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The GolemThe Golem

(Germany, 1920, 85 minutes, b&w, 16mm, silent)

Directed by Paul Wegener & Carl Boese

Paul Wegener . . . . . . . . . . The Golem
Albert Steinruck . . . . . . . . . . Rabbi Lowe
Lyda Salmonova . . . . . . . . . .Miriam
Ernst Deutsch . . . . . . . . . . Rabbi Famulus

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

1919's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari introduced the world to the bizarre sensibilities of German expressionism. Although it arose out of German Romanticism, cinematic expressionism gave voice to the nightmarish fears of the forces of modernity out of control, a vision compelling in its weirdness and dangerous in its implications for democracy -- some have seen in cinematic expressionism an allegory for the rise of Fascism in Germany. 1920's The Golem is a lesson in rendering the uncanny in cinema. Wegener's film gathers to itself ancient story materials and folklore, joining the darkest imaginings of premodern Europe to the new medium of the cinema, and speaking the medieval through the modern.

Writer/director Paul Wegener had long been fascinated by the rabbinical legend of the Golem, the giant clay monster who stood by to save the Jewish citizens of Prague from the anger of an emperor who accused them of the ritualistic murder of children. The tale of the Golem was a folktale, that, like many such tales, grew out of a need to address the unspeakable in a manner as dramatic and horrific as the thing itself, for violent anti-Semitism boiled throughout Europe and the Pale in the 1920s.

Wegener's fascination with the story was singular: he made his first cinematic version of The Golem in 1915, and brought the character back in 1917 in The Golem and the Dancing Girl. But it is Wegener's third version of the tale that is his most unsettling. Wegener charged his designer, Hans Poelzig, the gifted protege of Max Reinhardt, with bringing to life the Jewish ghetto of Prague. As film historian Stephen Hanson has noted, Poelzig designed the settings with cameras and lighting in mind, and in doing so, achieved a more genuinely cinematic expressionist vision than even the vaunted Caligari. The Golem's cinematographer was the brilliant Karl Freund, the most stellar of all directors of photography in the expressionist cinema; his filmography includes such masterworks of the movement F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and E.A. DuPont's Variety. Freund closely collaborated with Wegener and Poelzig on the look of The Golem, joining evocative lighting and inventive camera angles to sets and actors' gestures to create an integrated vision of dread. Lighting, in particular, was one of Freund's strengths, and he adroitly supports Wegener's shifts in storytelling tone with lighting effects. With his work on The Golem, Freund shows why he was known as "the Giotto of the screen."

But it is Wegener the actor, in his role as the Golem, who marks the film indelibly. Wegener's Golem, with his monstrous appearance and his trancelike obedience to the command of a legendary megalomaniac, is one of the most significant ancestors of the cinematic Frankenstein of James Whale and Boris Karloff. Huge, avenging and violent, Wegener's Golem terrorizes the enemies of the Hebrews. Yet, however superhuman his attributes, Wegener's creature is undeniably Romantic. Having tasted eternal life, he nonetheless yearns for the fragile mortality of the people he observes. As a timeless invention of Rabbi Loew's supernatural abilities and Nietzchean conscience, the Golem's existence allows him neither pleasure nor pain. Ironically, the Golem envies the uncertainty and finite life of the humans who stand in terror of him. They fear his immortal powers, and he desires a short, passionate, unpredictable life like theirs. The grasping toward humanity by Wegener's beast is one of the most affecting transformations in all of cinema.

The Golem is a richly symbolic narrative drawn from Jewish mythology. But the question remains after the Golem's ultimate fate is decided in a startling instant at the end of the film: is this a sympathetic portrait of the oppression Jews faced throughout Europe, in crowded ghettoes of twisted lanes and dark hovels? Or is The Golem more demented "proof" of Jewish necromancy, another in a long line of paranoid fantasies about Jewish spellmakings over Gentiles? For Paul Wegener, the story of the Golem proved so fascinating that he retold it again and again, rewriting it, directing it, and playing the creature himself, in a remarkable artistic quest to understand the tyrannical power of religious myth.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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