My love affair with silent films began with "The Golem". I was introduced to this movie on a wintry January night, with the lights off. The flickering images, the "Brandenburg Concerto" soundtrack, and the film's angular sets, left a lasting impression on me, and it wasn't long before I started dreaming in black and white with a classical score. I watched it again this year, at midnight on Halloween, and was captivated all over again.<...
The story of the Golem is timeless (it even made a recent appearance in "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay"). The creature is brought to life from clay to protect the inhabitants of a medieval Jewish community from destruction at the hands of the Emperor. But the prophecies from which he's born also foresee his turning against his creators, and those are of course fulfilled when the Rabbi's daughter carries on an affair with the Emperor's knight. The Golem's death is a stunning moment, coming from a most unexpected pair of hands.
The look of the film (if you can discern it on VHS) is remarkable. The village's homes and towers are stark angular shapes, jutting up against a starry night sky. The appearance of the demon Astaroth, who reveals the Golem's secrets, is remarkably realized, as are the words that form from his breath.
The legend changes with each telling, but the core details should be familiar to most, and are echoed in many other sources down through history (the "Frankenstein" parallels are easy to see). If you can secure a good print of this movie (or even if you can't), the images will stay with you for a long time.
on April 24, 2004
Even on budget dvd (spotty print quality, meaningless background music) watching Paul Wegener's 1920 THE GOLEM is quite an experience.
It's 16th century Prague and the stars imply, and the Emperor impels, an eviction of the ghetto Jews. Their crimes - practicing the black arts, despising Holy Christian ceremonies, etc. In desperation Rabbi Loew, nominal leader of the ghetto, invokes the dread spirit Astaroth to reveal the magic word that will bring the Golem to life.
The Golem is a large clay figure in the form of a man. This faithful servant of Rabbi Loew's possesses superhuman strength and seems invulnerable - daggers bend and break rather than penetrate its skin. It accompanies Rabbi Loew to the Emperor's palace on a mission to have the edict revoked, and the Golem is instrumental in accomplishing that goal.
Of course, the movie reminds us of the dictum that should be engraved on the hearts of all mad scientists everywhere - "If you have brought the dead to life through magic, beware that life." The last third of the movie shows what happens when Man's creation stop obeying the will of their creators.
For me, the big hurdle to clear when watching silent movies is to realize they're NOT over acting. Without sound, emotions have to be expressed with some exaggeration. If you're afraid, eyes pop and mouth gapes and curled fingers cover your face. With sound that type of acting looks ridiculous. This is the second silent movie I've watched recently, and it's getting easier. The acting here is fine.
It's amazing how familiar everything looks. The sets, with walls cantered at weird angles and their organic architecture (there's a spiral stone staircase that seems to have been carved from standing rock), would fit comfortably in a Tim Burton movie. I've seen the painted starscape and arched gables in Charles Laughton's NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. The Golem busts down the ghetto gate just like King Kong, and confronts the little blonde girl in the same manner as Karloff did in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
I imagine all this was a lot scarier then than it is now, but it's still well worth everyone's time. If the score and print quality had been higher, I would have given this one five stars.
on October 1, 2002
THE GOLEM is one of those movies that many people have seen stills from or have read about but up until now have not the opportunity to see it as it was intended to be seen. Copies of it have been around for years but as was often the case with silent films until recently, it was available only in poor quality prints projected at the wrong speed with inappropriate or no music background at all. This new Kino DVD remedies that situation and is likely to be the best edition we're likely to see for some time.
The story concerns a Jewish ghetto in 16th century Prague which is saved by the creation of a clay man who is brought to life and becomes their protector. After his task is finished, he refuses to return to clay and runs amok until he is finally vanquished by the hands of a child. This is a remake of an earlier film which also featured writer and co-director Paul Wegener as the creature. Much of the Golem legend would be used by Mary Shelley in FRANKENSTEIN and this movie would be recycled by James Whale and Boris Karloff for the famous 1931 film. It is fascinating to watch this film today not only for its highly stylised sets and striking cinematography but also for its positive portrayal of Jewish life which was possible in 1920 Germany but not 13 years later.
This is by far and away the best version of this film that I have seen. It is still a little washed out in places but the restored tinting helps to minimize that. Most of the print is sharp and clear with the stylised details quite vivid especially in the ghetto scenes. The newly composed soundtrack by Aljoscha Zimmermann incorporates Jewish melodies with folk dance material and is very effective. This is one of four new releases in Kino's German Horror Classics series that also features authorized versions of CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (a knockout), NOSFERATU, and the rarely seen WAXWORKS. They can be obtained seperately or all together in a box set. If you are one of the ever growing number of silent movie fans then this movie, indeed this set, is a must.
on October 26, 2004
In considering silent films to be shown in our church sanctuary accompanied by pipe organ, I recommended this film because of the weighty issues it exposes. The "Frankenstein" theme--humankind's limitations in controlling life we create--is more relevant today than in 16th century Prague or 19th century England. Genetic manipulation brings forth moral, ethical, and religious questions. But there is much more to "Der Golem".
One of the fascinating subtleties of this film is the use of symbolic imagery. For instance, note that the six-pointed Star of David is used when religious practices are depicted and five-pointed stars are used for occult practices. The Burtonesque structures that seem on the verge of keeling over imbue the ghetto with a vague sense of unease and disjointedness that mirrors the social disconnectedness of the golem. Themes of redemption, purity, reconciliation, and childlike belief are evident. I was also impressed by the respectful treatment of the Jews and their religious practices in this film.
The intensely emotional expressions in the clay face of the golem convincingly portray the wrenching and rending of the fabric of a personality that longs to live and move among humans and will never be able to do so. The golem is never portrayed as evil himself, but rather as the product of, in modern terms, bad genes and emotional deprivation. I do not consider this to be a true horror film, because I think it was intended, through the portrait of a "lost soul", to cause viewers examine their own perceptions of themselves and others.
I orignally gave four stars because of the lousy score in the Gotham Distribution release, which is a ten- or fifteen-minute loop of music that is totally inappropriate to the scenarios. I have since purchased the Kino release and found the score to be sensitive to the emotional breadth of the movie and evocative of Jewish ghetto life, the frivolity of the court, and nuances of scene through use of musical motifs. I still hope to someday see this film accompanied by a world-class organist on a world-class organ.
"The Golem: How He Came into The World" (1920) is the only extant film in Paul Wegener's Golem trilogy, which was the first horror series in cinema. "The Golem" (1915) and "The Golem and the Dancing Girl" (1917) did not survive, but that doesn't matter in viewing the third film, because "How He Came into The World" is a prequel, not a sequel. It retells the most famous Golem story, inspired by the 16th century Jewish legend of a monster made of clay and brought to life to protect the persecuted Jews of Prague. Paul Wegener wrote, co-directed, and played the Golem himself.
The mystical Rabbi Low (Albert Steinruck), spiritual leader of the Jewish community in Prague, foresees disaster for his people. A decree from the Emperor follows shortly, accusing Jews of practicing Black Magic and ordering them evacuate the Jewish quarter. Low pursues a diplomatic solution by seeking an audience with the Emperor (Otto Gebuhr), whom he has served in the past. But he also constructs a giant creature of clay, whom he brings to life through magic to be his servant and save the Jews if necessary. Meanwhile, the Emperor's envoy Knight Florian (Lothar Muthel) is charmed by Low's daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova).
"The Golem" waits until very late in the film to create tension. It doesn't get into full gear until the Golem becomes disobedient and Florian and Miriam's relationship heats up. There seems not to have been any attempt to pace the film, but it's only 86 minutes long. The sets are elaborate, both indoors and in the streets of the Jewish quarter. I found myself trying to make out the background detail during the Emperor's Rose Festival. Whatever is on that wall is fascinating. I was also impressed by the technical ability to project one film almost seamlessly into another during the same sequence.
Thematically, the story seems muddled. Although it is ultimately sympathetic to the Jews, who are the film's main characters, the gentiles' fear of them is, at least in part, justified. The Jews are accused of practicing black magic. And what does the Rabbi do but bring an uncontrollable menace to life through pagan magic? Of course, the story of the Golem is a cautionary tale and a reflection on the implications of hubris and violence. This film's ambitions are more circumscribed. We don't see enough of the Golem or know enough about the characters to get more sophisticated than a simple morality play and horror movie, but it's entertaining.
The DVD (Kino 2002): This is a restored print of the film, but there are some cracks and imperfections. The restoration was supervised in Italy, but most of the footage comes from a German print of the film held by MOMA. Additional footage and intertitles were taken from a copy held in Moscow, and some intertitles were taken from 1931 censor records. The color tints are based on an Italian print of the film. This is the widest variety in color tints I've seen in one film: green, purple, blue, salmon, pink, amber, and red. It's bright. Newly translated blue intertitles look nice. I assume the text we see for books & notices are also new, as they are in English and unblemished.
There are a few bonus features. "Excerpts from Julien Duvivier's 1936 film 'Le Golem'" (6 min) shows that beginning of that French film, complete with lions. "Creation: A Comparison" compares scenes of the monster's creation from Wegener's film with an excerpt from the novel by Chayim Bloch (text) and with the scene in which Faust summons Mephisto in F.W. Murnau's "Faust". There is also a Gallery of Photos and Artwork containing 16 movie stills and related illustrations.
on May 31, 2000
The cinematography in this movie is STUNNING. One feels as though one were a captive in an alternate dimension of reality; an almost Lovecraftian world where the very geometry of the buildings seems to writhe and come to life. The atmosphere of Budapest in the Middle Ages seems to be captured perfectly. After the Jews being ousted from the town by royal decree, the leader of the Jewish community crafts the Golem out of clay and brings him to life in a black magical ceremony (interesting to note that among the crimes accused of the Jews in the edict, one was witchcraft). The Golem then is brought before the king and results in the Jews being allowed to remain. But the Golem falls in love(!) with a young lady and runs amok. The story is a classic and there is a considerable amount of drama here, but the real gem of this movie are the incredible visuals and the atmosphere. One of the greatest expressionist classics ever made. Far superior to "Caligari" in my opinion.
on June 13, 2003
The Golem is a terrific film from the silent era. The story is compelling, the setting is marvellous, and the look of the film overall is perfect for a story such as this. I won't bore everyone with a summary, but merely say that this film is for anyone who likes gothic horrors/thillers and maybe has an interest in reliogious issues.
Kino's DVD is the finest version of the film yet. Not all films are given the treatment that Metropilis recently got, but the restoration done of The Golem is quite nice. I can't say I care much for the colour tinting, but that's a small quibble. The music composed for the film is appropriate, but not great. Certainly not as good as the very fine scores written by Timothy Brock for Kino's releases of Faust and The Last Laugh - I wonder what he could have done.
In any case, The Golem is worth adding to your collection if you like silent classics and supernatural thillers. I wouldn't rank it as high as Lang or Murnau's work, but it IS a terrific film.
on March 18, 2014
This comment is mainly about the background music of this version of "Golem" (with the yellow font on the DVD case). Count me as a lover of this movie, which helped introduce me to the silent film genre. Yes, it's splotchy, with poor lighting typical of the 1920 era. But this film clearly heavily influenced the Karloff version of Frankenstein in many, obvious ways.
Now, about the music. Some reviewers consider it "meaningless". To each their own. Other versions of Golem used different music, e.g., the Brandenburg Concerto. However, in this particular version, shown above with the yellow "Golem" lettering and little girl.... after more than 5 years of searching I finally discovered the beautiful (in my opinion) background music: Bruckner's Symphony #2 in C minor. It uses themes from the first movement, for the most part. Gorgeous, atmospheric music. It was very difficult finding this because, as noted by another reviewer, the DVD and case have no music credits whatsoever. After years of detective work and some knowledge of classical music, I gradually narrowed it down from "some kind of German Romantic music", through "possibly Brahms or Mahler", and finally realized "it's Bruckner's 2nd!". Enjoy!
on November 24, 2013
This is one of those great old silent films one hears of, sees stills from, but has a hard time finding. I highly recommend it for anyone who loves silent film or would like to explore it. It's beautifully shot, with atmospheric lighting and sets. The story is one familiar to many: Rabbi Loew of Prague uses arcane magic to create a giant out of clay to defend the Jews of Prague from their oppressors. The plan works pretty well, until the giant (the Golem) runs amok, either because the rabbi forgot to turn it off for the Sabbath, or because someone else commandeered it. In this retelling, there's a doomed romance between the rabbi's daughter and a young man among the town's aristocracy who falls in love with her. As usual, Kino did an amazing job with the restoration.
on December 7, 2014
This review is for the Alpha Video DVD of the Golem. The front cover has large gold/yellow lettering at the top, with the Golem facing the little girl underneath. The back cover has the following information about the publisher: "Package design copyright 2002 Alpha Video Distributors, Inc. Box 35, Narberth, PA 19072." Below that is the website location: www. oldies.com.
Note that the Amazon.com product information above has the running time of this edition as 91 minutes, but unless Alpha has changed the DVD contents since 2002 (while keeping exactly the same cover), that is wrong. In fact, even the back cover of the Alpha DVD case has the wrong running time; it says that this version is only 85 minutes long, but I have just watched it twice, and it is 101 minutes long! So the Amazon.com product information is doubly wrong: it doesn't reflect the incorrect running time on the back of the DVD cover, and it doesn't reflect the real running time. The running time for this product should be changed to 101 minutes. I would try to submit the change, but I have no proof, since the information on the DVD case is wrong. Amazon would just have to take my word for it that the version pictured in fact runs 101 minutes. If any reader here knows how to go about changing the running time without proof, he or she is welcome to try.
This may be even be the full original length of the film, since (as far as I can see) there are no spots in the film where there seem to be any gaps in the story, and all story elements seem quite fully developed. But I am no expert on early German silent films, so I can't claim that as more than a plausible inference; I have no historical knowledge regarding the film's production. What I do know, however, is that I like to have the longest available version of any film. And this 101-minute version seems to fit that description.
There are no extras on this DVD, and the chapter menu is next to useless: only 4 stops for 101 minutes! This is an annoyance, but only a minor one. Another annoyance: whoever wrote the plot summary on the back of the Alpha Video mangled it considerably. The writer has misunderstood parts of the plot. But again, this is minor; it can just be ignored.
The good news is that the video is reasonably good throughout -- for a 1920 silent film that appears to have had no restoration done on it. There are no breaks or jumps in the film, that I can detect. There are not many thin vertical lines, sparkles, etc. I see no blotches, tears, etc. Mostly the picture is clean. It's a bit on the dark side, and perhaps the white/black contrast could be better, but in a film 94 years old, one does not expect perfection. And for all I know the director wanted a dark look -- that would fit the story. Anyhow, while we would all like gorgeously restored prints of every old movie, that is not going to happen, and you can watch this version of the Golem without wincing at the picture quality -- and that is better than can be said of some surviving talkie movies of the 30s and 40s.
The sound (i.e., the musical score, since there is no talking) is clear; it cuts out in two places (without affecting the video); once for about 10 seconds, and once a little later for about 30 seconds. I assume that the soundtrack was defective in the print Alpha used. But hey, I'd rather be missing a less than a minute of sound than 10 minutes or more of the picture -- which is what you will be missing with other editions.
Another Amazon poster, Dr. Sam Stern, writing about this Alpha Video version (his review was posted in March 2014), claims to have identified the composer of the orchestral score. He says that it is Bruckner's Symphony #2 in C Minor. A commenter on his claim says that he has identified only part of musical sources. I take no sides, but report it for those who are interested. I will say that I think the orchestral score is very suited to the dark grandeur of the film.
I'm not inclined to dock Alpha much for no extras, when they have put out the longest version of this film currently available. So you get the longest print, for a bargain-basement price. There is nothing to complain about here. This is a good, moody, silent film with a very interesting plot, influential on all later horror and science fiction films, and it's possibly the full original theatrical version. This purchase is a no-brainer. This deserves at least four stars, maybe five if you take into account the price.