A precursor of the Frankenstein monster, the Golem was a clay man called forth to protect Jews from persecution. The 1920 version of the legend is the third and best-known of a trio of German films in which Paul Wegener portrayed the Golem. Wegener participated in the direction of all
three versions as well.
One of the ghetto's most venerable and respected figures is Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck), a man renowned for his magical powers. When his astrological readings tell that the Jewish community is in danger, the rabbi begins to sculpt a golem. The stars prove to have been prescient when the emperor
(Otto Gebuhr) issues an edict ordering all Jews to evacuate the area by the end of the month. The decree is delivered to the ghetto by a knight named Florian (Lothar Muthel), who is seized by an immediate and reciprocated passion for Miriam (Lyda Salmonova), the rabbi's daughter.
Rabbi Loew places a Star of David into a recess in the Golem's chest, bringing the statue to life. Summoned to perform an exhibition of magic, Rabbi Loew, accompanied by the Golem, travels to the court of the emperor. There, the Golem demonstrates his superhuman strength and starts to topple the
palace. In order to stop the destruction, the frightened emperor lifts his anti-Jewish edict. Meanwhile, Florian exploits the opportunity of the rabbi's absence to slip into the ghetto and Miriam's bed.
Back home, Rabbi Loew, realizing that the Golem has served his purpose, is about to destroy his dangerous creation when he is called to synagogue to receive the thanks of his grateful community. While he is gone, the Rabbi's assistant (Ernst Deutsch) discovers Miriam and Florian together and
jealously unleashes the monster, who kills the knight, sets fire to the rabbi's house, and drags the unconscious girl away. Ultimately, the Golem abandons Miriam, who regains consciousness and is comforted by her father's assistant.
The Golem wanders outside the gates of the ghetto, where he encounters a group of children dancing. One of them (Loni Nest) playfully plucks from the Golem's chest the Star of David that animates him. The Golem falls dead.
THE GOLEM, a carefully crafted and visually impressive work, has lost little of its power over the decades. Like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) just before it, it is enhanced by memorably bizarre sets--art director Hans Poelzig's surrealistic ghetto looks in places more like a grotto. The
movie's overall production design is said to have been influenced by the work of Max Reinhardt, a genius of the German theater who is remembered today for directing Warner Brothers' lavish film adaptation of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (1935).
Wegener's portrayal of THE GOLEM's title character is a rich mixture of myriad emotions. Like Boris Karloff in FRANKENSTEIN (1932), a decade later, Wegener has been allowed no dialogue and only a limited repertoire of gestures, but he is nonetheless eloquent. He can be suitably frightening,
especially in close shots of his grimacing face. He is at times rather funny, in the dumb-but-dangerous way of a Maxie Rosenbloom or an Edgar Kennedy. Without overdoing it, he brings a genuine note of pathos to his characterization, particularly when the Golem finds himself in the company of
attractive women or children--for example, the slow, sad, confused smile that comes over his face when confronted with the flirts of the emperor's court. More than any other quality it is this poignancy that anticipates Karloff's monster; indeed the famous moment in which the latter tenderly lifts
up a child may well have been a conscious quote from THE GOLEM's final scene.
Played by the wonderfully sultry Lyda Salmonova, Wegener's wife, Miriam is a more passive version of the "vamps" concurrently portrayed on screen by Theda Bara and her imitators. Unlike her sisters in sin, however, Miriam is motivated by drives that are more libidinous than mercenary--she may not
exactly be in perpetual heat, but her pilot light never goes out. The damp sensuousness of Miriam/Salmonova furnishes THE GOLEM with the erotic touch that is crucial to the success of dark fantasies like this one. (Violence.)
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