Der Golem

An epic tale of religious persecution and of the supernatural, of powers ancient and ultimately uncontrollable, it is difficult to believe that Der Golem was first released just one year shy of a century ago, on 29th October 1920. Starring the great German actor Paul Wegener who also co-wrote and co-directed, it was his third appearance in the title role of the Golem, though this is the only one of the trilogy still extant, the others sadly considered “lost films.”

The earlier films, Der Golem and Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancing Girl) having been released in 1915 and 1917, the first was set in contemporary times with the discovery of the entombed remains of the statue in a ruined temple while the second was more comedic, with Wegener playing himself, the actor famous for his portrayal of the Golem, as he attempts to win the hand of another performer, played by his frequent co-star and occasional wife Lyda Salmonova.

Fully titled Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World), the last of the sequence is a prequel set four centuries before the first in sixteenth century Prague as the distinguished and respected Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück) looks to the stars and beholds a prediction of disaster for his people, realised all too swiftly as an edict is signed by the Holy Roman Emperor that decrees that the Jewish Quarter of the city is to be evacuated.

Praying for guidance, Rabbi Löw and his assistant fashion an unfinished being out of clay, a Golem, and summon the spirit of Astaroth, the Great Duke of Hell, to grant it life to protect their people. Taking it to the palace of the Emperor where the Festival of Roses is underway, the gathered masses are awed and terrified by the creation and when the Emperor’s life is saved by the Golem he grants a reprieve to the Jewish people, but can the Rabbi truly control it?

Now given a 4K restoration from the original film negatives for release on Blu-ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range, Der Golem is an iconic masterpiece of German expressionism, cinematographer Karl Freund later shooting Metropolis for Fritz Lang and Dracula for Tod Browning before moving to directing himself with The Mummy, his work an influence on the Universal Horror sequence, particularly James Whale’s Frankenstein, and all that grew from it.

The design credited to architect Hans Poelzig, it was conceived in collaboration with his wife, the sculptor Maria Voss, towering sets of flowing organic lines which are intrinsic to the action; a silent movie, lighting and expression is all as the Rabbi Löw strives to protect his people while Wegener’s Golem is a powerful and misunderstood tool, a servant without volition other than the direction given it.

Co-directed by Carl Boese, Wegener’s performance as the Golem is subtle and the special effects are impressive for their time, though despite the excellent restoration these scenes show extra wear, likely through the additional exposures and compositing required to achieve the superimpositions, and at times Der Golem is a huge production with hundreds of costumed extras on the streets.

The original eighty-six minute German cut reconstructed from different sources, it is accompanied by three soundtrack options, a traditional melodramatic piano score by composer Stephen Horne, electronic music producer Wudec melding synthesised vocals with more modern instrumentation, and the retro electronica of Admir Shkurtaj combined with ethereal voices and atonal strings.

A commentary by Scott Harrison is detailed and informative while a video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson explores the contradictions, parallels and interpretations of Der Golem and its production before Elstree 1976’s Jon Spira considers the history of Jewish folklore in horror cinema in another video essay, surprisingly slim in primary evidence but with much tangential presence, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen all having been made by Jewish directors despite being rooted in ostensibly Christian mythology.

An additional audio essay considers the context of German expressionism, “an external manifestation of internal turmoil,” but would have been more useful with accompanying visuals, and also included is the sixty-minute American version of the main feature, more heavily degraded and with inferior dialogue though notable for the stylish intertitle backgrounds, and an interesting comparison of the different footage used for the two cuts.

Der Golem is available from Criterion Eureka from Monday 18th November

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