Despite the best efforts of writer, actor and director Paul Wegener, the Golem has never quite achieved the status it deserves, lagging behind the vampires (F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, 1922), insane scientists (Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1920) and disfigured fiends (Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera, 1925) that occupy the ‘first tier’ of silent movie monsters. Inspired equally by Hebrew mythology and 19th-century literature, Wegener’s 1920 classic Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (‘The Golem, and how he came into the world’), is the last of three Golem films he starred in, and the only one to survive. Like many of the iconic films of silent cinema, Der Golem has appeared in a variety of running times and print qualities, but restored and remastered versions are readily available.
Der Golem begins in 16th-century Prague, in the Jewish ghetto, where the Rabbi Loew foretells disaster for the Jewish people. Sure enough, the emperor announces that the Jews are to be driven from their homes. In order to protect his people the Rabbi creates the Golem, a stone being reanimated by the demon Astaroth. The Rabbi takes the Golem to the imperial court, where the assembled company are suitably impressed. After the creature prevents the palace roof from falling on their heads, the emperor agrees to let the Jews remain in their homes. Unfortunately the Golem is later possessed by Astaroth, who allows it to rampage through the streets of Prague, burning and destroying.
Although he co-directed Der Golem with Carl Boese, Wegener’s most important contribution to the film is his performance as the Golem itself. Despite portraying a creature made of stone, he manages to create a surprising level of emotional expression, primarily through his eyes. A victim of man’s weaknesses, the Golem is the archetype for all subsequent tragic creatures, most obviously Boris Karloff’s monster in James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931). After Wegener’s Golem, architect Hans Poelzig’s set design is the star of the film; his portrayal of the sprawling Prague ghetto is nothing short of incredible. A riot of lopsided angles and bizarre shapes, it’s one of the finest cinematic cityscapes ever created.
Like a great deal of Der Golem, Poelzig’s designs have been tremendously influential. Edgar G. Ulmer’s surreal horror-noir The Black Cat (1934) appropriated both the architect’s images and his name for Boris Karloff’s satanic villain, Hjalmar Poelzig. It has sometimes been claimed that Ulmer worked on Der Golem – often by the man himself – either as a set builder under Poelzig or as a cameraman under visionary cinematographer Karl Freund, but corroboration for such assertions is scant. Already one of the most sought-after cinematographers in Europe, Freund would later work on Fritz Lang’s science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927), as well as several of F.W. Murnau’s greatest films. After moving to Hollywood in 1929 Freund shot Tod Browning’s genre classic Dracula (1931), before directing The Mummy (1932), a sombre mood piece that has much in common with Wegener and Boese’s Der Golem.
Periodically, news surfaces of a possible remake of the story of the Golem – Italian special effects maestro Sergio Stivaletti has often said he would love to direct a new version – but so far nothing has become of such rumours.