If the cinema is a world of dreams, then German Expressionism is a world of nightmares. After the horrors of World War One, Germany was consumed by rampant inflation and a horrendous economy. In order to compete with lavish Hollywood films, German filmmakers reinvented the language of the cinema so that they could make films cheaply while maintaining a sense of artistic integrity. Disillusioned by the War to End All Wars, horror seemed a natural fit for a country that had lost 13,000,000 young men. Films began to deal more increasingly with matters of madness and monstrosities. Sets became lucid mazes of sharp angles, painted shadows, and terrifying vistas. In a sense, the fractured and distorted sets and shots reflected the shattered mindset of the films’ characters and, in a sense, those of its audience. Early German Expressionist films, like The Student of Prague (1913) and Destiny (1921) dealt with Faustian exchanges and deals with Death himself. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) were progenitors of the modern monster film with lumbering somnambulists and creeping vampires that lurked in the shadows.
90 years after their production, most German Expressionist films are lovingly cherished by film makers and connoisseurs. Many have been painstakingly restored from their original prints so they can be preserved for the ages. And yet, there is always the occasional film that slips under the radar. One of these is a film of staggering power and artist merit entitled The Golem: How He Came into the World. The third in a series of films about a clay golem that comes to life and murders hapless victims, The Golem: How He Came into the World is the only one that still survives to this day. The film itself was a prequel to the first golem film, appropriately titled The Golem (1915) that took place in the (then) modern world. Set in the 16th century, The Golem: How He Came into the World deals with how the golem was first created. Truly, the origin story of this early film monster deserves to be appreciated not only as a towering example of the genre of German Expressionism, but also as a consummate work of art.
In 16th century Prague, the esteemed Rabbi Loew ben Bezalel reads in the stars that a great catastrophe threatens the Jews. The catastrophe comes in the form of an edict from Emperor Rudolf II that the Jews must leave the city of Prague due to accusations of practicing black magic and the scorning of Christian ceremonies. To protect his community, Rabbi Loew constructs a golem, a massive automaton made of clay. After a magical ceremony, the Rabbi brings the golem to life by giving it a magical pendant with the word aemaet inscribed on it (Depending on who you ask, aemaet can mean either “life,” “God,” or “truth”). He then brings the golem to the court of Emperor Rudolf II and tries to reason with him to repeal the decree of banishment. Laughing at his appeal, Rabbi Loew orders the golem to make the palace collapse onto the spectators and block the exit. Desperate, the Emperor swears that if Rabbi Loew recalls the golem, he will repeal the decree.
When they return home from the palace, all seems well. Then Rabbi Loew tries to deactivate the golem. Unbeknownst to him, the golem, having been alive too long, has no intentions of going quietly into that dark night. The golem rebels, sets the city on fire, and begins a murder spree. The golem is eventually stopped, and I will leave that incredible scene for my readers to discover themselves. Suffice to say, as the golem was borne of ignorant makers, it could only be defeated by ignorant innocents.
The Golem: How He Came into the World was a terrifying film of grim ironies. Accused of black magic, the Rabbi Loew decides to protect his people by summoning Astaroth, otherwise known as the Crowned Prince of Hell, to bring his automaton to life. The golem, originally designed to protect the Jewish community from destruction, ends up almost annihilating them himself. In a way, the film acts as a prophetic warning of the coming of fascism in Germany in the 1930s. In order to save themselves from destruction, the German people elected Adolf Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany in 1933 to lead them. Eventually, the man they elected to help rebuild and protect their country would plunge them into World War Two, leaving their cities in ruins and their population decimated.
The film, while revolutionary, is a tad uneven. Rabbi Loew has a daughter named Miriam who begins a tryst with a knight named Florian who originally delivered the decree of banishment to the Jewish community. The entire affair, while vital to the plot later in the film, comes off as out-of-place in such a nightmarish landscape. Rabbi Loew takes his automaton about town and even sends it shopping at the market in one scene. Perhaps this was intended to show how tame the golem was harmless when first constructed. But one feels that such scenes were only added to pad the film’s length and to give the golem more face time.
But such complaints are tolerable in the face of such innovation. The directors Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, were key figures in the German Expressionist movement. Boese, who actually appeared in the film as the golem, helped define how movie monsters would act, move, and respond. Along with the somnambulist Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Count Orlok from Nosfertu, the golem was a prototype movie monster that would go on to inspire the characters of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolfman.
As a production, The Golem: How He Came into the World may seem overly excessive for its genre. Armed with multiple sets and a massive cast that included waves of extras all dressed up in expensive period costumes, The Golem: How He Came into the World must have been a herculean production for its time. But the effect was well worth it. The end result was a film that existed in a macrocosm of fear and suspicion, terror and uncertainty. While The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari clearly existed in a series of sets, The Golem: How He Came into the World leads the viewers to believe that they are truly witnessing another world, or perhaps, a shadow from the past. Or, could it be that the film was a reflection of the future? Only the stars know….
The entire film can be seen for free on youtube. Below is a link to the first part of the film.