LESS HERALDED BY SCHOLARS than ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, less celebrated by artists and audiences than ‘Nosferatu’, Paul Wegener’s ‘Der Golem’ is nonetheless a critical cornerstone in the foundation of German Expressionism. Indeed, the first Golem film (this being the third) predates the entire careers of such noted German directors as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, and though Wegener spent more time as an actor than as a director, he still stands alongside Carl Dreyer and Robert Wiene as one of the first directors to vividly render the Germanic experience in the early 20th century, and thus canonize one of cinema’s first movements. Its milieu of creeping shadows, sardonic (not merely convoluted) drama, nightmares come alive, and tableaus pulled from Friedrich or Fuseli paintings spoke to the existential angst of a German population wracked by defeat in the years after the Great War. Most modern audiences cannot begin to empathize with that situation, but the intensity of these early works is still palatable.
‘The Golem’ is less uniquely filmic than ‘The Cabinet’ or ‘Nosferatu’ in that its drama plays out almost as on a proscenium stage, often moving back to front in open space or up and down in cross-sections of buildings while we look on from distinctly outside the action. This does not make its sets any less arresting, though—the honey-combed study of the Rabbi Löw or the collapsing audience chamber of the Emperor are expertly designed set-pieces that exceed the carnival cardboard look of ‘The Cabinet…’ in their convincing depth. But Wegener’s camera is ever static and forward-facing, and his command of distorting shadows less localized while the camera renders the action on a grand scale, from a city aflame even to the tragic disposal of a knightly suitor from atop a castle parapet. It would be several years yet before the camera close-up could be used for more than heroic punctuations or damsels recoiling in distress. But Wegener was still ambitious in his way: Löw’s invocation of the demon Astaroth is full of flashing fire and brimstone and camera overlays that would do Murnau proud in any of his pictures. Unsurprisingly, Karl Freund was the cinematographer here, as on so many of the German classics from that era.
A new treatment has restored much of the picture, but also heavily tinted almost every scene—yellow, purple, green, and blue—to reflect different sets and tones. More than this, they enhance the existing palate of shadows Wegener employed and give the film an even more mystical tone, as if casting the bodily humors as each sub-faction within the plot. Also new for this edition is one of the finer examples of program music for a silent picture, scored for cello, violin, and piano. Full of the harmonic minor modes and double stops often found in pre-Industrial Revolution folk music, it matches the era of the film far better than many contemporary efforts.
Although these other contributors are crucial to ‘The Golem’s success—not least its less often noted co-director Carl Boese—it is Wegener who really fills the credits for the picture as writer, co-director, and its titular character. But he is no protagonist, nor necessarily its antagonist. For he is simply the golem, a mute servant wrought of clay and sorcery, and thus subject to his master’s wishes. That he may be used for good or ill does not make him either, but merely a tool, a Klaatu of religious folklore, the swinging arm that projects the payload of men’s designs towards their ultimate conclusions. It is uncommon for a starring director to inhabit such a role—think Woody Allen stuttering his way into a parade of women’s beds; Kenneth Branagh or Mel Gibson prophesying grandly with blouses unlaced; Orson Welles consuming all the oxygen for 10 square miles, etc.—but Wegener is qualified for the role. His broad, blocky skull and entrenched eyes look capable of breaking boulders and possess a stern gravity that is difficult to place. With his skin tones obscured by makeup and the colorless film, he could be Native American, Serbian, or Mongolian, or anything but German. His is an ancient, austere, but still expressive face, and all these qualities come through in his plodding Golem form (despite a bizarre bouquet of rock hair).
Of course, no discussion of ‘The Golem’ would be complete without addressing the plot itself, which concerns the impending evacuation of a Jewish population from their Medieval ghetto by a capricious gentry that laughs at the Rabbi, his prophets, and little tricks of magic or astrology. Some have criticized the film for being anti-Semitic and politically fraught coming between the two World Wars. Yet no one comes out as an unscathed protagonist in ‘The Golem’. The wise Rabbi Löw, credited with saving his people, is as much the cause of their peril as he is their savior, and none of the gentry are particularly winsome or even vaguely dynamic. The film does project some extreme Kabbalistic views onto a broader Jewish population, but so, too, have many films exploring Christian tales delved salaciously into conspiratorial, gnostic depths. Employing fodder for a good story does not necessitate prejudice, and there is no lingering ill intent apparent in ‘The Golem’. As for the ‘monster’ himself, he is undone by an unsuspecting little girl; in the film’s final moments, his threatening physique is almost obscured by a clutch of children who rest upon him like a patch of daisies above a barrow. And so the abyss returns to the abyss. But never for long.