Directors: Paul Wegener, Carl Boese
Producer: Paul Davidson
Writers: Paul Wegener, Henrik Galeen
Stars: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Max Kronert, Lyda Salmonova
It is said that the history of horror is the history of special effects. Brigid Cherry writes in The Routledge Film Guidebook to Horror (2009):
Horror films … set out to create the sights and sounds of things that do not and never have existed in reality, or which are not normally seen or acknowledged in everyday life. (60)
The earliest special effects were trick photography—as well as some post-production effects like multiple exposures, adjustments to speed, and filmstrip coloration—dubbed “spirit photography” for the immortality that photography grants its subject). The idea that cinema itself was spectral lent a particular eeriness to the horror films of this time—and Paul Wegener’s 1920 picture, THE GOLEM (DER GOLEM, WIE ER IN DIE WELT KAM), is no exception, as one of the first horror films made. THE GOLEM is an well-known piece of the genre’s first film cycle, which was a string of German Expressionist films in the twenties.
THE GOLEM takes place in the sixteenth century, a time of upheaval in Prague as Christianity rose to prominence. A knight (Max Kronert) from the Emperor’s palace arrives one day with a “Decree Against the Jews”: In penance for their part in the death of Christ, they are ordered to evacuate the Jewish Quarter by the full moon, forever banished from the kingdom. In an act of desperation, Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), the unspoken leader of the people, decides that he must turn to Dark Magic in order to save his people from persecution. Consulting The Necromancie, he resurrects the Golem (Paul Wegener), a strange creature bound to its master. The Golem is a faithful servant, but before long, the Rabbi is corrupted by his own power over it and uses its services instead for selfish gain … and for this, someone must pay the price …
Unsurprisingly, THE GOLEM pales in comparison to “horror” since the mid-twentieth century. The Golem, hardly the hideous beast that the townspeople’s reactions of horror imply, is more than anything a rather stoic, obedient slave—for what else can we call a living being brought to life only to serve?—who looks less like a monster than a strong, broad-chested man. Its misdeeds, like those of Frankenstein’s monster—conceived over a century before THE GOLEM—seemingly indicate nothing more than ignorance, decided amorality. The characters are all deeply flawed (their portrayal quite impressive given that the filmmaker was only equipped with imagery and the occasional explanatory subtitle), but none of them rouse much terror.
Even though the Gothic is nearly imperceptible, the Expressionist influence is a triumph in terms of special effects, spectral in its bizarre beauty. A surreal aura is cast by the sets, skewed and bathed in a perplexing mix of light and shadow, odd angles rendering an eerie chiaroscuro. Certain scenes stand out as particularly artful—the appearance of Astaroth, the Great Duke of Hell; the Rabbi’s assistant chasing his daughter, Miriam, through the winding family home; a little German girl offering a flower to the Golem. The filmstrips are tinted in a kaleidoscope of colors—purple, green, pink, orange, yellow—shifting with scene, mood, and perspective, sharpening the contrast between light and dark, holy and hellish.
In comparison to other films of the time, I must admit that I found THE GOLEM lacking. It’s pretty to look at, certainly, but the plot is difficult to follow … which is infuriating, given the simplicity of the story. At the same time, there is little room for ambiguity, which is surprising in the context of Expressionism and further frustrating, since the lazy storytelling is incredibly unhelpful. Perhaps I am naïve, a true acolyte of modern horror; perhaps the times have changed too much—but the nonexistent shock value and absence of a single scare made this picture more akin to a textbook than a gothic classic.
Not a horrifying film by any stretch of the imagination, but there are moments of horror—namely the resurrection of a monster from the dead, of course.
By now, viewers know from experience that yanking the dead unceremoniously from eternal rest is inevitably catastrophic. The suspense is in waiting to see how and when it happens.
Not one scare, though there are foreboding moments.
German Expressionism unfolds beautifully onscreen, but unfortunately, the film suffers in other ways: the plot is unclear, the characters are difficult to identify and follow, and the creature is disappointingly humdrum.
I watched THE GOLEM on Amazon Prime, free with a subscription. You can also watch THE GOLEM in its entirety on YouTube, free of charge. You can purchase your own copy of THE GOLEM on DVD at Barnes & Noble for $19.99 ($18.29 online) or buy it used on the B&N Marketplace, starting at $13.06.