Long before author Mary Shelley thought up the infamous Frankenstein monster, there existed a legend in Jewish folklore concerning an inanimate lump of clay brought to life in order to save the Jews. This was the legend of the Golem.
The most famous version of this tale comes from medieval Prague: The Jewish population is in danger of banishment by local Christian authorities. In response, the head rabbi of Prague creates the Golem for protection against the oppressors. The plan works, and the Jews are safe…for a while. Unfortunately, the rabbi loses control of his creation, and the Golem goes on a murderous rampage.
The story of the Golem was first brought to the screen in 1915 by German director Paul Wegener, who also played the title role. Although the 1915 film was lost, Wegener made another Golem film in 1920 which survives today.
The Golem essentially follows the old Prague legend, and is photographed in German expressionist style. All of the scenes, especially the interiors, emphasize sharp angles and exaggerated form. For example, in an early scene we see a spiral staircase descending within what looks like a cutaway of a conch shell. Buildings and towers are vertically elongated to the point of surrealism. The lighting in each scene is done in chiaroscuro, thus heightening the eeriness of the tale. Even without subtitles or plot, each section in this film is fascinating to look at.
For those interested in early examples of cinematographer Karl Freund’s work, as well as examples of German expressionist film style, I would strongly recommend this picture. Although I found a free copy on youtube.com, I must say that the print looked somewhat worn. I checked out amazon.com and found that there is a restored version of the film on DVD. Either way, it’s worth a view.
Note: Karl Freund, who shot The Golem, was also known for photographing director Fritz Lang’s science fiction movie Metropolis (1927) and Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931). He left Europe for America in 1929. Freund, who was Jewish, returned to Germany in 1937 and brought his daughter Gerda back to the U.S. By doing so, he almost certainly saved her from death in the Nazi concentration camps.
Pluses: Magnificent cinematography, unique plot
Minus: YouTube version not good. Look for DVD on amazon.com
Cast: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinruck, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch, Lothar Muthel
Director: Paul Wegener
Black and White
Length: 91 minutes
“Karl Freund” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 8 October 2016. Web. 28 October 2016.
“Golem” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 28 October 2016. Web. 28 October 2016.
Image obtained through Bing Public Domain.