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The 1920 film version of The Golem: How He Came Into the World, Paul Wegener’s third assault on the clay man myth, his second stab as the director, arrives on DVD and it is not just flawed its positively collapsing through its papier mâché floor. It is a bit of a shock really because I have seen the film on 16mm and considered it better on that occasion but am unable to account for the impression given then judging by my new lower regard for it. It has always been problematical as a monster movie, Wegener, resembling Gary Glitter after a visit to the play-dough barbershop, always looked ridiculous, but was retrospectively acceptable when seen through the crowd of crap creatures that populated the 1950s. On closer consideration, however, it appeared during a period when the full reign of creativity and a blessed shortfall of influence gave us denizens of genuinely frightening countenance throughout classic German expressionist cinema and the Golden Age of Hollywood horrors. Wegener’s Golem was bizarre enough to dumbfound and disturb perhaps then, but not now. The rot goes deeper than that, or does it, given that Wegener, a powerful player in his day, is also the director. Obviously, not all of it is awful and a handful of elements – sets and costumes, shots and scenes – rescue it. If so much early German cinema was not lost in the bombing raids of World War II, one questions if this film would be so preciously guarded and hold the reputation it does.
Rabbi Low (Albert Steinrück) has interpreted in the stars a disturbing future for the Jewish community of the ghetto. Before you know it the decree has arrived at the walled quarter’s gates accusing them of greedy self-purpose and practising of the black arts, demanding that they leave their ghetto. What is a Rabbi to do, but do what any Rabbi would and race back to his astrology, timing it for Venus entering the constellation of Libra (what is that, some free love joke by the intertitles writer?) during which Astoroth can be fooled into giving up the words with the power to animate the dead, dead here standing for anything not living. He must create life, a man of clay to protect and rescue his people. With his assistant Famulus (he of the ironic surname, Ernst Deutsch), he conducts the rite that brings forth the demon to whisper the dreadful words, caught by the Rabbi Low and written upon a paper that is placed into a symbol that is then slotted into the clay man’s chest. The Golem comes to life and is given introductory chores to accustom the community to it and it to the streets.
An invite to the Palace to amuse the court with his abracadabra results in near catastrophe averted only by the intervention of the Golem. Its actions reward the ghetto with a reprieve. The Rabbi Low’s daughter, Miriam (Lyda Salmonova), however, has in the meantime been cavorting. She is love struck with the original deliverer of the decree, the Knight Florian (Lothar Müthel) and the pair oversleeps. In jealousy, Famulus sets the Golem upon the Knight Florian unaware that the Rabbi Low had already disabled the creature because it has shown signs of deceit and of turning on its creator (it has something to do with Uranus entering the house of the planets). Florian, the floppy knight, is killed and the creature goes on a… well, I nearly wrote rampage, but ‘slightly cross stroll’ would be more accurate. Fires run through parts of the walled city and the creature is finally felled by the curiosity of a child.
On the large screen the film is more impressive largely down to the set design of Hans Poelzig, huge rough sets, the key progenitor on the instilling his own take on the expressionist tradition, though likely invited on this production by Wegener based on his remarkable stalactite-pillared cavern designs for the Grosses Schauspeilhaus, Berlin. The boldest images normally involve Poelzig’s sets, captured in natural daylight. Costumes and a few tricks strongly support the effect. The stairwell in the Rabbi’s home is like a bisected heart, open valves and chambers, the sunlit exterior sets, particularly at the apex and corner points, are dimensionally exciting, the streets are of organic tumbling necessity and the door to the ghetto is mighty, imposing. But whether Wegener truly understood expressionism is another question entirely. He was an appreciator of the fantastic and his approach to expressionism was less intellectual and more aesthetic. There is little evidence that he added to the expressionist feel beyond the employment of the technicians and, post-Caligari and Nosferatu, Wegener could hardly be suggested to have played an inspirational role in the movement. It is obvious that he understood the basics, but he is clearly short of the imagination personally nor fully submerged in the intellectual moorings of the movement.
Even for German cinema this is an ugly cast and whereas Lang, Murnau or Weine would have sought out a special face that heightened (as one ought in expressionism) the beauty of the leading lady, Wegener has brought with him Lyda Salmonova, who is over-the-top even for the genre, is unattractive no matter what the angle or layer of make-up and even makes her entrance taking side glances at the camera. Why is she there? The same reason she was in many of Wegener’s films, the dancing girl was married to him. As for Wegener, he is cumbersome in his starched costume, stumbling into the scenery, thoroughly risible in appearance.
The film is tinted, perhaps following original instructions, though it is impossible to determine the purpose of such deliberate changes of colour in the given scenes, from lilac hue to mint green, from rose pink to bold blue, and how about the appropriately clay orange. Though welcome, the colours often contradict the scene or incident infused with them. As The Golem always ran to five acts these are kept for chapter breaks and split a further two or three times for scene selection, a tidy design. There is attractive and informative support in a photo gallery with book illustrations, photographs and promotional artwork that is quite fascinating. Add to this a busily edited essay, The Kingdom of Ghosts: Paul Wegener and the Expressionist Tradition, a visual stream of the exciting best of the German expressionist film and, likewise, all are in the Eureka catalogue. Once again, Wegener is given the benefit of his wonderful peers’ company.