is a better solution for those merely curious about the changes though.
All in all a comprehensive and thoughtfully put together package that comes highly recommended.