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April 16, 2020

The Golem: How He Came into the World

the golem.jpg

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam
Paul Wegener - 1920
Kino Classics BD Region A

A century after its initial release, what does one make of The Golem. One could read the final scene as a variation of a cliche, where the big lug literally falls for a little blonde girl. Although in this case, the big lug is an artificially created guy made from clay whose mindless destruction is ended by a child who innocently plucks the source of the monster's power. The rabbi who created the golem did so as an act of protecting the Jews in the medieval ghetto of Prague from oppression done in the name of Christianity. As the "death" of the golem is not witnessed by any of the ghetto residents, it is attributed as an act of God. How ironic that the creature, created initially as the protector of Jews ends up threatening their destruction, only to have the ghetto saved by a tiny shiksa. A subplot involves the Rabbi's daughter infatuated with the squire from the royal court, with the squire coming to a bad end at the hands of the golem. If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that interfaith relationships can be fatal.

This is, at least for now, the most definitive release of Paul Wegener's film. It was stitched together primarily from two film sources, with tinting based on an Italian release version. The blu-ray is also derived from a 4K digital restoration, with only one shot that showed serious decomposition that I noticed. Kino has also provided a choice of three music tracks, all on the avant-garde side. My choice of soundtrack was perhaps the most experimental by Lukasz Poleszak. Not just music, but synthesized sounds and voices weaving in and out in this track. In any case, all three music tracks provide a radical departure from the traditional solo piano or small group that usually accompanies a silent film. If that's not enough, there is also the U.S. release version with its own soundtrack, and a comparison of the newly restored version of The Golem with an earlier restoration that also has commentary by Tim Lucas.

Lucas' commentary track on the seventy-five minute version, the most complete version at this time, traverses various threads in the history of the film. Included is discussion on Wegener's 1915 film and the actor/director's subsequent career, as well as a history of the story that was the inspiration for Wegener. It may be unavoidable that some of the information in the commentary will be familiar to both fans and serious scholars of horror movies and/or popular culture, such as how the folk tale was inspiration for Frankenstein both in literature and film, the latter with the connection of having cinematographer Karl Freund taking his expertise to Universal when he moved to Hollywood. The more detailed examinations of Wegener's career on film and stage are in German - and certainly of interest due to Wegener being a non-Jew with an interest in Jewish subject matter, who maintained a public career in Germany during World War II, returning to the stage in 1945 with a staging of the play Nathan the Wise in the title role.

The blu-ray should be of interest even to those familiar with the story as the images have much detail that has been unclear in the previous film and home video versions. Even if several narrative tropes are overly familiar, this is the film where they originated. Certainly, the sight of Wegener as the golem, bulked up and with a thick pageboy haircut will more likely amuse than terrify. Viewers jaded with CGI special effects may roll their eyes at some of the scenes here, but there is delight in seeing those dancing airborne flames while the rabbi makes his incantation to bring the golem to life.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 16, 2020 06:05 AM