Not quite the origin story of the Batman villain, Clayface . . . .
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It’s hard to talk about this movie without mentioning two things: Nazi Germany and FRANKENSTEIN. More on that later.
One night in the 16th Century,while engaging in some astronomy, Rabbi Löw reads doom up in the stars. He doesn’t know exactly what is going to happen, but it’s going to be disastrous, so he warns his people just before Knight Florian, an emissary from Emperor Rudolf II, arrives with the new decree: as punishment for killing Christ and for practicing the dark arts (among other crimes), the Jews are to be confined to the ghetto.
[On a side note, that may sound odd to modern day people. The original meaning of the word was a section of town designated for those of Jewish descent, although the people who came up with that idea probably didn’t word it quite so nicely.]
Löw understandably doesn’t want his people to suffer in such a manner, so he concocts a plan which involves the creation of a golem. Based on an old Hebrew myth, the golem is a man molded from clay and given life by engraving a word for life on his chest (SHEM). Whosoever creates such a creature thereby controls it. Given that the writers of this movie, Paul Wegener (who also directs and stars) and Henrik Galeen, actually buy into that whole Jew/black magic paradigm, they have to change it around a little bit. Löw has to summon the god Astaroth when the stars are right (of course) and get that word, so he can put it in an amulet and attach it to the golem’s chest.
As a result, the Jewish people of 16th Century Prague now have a defender, and Löw is prepared to take his case to the emperor.
You see? It’s kind of difficult to avoid certain topics when looking at this silent picture. A lot of people can point out how it was made in 1920, long before the Nazis started delegating Jews to concentration camps, but one must also remember that this wouldn’t be the first time that has ever happened. Even the Bible gives examples of how Jews have been rounded up; remember Babylon? However, the fact that German filmmakers chose this movie at that time makes one wonder . . . how much did Wegener see coming for the future of his homeland?
And then there is the FRANKENSTEIN connection. Löw molds his creature in secrecy, just as Dr. Frankenstein did his. When the golem walks the streets of Prague, children find him delightful (as did the one child in Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, unfortunately), but the adults have nothing but fear for him (again, sound familiar?). And when it comes right down to it, both creatures desperately want life, and they’ll destroy anything and anyone in their way to preserve it.
All of that is well and good, but the important thing is, how does this film stand on its own, separated from historical context and literary comparison?
It’s hard to say. Being a silent film, it’s hard to talk about the acting. We have vastly different standards today, and if anyone had tried pulling this stuff off now, they’d be considered a ham. Given a modern point of view, these actors manage to do a decent job. They all do the best to express themselves without going overboard with the exception of Lothar Muthel, who plays Florian. He goes so far over the top with that stupid grin of his (to say nothing of his prissy prancing) that it’s almost a parody of silent film acting.
Another odd discrepancy in what is expected of a silent picture is the color. This is not a strictly black and white movie. There are glorious blues and greens and reds. It’s not quite as subtle as, say, SCHINDLER’S LIST or SIN CITY, as Wegener tends to bathe the entire screen with one of these colors, but it seems so out of place and experimental for the era. When Prague burns near the end, everything is in red, and when Löw goes stargazing, everything is blue. It seems that inside scenes at night are colored green, and everything else goes to the usual black and white.
The sets are what one would expect from German Expressionism (check out Löw’s insanely shaped couch), yet oddly enough, some of them look like they could have come from Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop. In particular, the emperor’s palace looks like something that might have been right at home in, say, Rivendell. The special effects in this scene are pretty impressive, too. Löw sets a trap by saying he’s going to perform some magic tricks, but people must remain silent and not laugh. He then, via magical abilities, shows them images of the Wandering Jew, which sends them into gales of laughter. The image then grows angry and starts tearing the palace down. The emperor cries out that he’ll pardon the Jews if Löw can save them. He does, with help from the golem.
Speaking of things that seem out of place, there is one scene where Florian and Miriam (Löw’s daughter, played by Lyda Salmonova) express their love for one another. Things get strangely borderline pornographic. He blindly reaches out for her breasts and caresses her, breathing heavily. Yet when one thinks about it, movies were pretty new back then, and there was a lot of experimentation with sexuality. Seeing a tit shot wasn’t out of the ordinary in those days, and you don’t even get to see either of Miriam’s. Yet if this had been filmed, say, ten or twenty years later, it might have been a different story.
But any conversation about this film is useless without talking about the golem himself. Played by writer/director Wegener, he is truly the star of this picture, much the same way as the creature is in FRANKENSTEIN. Most viewers don’t remember Rabbi Löw (or Dr. Frankenstein, for that matter) as much as the golem.
Wegener plays the golem as stiff and awkward in all movements, as if he is not used to walking. His hands are molded poorly, and he never uses them well. If he carries something, it’s on his forearm. When he shows affection, he is feared. When he saves the Jews from the emperor and Löw wants to retire him, he reacts by threatening his creator, he wants to retain his life that much. However, Wegener kind of chickens out a bit when he shows an excerpt from Löw’s book of magic showing that given enough time, a golem will turn against his master and destroy everything in sight. He doesn’t have the courage to let viewers recognize that this clay creature is just like them with his own survival instinct. He feels the need to make the golem a monster, which seems to contradict the rest of the movie.
This isn’t the only fault. In the scene where Löw reads up on how to make a golem, the book says that the stars must be right. Well, what if they weren’t? Was it just a coincidence that they were? Which, by the way, is a more important concern in the end, when Prague is burning, and Löw is trying to save it by using a fire spell. What if the stars weren’t right then, either?
Speaking of which, this film was altered a little for English speaking audiences. This meant that when the camera focused on German writing, it had to be switched out for English. This never works well. All of these scenes simply look silly. They clearly don’t belong with the rest of the movie.
There are also a few unnecessary scenes, like when Miriam is primping herself for no reason at all (she hasn’t even met Florian yet; in fact, we don’t even know who she is at this point), and the ending is kind of lame. SPOILER ALERT: the fire spell works, and with very little effort. It’s almost a deus ex machina. And after setting Prague on fire and kidnapping Miriam, why does the golem just leave town, drop her off on a rock, and wander away? It makes no sense. The worst bLöw of all: the golem returns to the village and is beguiled by a child. Smiling, he picks her up, and she innocently pulls the amulet off his chest, robbing him of the life he fought so hard for. She dashes the amulet on the ground with childlike glee and gets her friends to hang out around the lifeless hunk of clay that was once the golem. A story this big can’t be resolved by a simple accident. That kind of thing might work for Kurt Vonnegut novels, but it doesn’t work for German Expressionism. END OF SPOILERS.
Yet for all the silly Jew/black magic stuff, it does lead to one of the most memorable scenes of the movie. Löw has just finished molding the golem, and now he must summon Astaroth for the word that will give the creature life. He stands in a circle, which suddenly bursts into fire. Balls of flame dance around his head, and lightning strikes all around him. And then, Astaroth’s giant head floats out of the darkness, breathing smoke, and it’s just so creepy, it’s almost off the chart. A scene like this shouldn’t work, but it does. It will stay with you for a long time.
When one thinks of great silent pictures, they think mostly about Lon Chaney movies, like THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or SHOCK or even the lost LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. Or maybe they think of D.W. Griffith and Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. And when you think of German silent pictures, it’s usually NOSFERATU or THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI that get mentioned. Sure, they all deserve to be called great movies, but why is DER GOLEM not among their number? It’s a crime, as it is superior to almost all of them. It creeps into your mind with its enchanting music and images, and it finds a place in your soul because it can be dissected at so many levels. You can’t say that about many movies today, really.
Give DER GOLEM a chance. You won’t forget it.Have You Read...?