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Kino on Video presents

The Golem (Der Golem) (1920)

"The word, the terrible life giving word, I have snatched it from the dark powers. Now I shall bring the Golem to life."- Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrueck)

Stars: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrueck, Ernst Deutsch, Lyda Salmonova
Other Stars: Hanns Sturm, Max Kronert, Otto Bebueher, Lothar Muethel, Greta Schroeder
Director: Paul Wegener, Carl Boese

Manufacturer: Cine Magnetics
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence)
Run Time: 01h:25m:07s
Release Date: 2002-09-24
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

Paul Wegener made something of a career out of films relating to the medieval legend of the Golem. This 1920 picture is the best known, and represents his third attempt (assuming that the 1917 The Golem and the Dancing Girl ever actually existed; the sole trace of it is a single publicity still). But this gave an impetus to the Frankenstein films that would come from Universal a decade later, both from the standpoint of theme as well as art direction.

In 16th century Prague, the Jews are restricted to a ghetto. Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrueck) reads a dire warning for his people in the stars, and begins work on the Golem, a clay warrior that will serve to defend his people. The emperor (Otto Bebueher) indeed threatens doom, ordering the exile of the Jews from the ghetto. When Rabbi Loew uses the awakened Golem (Wegener) to save the Emperor, the decree is rescinded. But the Rabbi's snivelling assistant Famulus (Ernst Deutsch), jealous of the attentions that the Rabbi's daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) gives the knight Florian (Lothar Muethel), revives the Golem to scare off his rival. This selfish use spells disaster, though, for the Golem is soon an unstoppable engine of destruction bent on possessing Miriam for himself.

The Golem features a generally understated acting style that serves it well and helps make it accessible for modern audiences. There are, of course, some exceptions, such as the way-over-the-top gaping done by the emperor's retinue when they see the Golem; another instance is the foppish flower-sniffing of Florian. But these points aside, the acting is quite naturalistic and believable. The real credit must go to Wegener, whose interpretation of the Golem is outstanding. At first a mindless automaton, he begins to show flickers of humanity when given a flower by one of the emperor's women (Greta Schroeder). As matters deteriorate, he develops a truly terrifying attitude that causes the viewer to believe that he is absolutely capable of any demonic intent.

The film's attitude towards the Jews is a curious one, which I suppose passed for "enlightened" in Weimar Germany. While the Jews are clearly meant to be sympathetic, the fact remains that we see Rabbi Loew engaging in all of the black arts that the emperor uses as accusations in the basis of his edict. This can only have reinforced German stereotypes of Jews and confirmed suspicions that they had traffic with demons, an attitude that would result in real-life horror in a few years. While it's a bit much to lay the Holocaust at the feet of The Golem, it serves as an indication of just how much the Jewish population was demonized. At the same time, the non-Jews demonstrate no redeeming qualities whatsoever, giving those who believed in the moral superiority of the Aryans little to work with.

The special effects are crude, but effective. The floating demon head of Astaroth that breathes in smoke the life-giving words is obviously just a model, yet it's carved in such a disturbing way that it nonetheless gives the viewer an unsettling feeling. The transitions between the live and inanimate Golem are handled quite well. However, credulity was strained by the notion of the aged rabbi and his assistant effortlessly carrying this gigantic clay man up a flight of stairs. "It's only a model," indeed. German Expressionism doesn't find much of a voice here, other than a few touches like the preposterously massive barred door to the walled-in ghetto. Rather than spending time on the effect of the sets, such as was done in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem is mostly concerned with narrative drive. Wegener knows how to wring every ounce of suspense out of the story, and it does come on like a steamroller. Its forward momentum is propelled mainly through Wegener's own skills in making the Golem such a threat, and on this score it holds up extremely well today.

Intertitles are in English, in a dark-letter script that is occasionally difficult to read. The film is tinted appropriately and runs at visually correct speed, with a few moments intentionally undercranked slightly.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The source print was derived from materials at a number of different archives, and for the most part it looks fabulous. Detail is crisp and clear, and frame damage is minimal. The sole exception is a brief segment after Famulus revives the Golem; this has a dupey and worn look, as if it came from some old 16mm material. For a film over 80 years old, though, this looks terrific. Textures stand out extremely well, and shadow detail comes through fine.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(Music only)yes

Audio Transfer Review: The music score, by Aljoscha Zimmerman, is performed by a piano trio (with Zimmerman himself on piano). It's quite effective and makes some use of characteristic cantorial tonalities and phrasings, while still fitting these into a coherent musical frame. The sound quality is extremely good, with the string instruments coming through beautifully, with excellent presence. The soundstage is quite open, and audible placement of the instruments is not quite precise, the result is quite pleasing. Very minor hiss is the only detracting factor.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
Packaging: Alpha
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Gallery of photos and art
  2. Excerpts from Julien Duvivier's 1936 Le Golem
  3. Scene comparisons with Faust (1926) and Chayim Bloch's book The Golem
Extras Review: The principal extra here is a series of excerpts from the 1936 French film on the same topic, where we see the Golem freeing prisoners and protecting someone from lions. The excerpts are in middling quality, with quite poor sound, but they're still intriguing to see. This Golem has a more naturalistic appearance than Wegener's, which features a characteristic helmet-like dome of hair, obviously intended to simulate the clay of the Golem.

There's also a comparison between the sequence where Rabbi Loew summons the demon Astaroth for the life-giving word and the sequence where Faust summons Mephistopheles in F.W. Murnau's 1926 Faust. The similarities are intriguing, but not to the point of plagiarism. For a contrasting view, a brief demon-free excerpt from the 1925 novel The Golem by Chayim Bloch is also presented. Wrapping up the extras is a collection of about a dozen stills and bits of artwork to published works on the Golem. This seems surprisingly skimpy. Shots or even excerpts from Wegener's other Golem films certainly would have been welcome here, but none appear.

There are trailers hidden as easter eggs on this disc for Frankenstein (1931), Metropolis (1926).

Extras Grade: C

Final Comments

A fine horror-suspense classic, in beautiful source materials, with a very good and appropriate score. Extras are a bit light, but this is a lovely disc regardless.

Mark Zimmer 2002-09-22