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The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

Film: The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)
Stars: Albert Steinruck, Paul Wegener, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch
Director: Paul Wegener & Carl Boese
Oscar History: Predated the Academy Awards
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

This month we are devoting all of our classic film reviews to Golden Age Horror films that I saw for the first time this year.  If you want to take a look at past titles (from this and other seasons of this series), look at the bottom of the page for links.

We're going to start this season's look at classic horror by truly going back into a different time, into the 1920's (horror was a commonplace genre throughout the Silent Era), but weirdly we're going to start with a different horror mainstay-the sequel.  The Golem: How He Came into the World is the full title of the film that is normally referred to as The Golem (or Der Golem), but it is actually part of a trilogy of movies starring & directed by Paul Wegener, a German expressionist filmmaker whose life we'll get into a little bit below.  The first two films, one called just The Golem and the other called The Golem and the Dancing Girl (supposedly a comedy spoof of the character), are considered lost, and therefore the only one of the three movies that can still be viewed readily is the third picture, which has de facto become "The Golem" by lack of access to its predecessors (which, obviously considering I was not born in the 1910's, I have not seen).

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is something of an origin story about the Golem creature.  In it, Rabbi Loew (Steinruck) is the head of his city's Jewish citizens, and is trying to stave off eviction from the Holy Roman Emperor.  He and his assistant (Deutsch, whose character doesn't get a name so we'll refer to him as the assistant) decide to use a spell to summon Astaroth (a demon spirit) who will bring to life a creature that they have created in their laboratory.  The creature ends up being the Golem (Wegener), who at first protects the citizens by impressing the emperor, but eventually the Golem is reclaimed by Astaroth, and the Golem goes to capture Miriam (Salmonova), the daughter of the Rabbi and the unrequited love of the assistant.  In the end, the Rabbi is able to stop Astaroth, and a little girl removes the amulet that gives the Golem his power/life force, rendering him inert.  The film ends with the citizens able to stay in their city, and with them safe from both the emperor and the Golem.

First off, with a film like this, you pretty much instantly expect the worst when it comes to treatment of the Jewish people in the title roles, as anti-semitism was quite common in films of the 1920's & 30's, but while it's not great (this is not a film you could make today in the same capacity), it's not The Jazz Singer bad in terms of its treatment of its characters.  Yes, there's some romanticism about the Rabbi's religion and his "powers," but this is not a film that's aged particularly badly in the way that other films of its time frame have when it comes to the treatment of the Jewish characters.

As a result, you can enjoy a well-done horror film.  The movie is beautifully-shot, one of the best examples of this style of filmmaking (the most famous being The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) of this era.  I especially liked the upwards-looking shots of the building and bridges (haunting, and genuinely foreboding).  The Golem himself is kind of a dud compared to some other movie monsters (he's not particularly scary), but he is clearly the inspiration both physically and in the way he and the assistant are filmed the inspiration for the Frankenstein monster and Igor a decade later (the makeup and movements of the actors are nearly identical).

Wegener's personal history is complicated.  Only a handful of his films weren't lost, and The Golem is by-far the most famous.  He was frequently married (six times, in fact), and his contributions to the Nazi regime are difficult to suss out.  Based on a cursory look on the internet, there's clear evidence he kept working during the Nazi regime in Germany, appearing in a couple of Nazi propaganda films.  I cannot find evidence that he was a contributor to the resistance, and one wonders if there is any or if this is just wishful-thinking from fans of his work (it seems to be a rumor on most of the articles you'll find online about him, but there's no one who could provide corroboration).  It's clear based on the movies he made even into the beginning of Hitler's regime that he wasn't an obvious Nazi sympathizer (he made at least one movie that would be considered anti-fascist (titled ...just a Comedian), but without actual proof of his involvement with the resistance, Wegener's reputation is difficult to ascertain.

Past Horror Month Reviews (Listed Chronologically): The Phantom of the OperaDraculaFrankensteinThe MummyFreaksThe Bride of FrankensteinMad LoveSon of FrankensteinThe Wolf ManThe Ghost of FrankensteinThe House of FrankensteinAbbott and Costello Meet FrankensteinIt Came from Outer SpaceCreature from the Black LagoonInvasion of the Body SnatchersThe Masque of the Red Death

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