Friday, November 9, 2012

Movie Review: Der Golem (1920)

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) directed by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener

Part of the fun of going places is getting to see them on film afterward (or if you are really organized, before). I've had this film in my DVD collection for some time and finally watched it now that we've visited Prague. In the film, Prague is more or less unrecognizable compared to today. That's for several reasons. The primary reason is that it was not filmed in Prague, but in Germany. Also, it's set in the 1500s, so it has a more medieval look to it. Finally, the movie is an early example of the German Expressionist style that is seen in movies like Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The sets and visuals are very stylized and meaningful and less realistic. As a representation of Prague, it's not so good, but it is not meant to be historically accurate.

The story begins with an edict by the emperor declaring the Jews have less than a month to evacuate their quarter of the city. The justification is stereotypical: the Jews killed Jesus, they cheat at business, they practice black magic, etc. A knight is sent to deliver the message. He brings it to the house of Rabbi Loew, who has already predicted the coming calamity. He saw it in the stars. The knight delivers the message and catches the eye of Miriam, the Rabbi's daughter. She catches his eye too. The Rabbi sends the knight back requesting an audience with the emperor (they know each other since he has drawn the emperor's horoscope many times). Meanwhile, the leaders of the Jews gather to decide what to do.

Rabbi Loew heads off to his basement to consult his various books of arcane lore. He decides to build the Golem, a human figure made from clay and given life force by a special word. In order to get that word, he must summon the demon Astaroth, who reveals the life giving word. The Rabbi writes it on a piece of paper, puts the paper in an amulet, and attaches it to the Golem's chest. The construct then comes to life to do the bidding of its master. The Rabbi has been invited to entertain at a feast the emperor is having and he brings the Golem with him.

The movie unfolds in interesting ways and the special effects are quite amazing for the period. The sequence where the Rabbi summons the demon is impressive but not scary. Paul Wegener, who wrote and directed the film, also plays the Golem and gives a good though not great performance. Like all great movie monsters, there's a mixture of good and bad in him. He's sometimes sympathetic which makes his evil actions all the worse when they do come. The knight and the daughter are pretty good. They communicate a lot through looks and touches.

The movie definitely had an impact on later films, both in Germany and the United States. I already mentioned the silent-era German Expressionist films that followed Der Golem. James Whale's Frankenstein borrows quite a few specific visuals as well as the overall style. The other Universal horror movies (Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, etc.) mimic the style in greater or lesser degrees. Even the film noir movement of the 1940s and 50s owes a debt to expressionism in general if not this movie in particular.

While not as great as the films that followed it, Der Golem is still interesting and worth watching. I have the Kino edition of the film on DVD. Kino generally puts out the best silent films. They get the best prints available and have fine musical accompaniment.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing the movie review, I could now think of watching the movie

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