A 16th century Czech village erupts into panic after the sky-gazing Rabbi Loew interprets a star constellation as trouble for the local town-folk. Out of terror, the Emperor signs a decree forcing the Jews from the city. Meanwhile the Emperor’s knight Florian summons a “dread spirit” called Astro, in the hope that it will grant life to the Golem: an ominous contraption created by Rabbi Loew to protect the Jews from persecution.
With two new Frankenstein films on the horizon (Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein and Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein) this silent, German expressionist horror from 1920, plays like a disparate precursor to the numerous adaptations of Mary Shelly’s classic. Adapted from the 1915 novel by Gustav Meyrink about a burly clay creation cursed with life by man and spectre, Der Golem arrived in the same year as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and has over time grown into as strong a work as its widely lauded counterpart. Swelling with energy, mystery and pertinent themes, this aged monster movie is an overlooked gem for genre fans and stands mighty amongst the modern Frankenstein features, despite its crackling transfer and technical limitations.
Der Golem (original title: The Golem, How He Came Into The World) is the third entry in a trilogy of films to feature the maniacal brute, but it also serves as a prequel to its predecessors, The Golem (1915) and The Golem and The Dancing Girl (1917). Unfortunately, the first two entries have been officially declared “lost”, although eight minutes of footage from The Golem and The Dancing Girl was recently reported to be have been found in a private collection. What we’re left with is this compelling third part/ origin tale and a fascinating component to one of the first ever horror film trilogies. Der Golem features timeless, universal themes relating to religion and morality that are still relevant today, and provides fundamental substance to the story, set-pieces and enthralling visuals.
From the dark and mystifying opening act in which the humble Rabbi Loew gazes with wonder upon a shimmering galaxy, to the thunderous finale featuring a town torn apart, Directors Carl Boese and Paul Wegener (who also stars as the Golem) efficiently utilise a variety of genre traits to form a roaming tale of love and terror in a time of civil unrest. Metaphors lace the narrative with depth and probity along with a mysterious ethos linking mankind’s meddling God complex to it’s fundamental insecurity. These combined with an eerily prophetic political allegory make Der Golem an extraordinary near-classic that has been frequently side-lined into the shadows of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
The monster itself may appear a bit daft (like a muddied David Bautista with a plant pot on his head) and in the early scenes, it dodders along with its wicker basket like a constipated nan down a grocery aisle, but after being mistreated by the villagers, the being erupts into a formidable force. With eyes that chart a gradual descent into madness until it eventually explodes for the rollicking final act meltdown. “Your house is in flames- the Golem is raging!” comes the horrific cry from one of the villagers as they scarper for their lives and the small town crumbles around them. The horror in Der Golem is subtle and unnerving and the story feels spliced with facets from a variety of genres, all of which coalesce well. The love story element featuring the knight Florian and the Rabbi’s daughter is understated, well-performed and compliments the action, horror and suspense scenes while the epic, period setting and backdrops are specious and cheaply crafted but provide endearing character fitting to the visuals.
As a silent film, music is a key component and Der Golem’s soaring score (by Hans Landsberger, Karl-Ernst Sasse and Aljoscha Zimmerman) has served as an inspiration to many famous composers over the years (it’s influence can be heard on John Williams’ work on The Phantom Menace), effectively conveying emotions that could not be expressed through diegetic sound. Meanwhile dark, nebulous imagery twitches within the twisted, flickering celluloid infusing a unique and foreboding mood. Creepy, gothic gypsies, shots of black cats, ruins, spurious mountainous backdrops (that are probably made out of card) and an ending that brings to mind a key moment from Frankenstein, all combine to make Der Golem a flawed but sterling work. In the ninety five years since its creation, Der Golem still stands strong as a classic horror, stunted only by its technical limitations and patchwork design, it still serves as a vital reminder that story and imagination are the key factors in creating unforgettable cinema, and ensuring a film remains unusual, relevant and forever lasting.
Words: Dan Goodwin