Rabbi Yehuda Loew, known to the pious as the “Maharal” came to Prague from Nikolsburg, Posen, in the year 5332 of the Creation (1572 A.D.) in order to become rabbi of the community there. The whole world resounded with his fame because he was deeply learned in all branches of knowledge and knew many languages. Is it any wonder then that he was revered by the wise men among the Gentiles? Even King Rudolf of Bohemia esteemed him highly.
In 1913 German actor and filmmaker Paul Wegener was in Prague filming a Faustian tale called The Student of Prague, which he both starred in and produced. While he was there, he learned the legend of the Golem of Prague, a great clay being that was created and brought to life by the Rabbi Loew to protect Prague’s Jewish community. The legend caught his imagination.
The Golem: How He Came into The World (1920) was Wegener’s third Golem movie; unfortunately, the two earlier movies have been lost. The first two times, Wegener placed the Golem in a contemporary time period; with his third attempt, he tried something closer to a straight retelling of the legend as he had heard it.
Wegener was not Jewish ; and while Der Golem is a beautiful movie, it’s not terribly authentic. Given the atmosphere in Germany at the time, some see Der Golem as an expression of anti-Semitism. It certainly takes a lot of liberties with the source material, but I didn’t think it was a hostile or derogatory portrayal of the Jewish people as a whole.
There are many versions of the legend of the Golem of Prague; the one on Dr. Bronner’s website, which I quoted above, is my favorite. The general idea is that Rabbi Loew created the Golem to guard the Ghetto of Prague against enemies of the Jewish people. In Bronner’s version, those enemies would plant the bodies of dead children in the home of a Jew, then level a “blood accusation”: the charge that Jews used the blood of Christian children in Jewish ritual (in this case, to make Passover matzos). Loew brought the Golem to life from a clay figure with cabalistic ritual; in some versions, he does this by writing the word emet (truth) on the Golem’s forehead, in other versions, by writing God’s secret name on a piece of parchment and putting it into the Golem’s mouth.In Bronner’s version, King Rudolf eventually forbade the people from ever making a blood accusation against any Jew or group of Jews. The Golem’s job was done. Loew un-animated the Golem (this could be done, depending on the version of the story, by erasing the word off the Golem’s forehead, or removing the parchment from his mouth). He then hid the clay body in the attic of the Synagogue, where it lies to this day, waiting to be awakened again in another time of need.
In the movie, Rabbi Loew is an astrologer and a magician (both practices are forbidden in the Bible) who sees in the stars that disaster is about to befall the Ghetto. Sure enough, the Emperor Ludwig issues a decree, expelling the Jews from the city by the end of the month.
The Rabbi knows Ludwig; he’s drawn horoscopes for the Emperor in the past, twice warning him of danger. He requests an audience with the Emperor, which Ludwig agrees to. In the meantime, the Rabbi searches his books and discovers how to summon the demon Astaroth and compel him to give up the magic word that will bring a clay golem to life. Loew and his assistant Famulus summon Astaroth and compel him to give up the magic word, in the most awesomest scene in the movie.
They write the word on a piece of paper and put it into a star-shaped receptacle (a pentagram, mind you, not a Star of David) that fits into the Golem’s chest. The Golem comes to life.
Loew brings the Golem to the court. The Emperor asks Loew to “amuse us with your magical arts.” The Rabbi conjures up what’s essentially a movie or a hologram of the history of the Jews. He warns the courtiers not to talk or laugh while the “movie” is playing, but of course someone cracks a joke as they watch the Jews wandering in the desert. Everyone laughs, the vision vanishes in a great explosion of smoke, and the castle begins to collapse on the heads of the terrified Emperor and courtiers. Do you think the Rabbi knew what was going to happen? I do.
The Emperor begs Loew to save them, promising to rescind the edict of banishment. Loew summons the Golem, who holds up the roof of the collapsing castle, giving everyone a chance to escape. Ludwig keeps his promise, and the Rabbi jubilantly returns to the Ghetto with the Golem. There, he tries to take the star that holds the magic word out of the Golem’s chest, to un-animate the creature. The Golem prevents him; he even growls and raises his hand at the Rabbi, as if attacking him. Loew manages to pull the star out of the Golem’s chest just in time.
On further research, Loew learns that “when Uranus enters the house of the planets, Astaroth will demand his creature back” — the Golem will turn on his master and try to destroy him and everyone that he meets. A classic deal-with-the-devil situation, no? Loew picks up a mallet to destroy the now lifeless clay figure, but he is distracted by Famulus, who calls him to join the rest of the community in celebrating their salvation.
And things go awry from there… .
It’s a jumbled-up, made-up version of the legend, but Der Golem is a gorgeous movie. The cinematographer was Karl Freund, who also filmed Metropolis and Dracula (and much later, I Love Lucy). The set designer was architect Hans Poelzig. I loved the crooked silhouettes of the Ghetto’s buildings, so like the distorted perspectives of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. All the buildings of the Ghetto look like they were poured out of molten lava (or molded of soft clay, as another reviewer said), and the interiors are these funny irregular nooks and warrens, like Expressionist versions of Anasazi cliff dwellings. I especially love the conch-like staircase in Rabbi Loew’s house (behind the woman standing, in the scene below).
There are a few scenes in the synagogue, with the main officiant haloed in a vaguely menorah-shaped arrangement of candles, and much beating of breasts. I’m sure the rituals are completely bogus, but wow, are they beautiful.
As I’ve said before, silent movie actors can be a bit hard to watch for modern movie viewers, but I thought the performances in Der Golem were quite good. The love scenes between the Rabbi’s daughter Miriam and the Knight Florian were unintentionally hilarious (and I also question Miriam’s taste in men, but anyway…), much rolling of eyes and heaving of chests. Wegener himself played the Golem, mostly stolid, but with small touches of wonder or sadness, then rage. I liked the scene where the Golem leaves the Rabbi’s house for the first time, and sees the sun. There’s a brief moment of amazement, and then he reverts to his usual impassive, automaton self.
I watched this movie back-to-back with James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein — a film to which it is often compared. There are definitely parallels: the motif of fire, of the creature’s encounter with young children, of the creature turning on its master, people hurled off buildings. Frankenstein’s monster loved the sun, too. But I thought that Der Golem‘s portrayal of the creature’s creator, and of the surrounding community, was far more sympathetic than the portrayals of the same in Frankenstein. But that’s an entirely different topic, and one that requires spoilers. I’ll save it for another blog post.
You can download Der Golem from the Internet Archive, free. It’s not a great print; the Kino International DVD is a better restoration. I’ve seen stills from that edition online; the sets look even more amazing, which is a good reason to spring for the DVD. But even Internet Archive’s copy is worth watching.
As an example of early horror, and of early German cinema’s Expressionist aesthetic, I definitely recommend Der Golem.
This post is part of the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VIII event – Peril on the Screen.
See more participants’ posts here.
All screenshots and the film clip were extracted by me from Internet Archive’s copy of the film.
 In fact, unlike many of the famous names of German expressionist cinema (Conrad Veidt, Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, and Karl Freund, just to name a few), Wegener did not leave Germany when the Nazis rose to power. Although he appeared in some state-sponsored propaganda films during the Nazi regime, he was a pacifist who contributed to anti-Nazi resistance groups. He also sheltered vulnerable people in his apartment to hide them from the Nazi (and later Soviet) forces. (back)