Today marks a special day for Tales from the Border, as I partake for the first time in a blogathon! This first blogathon is the Silent Cinema Blogathon, hosted by the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin. Please head over to the blogathon page and have a look at all of the other great blogs contributing to this event. I have written on the German Expressionist classic, The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920), a cinematic oddity that will leave a profound impact on all viewers. Enjoy!
The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) ranks among the most utterly bizarre of silent films. It combines both the naturalism of Nosferatu (1922) and the over-the-top visual gothic of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). It’s a film focusing on the plight of the Jews in a largely anti-Semitic time, filmed in Germany in the year of 1920 and on the cusp of near social-collapse. There’s plenty of evidence that it is both a Jewish film to its core and an anti-Semitic production. It’s a film of polarities and unity, order and chaos.
I think it’s because of these bizarre qualities that the film has fallen by the wayside, giving way to more overtly gothic expressionist horrors from Germany of the time. It never quite goes all the way into the realm of the gothic, though acclaimed cinematographer Karl Freund makes great use of the gothic in his lighting and photography. Perhaps the film cannot be considered a purely gothic experience; rather, it straddles the line of being the cinematic equivalent of a fairy tale, carrying across the stylistic choices and morality of these tales.
In this respect, The Golem ranks among the finest silent fairy tales committed to the screen. For those that have loved films such as Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Jean Cocteau’s The Beauty and the Beast (1946), you will find much to love in The Golem. But at the same time, there are marked differences. The film doesn’t have the effervescent air that these others have. It is frequently grotesque and unnatural, and this odd combination of sumptuous visuals with the more horror-themed material creates a jagged edge that these other films don’t have.
The center of all of these opposites and polarities is director and star Paul Wegener’s Golem. He is created by Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) to protect the Jewish people of medieval Prague from an oncoming calamity that the Rabbi forsees in the stars. He is so desperate to save his people that he uses the black arts to craft the Golem out of clay, and then summon the demon Astaroth to tell him the word of life. With this word he brings the Golem to life. In many respects the Golem is just another representation of that most insidious of gothic terrors, Frankenstein’s monster, but in many other ways he has a symbolic power that Mary Shelley’s creation lacks. He is at once both a cultural hero of the Jewish people, and a ghastly anti-Semitic caricature. He is the rage incarnate of the Jewish people against those who would supress them, and also a symbol of their oncoming destruction. The fact that such a film was made in 1920s Germany, a time in which the Nazi Party was growing and which would capitalise on common anti-Semitism also speaks to the cultural relevancy of the film.
The character that spoke most to me in these respects is the Knight Florian, played by Lothar Müthel. He is full of contradictions. He is sent by the Emperor to deliver the decree that would banish the Jews from their ghetto. And upon arriving, his initial interactions with guards show full his hatred of the Jews. He literally smacks hands away, disgusted at the mere thought that a Jew would touch him. But then, upon seeing Miriam (Lyda Salmonova), the Rabbi’s daughter, he begins to pursue her affections. This seemed at odds to me. What are his intentions here? Is he an anti-Semite who sees the opportunity for sexual activity with one of the locals? Or are his intentions more honest? I don’t think you can relegate his role in the film to being simply an anti-Semite who wants to sleep with someone he considers below him. There is one particularly sexual scene in which he puts his hand upon Miriam’s chest, and she begins to shudder in response. In scenes like this, it does seem that he is merely interested in sex. But in others, such as when he sleeps the night in her arms, suggest a genuine intimacy between the two, one not possible if he was entirely anti-Semitic. Is love changing him? Unfortunately the answer will never be completely be clear, as he is quickly dispatched by the Golem, who throws him from the roof.
What exactly were director/writer/star Paul Wegener’s intentions with this film? I can’t say for sure. But like the very best of fairy tales, it is a cinematic oddity full of multiple meanings and dualities. It’s a film that only grew with social relevance in the 1930s and 40s. Wegener’s own life is full of these dualities as well; whilst Jewish artists were arrested, persecuted, and exiled under the reign of the Nazis, Paul Wegener became an actor of the state. At the same time, he donated lots of money to resistance groups and also hid the persecuted in his own home. Wegener, much like his magnum opus, is an oddity.
The Golem is very much worth your time, and I urge all with an interest in Jewish cultural studies and the history of silent cinema to search it out. If you find it even a little bit perplexing, then you’ll understand my thoughts on the film. At once a cinematic spectacle and a culturally important film, both beautiful and grotesque. The Golem is a film that will be talked about far into the years to come.