I love German Expressionist cinema. It’s over 100 years old, and when you watch it, you can’t help but be amazed by the stories and production. Sure the effects are dated but what do you want after 100 years? That said there is something to them that we haven’t been able to capture again, even aficionados of the genre like Tim Burton haven’t been able to recreate it. Maybe German Expressionism could only exist in the post-Treaty of Versailles Germany with its uncertain future and legacy of trauma. Worth noting that Film Noir and other legacies of Expressionism only came to the fore in post-World War 2 America and Britain, so there could be something to this.
Of the post-war era three films stand out, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) and Der Golem (1920), out now from Eureka! with a 4K restoration.
In the Jewish ghetto of 16th Century Prague, Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück) is the community leader, and a mystic. Observing the stars, he notices a configuration that heralds disaster for the community. The next day, the Holy Roman Emperor signs a decree expelling the Jewish population from Prague, and sends the knight Florian (Lothar Müthel) to deliver his proclamation, who becomes taken with Löw’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova). Desperate to save his people, Löw dabbles in dark magic and fashions an anthropomorphic figure out of clay, the Golem (Paul Wegener), imbued with supernatural strength. Performing feats of heroics, the Golem slowly begins to break free of Löw’s control and leaves a path of destruction in his wake.
This is the third time actor/director Wegener played the Golem. The first two films, The Golem (1915) and The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), are lost to history while Der Golem acts as a prequel. Despite having an overarching plot, the film feels episodic; divided into five chapters, they feel like semi self-contained stories making up a more extended serial. Not so off pace, more purposely stilted. This stiltedness isn’t limited to the narrative; it’s brought into the acting as well. The relationship between Florian and Miriam feels more like what someone imagines a relationship to feel like. This isn’t a criticism, by the way. If anything it adds to the unease and unnatural feeling of the film. It all feels dreamlike, like one of those dull nightmares you get. The ones where nothing overtly frightening is happening, but you have this feeling of claustrophobia, of anxiety. Everything is steeped in the uncanny, even the sets. Where Robert Wiene used painted backgrounds of shadows and twisted buildings in Dr Caligari, Wegener built this style of building from scratch. Buildings lean in, closing all around the actors, stairways look like veins. It’s a meeting place between the real and the fantastical where the story of the Golem can live.
The disc comes with two video essays. Critic David Cairns looks at the history of the Golem from Wegener’s first outing, Der Golem’s production, to legacy on cinema, while filmmaker Jon Spira examines the history of Jewish folklore and film. There are three new scores to choose from, a copy of the US cut from 1920, and audio commentary from Scott Harrison.
Der Golem is a tale of creations escaping its creator, of prejudice and persecution, of fear of the Other and dark magic. So fun for all the family.
Dir: Paul Wegener, Carl Boese
Scr: Henrik Galeen, Paul Wegener, Gustav Meyrink
Cast: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Lothar Müthel, Lyda Salmonova
Prd: Paul Davidson
DoP: Karl Freund, Guido Seeber
Runtime: 86 minutes (60 US version)
Der Golem is available on Blu-Ray now