Saturday, October 24, 2009

Horror By the Decade: The Golem: How He Came Into the World

(As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, each year to celebrate Halloween I post on topics relevant to that holiday. This year I have decided do something slightly different and write a post on a classic horror film, one from each decade from the Twenties to the Eighties, during the seven days preceding Halloween. This is the first post in this series, featuring a movie from the Twenties).

When the subject of silent horror movies comes up, most people tend to think of Nosferatu or Universal's 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney. Those a little more in the know might think of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. If someone mentions Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World), it is generally a sign that he or she is either a true aficionado of silent film or horror movies. Although not well known today, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is one of the most important horror movies in the history of the genre.

It was in 1915 that actor, writer, and director Paul Wegener and writer and director Henrik Galeen adapted the novel Der Golem by Gustav Meyrink into a feature film. Der Golem was not the first horror film, but it would prove to be very influential. It was among the earliest horror movies in which an individual either creates or revives a monster, only then to have that monster run amok. It was also possibly the first horror movie in history to spark its own franchise. It was in 1917 that Wegener followed up Der Golem with Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancing Girl). Made over thirty years before Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Der Golem und die Tänzerin may well have been the first horror comedy, Wegener spoofing his own film Der Golem in a plot in which a young man dresses up  as the Golem to frighten a dancing girl he loves. Sadly, only bits and pieces remain of Der Golem, while Der Golem und die Tänzerin is feared to be entirely lost. Fortunately, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam has survived in tact.

While it was the third film in the series, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam was  a prequel to Der Golem and Der Golem und die Tänzerin. Not only is the film based on a figure from Jewish folklore (a golem being a creature made of clay who is then brought to life by magic), but it is based on the most famous legend regarding a golem, in which Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in 16th century Prague created the golem to protect the Jewish community there. Set in Prague in the 16th century, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam told how the Emperor Luhois issued a decree which expelled all Jews from the ghetto. In response Rabbi Loew created the golem as a mean of saving the Jews in Prague. Unfortunately, as might be expected, the golem later goes on a rampage.

Although it is dated, anyone with a knowledge of film history will recognise Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam as a very sophisticated film for its time. Given the individuals who worked upon the film, this should come as no surprise. Henrik Galeen, who had co-written the screenplay of Der Golem with Wegener and co-wrote Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam, would go onto write the screenplay to Nosferatu. Noted architect Hans Poelzig designed the sets for the film. In part the cinematography was provided by the legendary Karl Fruend, who would later be the cinematographer on Metropolis, Dracula (1931), The Great Ziegfield, and the TV show I Love Lucy, as well as the director of such films as The Mummy and Mad Love (1935).Paul Wegener himself handled the bulk of the direction, although some scenes were supposedly directed by Carl Boese.

As said above, seen today Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is slightly dated. Even with Karl Freund behind the camera, there are scenes were it was clear that the only camera direction was "point and shoot." Still, in many ways Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is a remarkable film and even a very sophisticated one. Although clearly influenced by German expressionism, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is not as relentlessly expressionistic as Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari, released the same year. Instead expressionistic techniques are used to heighten the film's atmosphere. A very emotive use of light and sets that are sometimes skewed are utilised to endow Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam with a suitably ominous feel. Overall this gives Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam a very striking look, to the point that it is easy to see its lasting influence on horror movies to come.

It is must also pointed out that the screenplay of Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam would prove to be influential on future horror films as well. Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam was one of the first movies to feature what would become an archetypal horror plot: an individual creates a monster, only to have that monster throw off his influence and go on a rampage. Most people will recognise this not only as the plot of Universal's classic Frankenstein, but of many other horror movies as well. Not only was the film's plot influential, but Paul Wegener's performance as the golem was also influential. Many might be tempted to see Wegener casting himself as the golem as hubris, but in truth it was a case of perfect casting. Wegener stood six foot six inches tall and was a talented veteran of the stage. While Wegener's sheer size makes the golem a fearsome creature, it is Wegner's talent which endows the golem with a sense of pathos as a creature who ultimately does not have a life of  his own. It is easy to see how Karloff's portrayal of the Creature in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein was influenced by Wegener's portrayal of the golem.

Over the years many academics have alleged that Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is essentially anti-Semitic. There have been those that have accused its portrayal of Jews as particularly stereotypical. To be honest, I have trouble finding anything blatantly anti-Semitic in the film. Wegener treats the Jews with sympathy, sensitivity, and respect. And at no point does Wegener belittle the Jewish people or their beliefs. If anything, it is the court at Prague which comes off the worst. When as part of his entertainment for Emperor Luhois, Rabbi Loew offered up a vision of the history of the patriarchs of the Jewish people, he warned the court not to laugh or talk. It should come as no surprise that the imperial court does not heed the rabbi's advice. It is difficult to say why accusations of anti-Semitism have been hurled at Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam over the years. I often suspect that it is simply because it was a film made in Germany in 1920, a time and place where even then anti-Semitism was not uncommon.

Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is not a perfect film. It has its fair share of awkward moments and there are times when it seems terribly dated. As mentioned earlier, there are times when the direction seemed little more than "point and shoot." Still, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is not simply a historic movie. It is still an entertaining film with some very striking visuals and an enjoyable plot. Although not as well known, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam holds up quite well alongside other such silent horror classics as Nosferatu and Phantom of the Opera.

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