There are a great many ways to terrify an audience; one of the most reliable is to create an out-of-control monster bent on destruction. Because we can relate to it so personally, the most horrifying of such creatures is one in human form. Leaving aside the current spate of serial-killer-as-monster films, the image most people have of humanoid monsters is Frankenstein’s creation in James Whale’s classic 1931 horror film Frankenstein. The lumbering, inarticulate monstrosity in platform boots created from parts dug from graveyard clay, however, was nothing new, even in 1931. The model for this iconic image of irrational evil was the invention of German actor, writer, and director Paul Wegener, whose characterization of a golem inspired Whale’s monster.
Paul Wegener embarked on an acting career in 1894, at the age of 20, and appeared in a film perhaps as early as 1905 (Victor Hahn’s Die Byzantier). Wegener first gained notoriety appearing in the title role of the eerie 1913 tragedy Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague). An early fascination with photography gave Wegener the idea to suggest the use of double-exposure to create the doppelganger of the character he played. The film’s poster proclaimed, “This highly interesting play is set in historic Prague and contains completely new phenomenal techniques in filmmaking.” Wegener, a lonely child given to fantasy, gravitated to dark tales. While making The Student of Prague, he learned the 16th century golem story involving Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague. Rabbi Loew was said to have made a clay golem—an inanimate form that can be brought to life using magic—to defend the Jewish ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.
A bit of armchair psychology would suggest that Wegener’s own rejection by his father at the age of 3 created a space where his fascination with the golem story could flourish. Wegener filmed this tale of necromancy three times—in 1914 as Der Golem (The Golem), in 1917 as a parody film Der Golem Und Die Tanzerin (The Golem and The Dancer), and in 1920, its ultimate iteration, Der Golem: Wie er in Die Welt Kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World). Wegener mixed historical accuracy with weirdly shaped sets, moody lighting and tints, and special effects that lodge this last film squarely among the masterpieces of German Expressionist cinema.
In this film, Rabbi Loew seems more soothsayer than religious teacher. We first meet him peering at the stars through his telescope judging from their position that terrible times are ahead for his people.
Sure enough, in the next scene, we see the emperor affix his signature and seal to a proclamation to expel the Jews from their ghetto because, among other offenses, they are generally known to be practitioners of black magic. Rabbi Loew fashions a golem in secret to defend the ghetto by force if necessary. During a conjuring ceremony, he forces the magic word that brings the golem to life from the mouth of the demon Astaroth.
The golem goes from lowly servant to savior of the emperor and his court to killer and destroyer as the film progresses to its strangely lyrical conclusion—one that also is echoed in Frankenstein, though with more tragic consequences.
The Golem: How He Came into the World makes terrific use of trick photography to develop scenes of great intensity. The conjuring of Astaroth is particularly noteworthy for its pacing: a suspenseful build-up as Rabbi Loew and his servant prepare to cast the spell, a spectacular climax when Astaroth (and more importantly, the magic word) appear on screen, and a dramatic conclusion as lightning bolts shoot through the room, knocking the two men out and causing the servant to fear what they are about to do. Such effects as the lightning bolts and a circle of flames surrounding the men appear again in F. W. Murnau’s visually arresting 1926 film Faust, evidence of the continuity in German filmmaking of the 1920s.
Wegener’s unusual face and costuming give audiences a visual jolt. His performance is nuanced, with small smiles creeping across his mainly dour face and vicious teeth clenching at the constraints of his servitude. Forming life from clay is God’s prerogative, and this deep-seated belief still has us trembling at the hubris of our technological advances. The Golem remains a cautionary tale of frightening power.
Marilyn Ferdinand is the proprietor of Ferdy on Films, a film review and commentary blog. She is cohost of For the Love of Films: The Film Preservation Blogathon, held in February to benefit organizations devoted to film preservation.