The Golem, a clay figure of a man brought to life, is a legendary creature in Jewish folklore. While that description may make the Golem sound like a precursor to Frankenstein’s monster, in fact the Golem has more in common with Superman than with Mary Shelley’s creation. Victor Frankenstein created his monster out of scientific hubris, while the creation of the Golem had quite a different purpose—to protect the Jews of Prague from the dangers of the anti-Semitic world in which they lived.
Some speculate that Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster were inspired by the legend of the Golem when they created Superman, which is not out of the question considering how well known the Golem story is. Plus, they created the Man of Steel at a time when a contemporary human evil was once again threatening the existence of the Jewish people. Whether the Golem was an inspiration for Superman or not, the legend has plenty of other admirers, and inspired a fair number of movies, of which the best known is the 1920 film The Golem: How He Came Into the World. Paul Wegener stars as the legendary creature, and also co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed this film (Wegener must have really liked this legend, since this is the third movie he made about it; the other two are lost).
The Golem opens with Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) reading the stars and determining that a disaster will soon befall his community. Sure enough, the next day the Holy Roman Emperor (Otto Gebühr) orders all the Jews to leave Prague, and sends the knight Florian (Lothar Müthel) to deliver the news. On the way, Florian finds time to flirt with the rabbi’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova, stuck in a thankless role as a medieval floozy), a point that will prove important later. Loew creates the Golem out of clay and brings him alive through an amulet containing a sacred word, then brings him to the royal court to impress everyone. Loew also creates a magic show telling the history of the Jews (so, apparently, he is guilty of performing magic, one of the charges specified in the Emperor’s edict).
This exhibition works—the Emperor is so impressed, especially after the Golem saves everyone from a building collapse, that he decides not to expel the Jews after all. And there’s a whole lot more that happens, because this screenplay is as overstuffed as are many others of the period. However, the plot isn’t really the point—like many silent films, this one is all about the visuals.
The Golem is a fine example of German silent filmmaking at its best, and particularly excels in terms of production design. Architect Hans Poelzig created a highly stylized series of sets to represent the city of Prague, and they manage to not only suggest the Middle Ages, but also to incorporate anthropomorphic designs recalling, among other things, the interior of the human heart and lungs. The acting is highly melodramatic, as was typical of the time period, but the acting crew is excellent, as is the cinematography by Karl Freund and Guido Seeber.| Sarah Boslaugh
The Golem is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. While you can see this film in any number of badly deteriorated public domain copies, you can’t really appreciate it until you’ve seen this 4K restoration. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by Tim Lucas, a side-by-side comparison of two restorations of original negatives of Der Golem (a 1995/2003 restoration of the export negative and the 2018 Murnau Foundation restoration of the German distribution negative) (22 min.) and the complete U.S. release version (60 min., so about 15 minutes shorter than the German version) You also have your choice of three scores, by Stephen Home, Admir Shkurtaj, and Lukasz “Wudec” Poleszak.