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Ominous October: The Golem (1920)

It's October and you know what that means, spooky-themed movies!

SAMANTHA GLASSER: In medieval Prague, a Jewish ghetto is threatened with banishment and violence by the king. The rabbi takes matters into his own hands by crafting a golem (Paul Wegener) to work for and protect them. Though he makes the inhabitants uncomfortable, the golem's work proves useful until the stars align and make him violent and unmanageable.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: This is the sort of film that you don’t really watch for the plot, which was more than a little threadbare to me. However, the visuals and sets are astounding and offer more than enough to hold the viewer’s attention span. Fascinating camera angles and a dark, moody tone permeate the entire film thanks to a striking piece of work by Karl Freund.

SG: The rabbi's daughter (Lyda Salmonova) has a dalliance with the messenger sent to oust the Jews, which doesn't make her sympathetic, so later when the golem attacks her, I was indifferent to her fate. Given the state of the world with Israel and Gaza, the main conflict feels more high stakes.

RB: Indifferent is a good word here, as I didn’t find myself particularly interested in what happened to either the daughter or the messenger, although I did note the hypocrisy of the messenger, as he clearly didn’t really believe the edict that he was forced to deliver. As you mentioned, it was difficult to avoid considering current events the entire time that I watched this film in a way that frankly, at times made me uncomfortable. Of course, we had chosen this film for discussion six weeks ago or so, and had no concept of what was going to happen in the time between then and now.

SG: We had no intention to tie this movie to what is going on with the world, but I think the similarities make this film more potent and terrible.

The acting style is antiquated, exaggerated and slow. There is very little substantive action in this movie. It could have easily been condensed into a short. In fact, Wegener directed and starred in shorter versions of the legend in 1914 and 1917, also with Salmonova. "He brings to the screen he immense imaginative possibilities of the futurist school of dramatic expression," wrote Agnes Smith of Picture Play magazine.

RB: Wegener was reportedly not pleased with the earlier versions of this legend that he had directed (one of which, I understand, was actually a parody), but the third time was a charm both professionally and personally as he had finally found a formula for the film that worked for audiences. He only made one film in the US, The Magician, which you didn’t like at all when we reviewed it here. He was obviously a complicated man, who made films like this one that are well known not just among classic movie buffs, but horror movie fans as well, yet he also made German propaganda films during World War II (although, I suppose, one could argue did he even had a choice in the matter).

SG: I had high hopes for this film. The German expressionist sets are impressive, but they suggest a demented menacing atmosphere that isn't achieved with the storytelling. "Space is vivified and the uncanny plot is marvelously emphasized," wrote Laurence Reid for Motion Picture News. "The twisted streets, the topsy-turvy steeples and towers, the weird passageways of the Ghetto-- these are completely fascinating and bring a mystic touch to the fantastic story.... [it] takes one through a fairy, Old World atmosphere and leaves an ineradicable impression." The sets were designed by architect Hans Poelzig and his wife Marlene and constructed by Kurt Richter at Templehof.

Eli Orowitz wrote for Exhibitor's Herald, "The Golem is screen literature. There is enough curiosity in America for that sort of thing to make an exhibitor rich, if he will appeal to the intelligence of the patrons... There is similarity between it and the old Frankenstein monster legend."

RB: The film has aged particularly well when assessed by modern reviewers. Leonard Maltin gives the film 3 ½ out of four stars and a google search will net you countless essays praising the film from modern buffs. It was a major success when initially released in the US in 2021, breaking records in large cities during the summer months.

SG: Jerome Beatty and Claud Saunders from Paramount's exploitation department designed posters which featured a prominent yellow "O" in "Golem," representing the yellow "O" the Jews wore in Prague to identify themselves, just as Hitler made them wear a star of David in later years.

RB: I really don’t know what to say. There are few times when I read about something in the early 20th century that astounds me in its’ sheer insensitivity, but that one does. Perhaps hindsight is 20-20 in this case. Hard to say.

SG: "The leading woman is especially unattractive and without histrionic ability," wrote another reviewer for Exhibitor's Herald. " The lighting, photography and general detail is lacking, and the characters, many of them, are overdone in make-up."

RB: For his part, Wegener didn’t find her unattractive, as he married her (twice), and presumably chose to have her photographed that way.

SG: Though I was unfamiliar with the legend of the golem before discovering this film, I believe young audiences may connect with the story more than my generation because of the existence of golems in Minecraft. Various types can be summoned to guard property or to do tasks like unlocking doors.

RB: That’s the magic of having young kids, as I never would’ve made that connection, but I’m always interested in how these things permeate into modern pop culture. That’s a good one.

SG: The Kino print from 2002 has been improved upon with the 100th anniversary Blu-ray release. The film is incomplete, but compiled from several prints to make the most complete version possible. Still, I wonder if the missing footage affects the story.

RB: Obviously, a film this visually stunning benefits from a quality presentation and Kino is to be applauded for the care that went into their release. That the film exists in any form is something of a triumph, and the survival of it is a story that I’d be interested in learning more about.

SG: I found the pacing to be plodding without enough of a payoff to justify my efforts to finish the movie. An early example of expressionism, it was influential to far better films to come later. Two stars.

RB: I tend to agree with you here. For the reputation that the film has as a precursor of the modern American horror film, I expected more to love here. While it is beautifully shot, it pales in comparison to the films that followed it in tone and subject matter. At the risk of alienating those who understand German expressionist cinema more than I do, I will also bestow two stars upon the film and hope for better viewing in coming weeks.

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I'm working on a remake with an all-Gentile cast: DER GOYEM.

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