The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

*. For all its importance, I find there actually isn’t that much discussion of The Golem these days. When you do hear it mentioned it’s usually seen as a precursor to Frankenstein or as an example of early German horror. I think both approaches are a bit misleading.
*. There had actually been a production of Frankentstein in 1910 that still survives. Mary Shelley’s novel is often considered one of the first works of science fiction, with the corpse being reanimated by an electrical charge, but in that 1910 film science is tossed out the window for magical effects. The Monster rises out of a sorcerer’s cauldron that a bunch of chemicals have been thrown into.
*. In The Golem magic is again made to do all the work. Rabbi Loew’s creature is also not a corpse but a clay model, though his book on Necromancy does state that the “life-giving word will awaken any and every thing, whether corpse or man’s creation.” So this is not really a Frankenstein story in that regard. The fantastic lab in the 1931 Frankenstein was something new on film.
*. I think it’s also a stretch to think of The Golem as a horror film. I don’t say that because it’s not a scary movie. I think we can agree that most scary movies from a hundred years ago aren’t very scary today. But I don’t think The Golem even tries to be a scary movie. The Golem isn’t a monster to be revealed like in those shocking jump cuts in Frankenstein. Within the film he’s not a source of fear but a figure to be marveled at, with the children of the ghetto following him around like he’s the friendly giant. The only time he seems scary is when he hunts down the foppish lover, who he is perhaps jealous of (they both like smelling flowers). But even in these scenes he looks to me like the Stay Puft marshmallow man at the end of Ghostbusters.

*. The Ghostbusters reference probably isn’t fair, though I can’t not see it. I also think the people behind Iron Man must have been thinking of this movie when they gave Tony Stark a power source in his chest not unlike the amulet here. And that’s what the Golem really is more than a horror icon: a superhero out of a folk tale (the comic books of yesteryear). His reverse-Samson being the most obvious Superman moment.
*. Is the Golem still a Jewish superhero? It seems more to have been a fixation of Paul Wegener’s, and this was in fact his third Golem film (his appearance being much the same in each). As far as its representation of the ghetto though it strikes me as problematic. I’m not sure what we’re to make of the way that the knight Florian is disposed of. Sure he’s a fool, but is he a bad guy? And is Loew’s assistant, who Miriam is apparently reunited with at the end, any better? What is he asking forgiveness for? What he did to Florian, or for burning a big chunk of the ghetto down? It seems as though there’s some kind of fear of miscegenation driving all this.

*. This point is left up in the air, but I feel that it’s important, as the relationship between the Jews and the other townspeople is a major theme in the film. I don’t know how, or if, it’s resolved.

*. For the most part this seems to me to be a film of mainly historical interest. Cinematographer Karl Freund would go on to shoot Dracula and directed The Mummy and Mad Love, allowing him to play a big role in defining the visual atmosphere of American horror in the 1930s. That said, The Golem doesn’t strike me as a particularly rich film visually. It looks good, but it’s not striking in the way that Caligari or Nosferatu still are, and its eponymous hero never achieved the same iconic status as the vampire or mad doctor. Meanwhile, the story doesn’t hold my interest as much as those films either.
*. Classic American horror films were B pictures, and sometimes not even very good B pictures, that for one reason or another struck a nerve and kept on growing. Despite its production values, The Golem feels like a B picture that still is.

9 thoughts on “The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

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