(1920) dir. Carl Boese, Paul Wegener
viewed: 04/25/08 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
Believe it or not, this is a film that I had been wanting to see for years and years, almost all of my life. As I have often noted, I grew up loving “monster movies” as I called them at the time and read what books I could find (in the children’s sections) about monster movies and the occasional copy I found of Famous Monsters of Hollywood. I longed to see the original films, particularly the early Lon Chaney films, which my mother took me to see on the University of Florida campus back in those days and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (referred to as “the first ever horror film”) and Nosferatu (1922) (referred to as “the first ever vampire film”) and director Paul Wegener’s The Golem. I did manage to see the other two films on video in the late 1980’s and was introduced in my first film class to the terminology of German Expressionism and Film Noir, and thus developed a new context for these long-lived interests.
For some reason, I never managed to see The Golem, which I now understand to have been a series of films by Wegener, with which this one, his third and a bit of a prequel, The Golem: How He Came into the World, is apparently the best known. So when the San Francisco International Film Festival hit this year, with a showing of the film with a new live score performed by Black Francis of the Pixies, I knew the time had finally come.
The film does indeed feature some wonderful set designs, echoing of Dr. Caligari, though less spartan and more lush. The most fascinating thing about the film is its specificity with the world of the Jews, set in the ghetto of Prague, a walled off section of the city and a people who are oppressed by society and the government. It’s largely sympathetic, though of course, the rabbi summons a demon to bring to life a monster, the clay-built superhuman, the golem himself.
Based on a Yiddish(?) legend, the golem and Judaism, though sympathetically depicted as oppressed and restricted, also reeks of mysticism and black magic. Oddly, the violence that the golem enacts is at random against many people, assumingly both Jews and gentiles, though most dramatically in the throwing of the would be suitor, the knight who comes from the oppressive kingdom, from the top of a tower.
And coming from Weimar Germany, at a peak of cultural explosion in many arts, the positioning of such a story only two decades before the Hollocaust seems interesting. I don’t doubt that much has been written on both the mythologies and this film in academic and even popular literature. My quick web research hasn’t offered me enough to go deeper here other than to point out that this is the most interesting of aspects of the film, that and its design.
Compared to the films of Robert Wiene and especially of F.W. Murnau, The Golem is very good, but nowhere as striking and iconic, so it is not so surprising that it is less known and less available than the others. It is still a brilliant film and I am very glad to have seen it.
As for Black Francis’ live score, it was interesting, though not ideal. He riffed on some commentary during the performance which was kind of annoying and not so funny and the music, with lyrics, was perhaps more akin to the scoring that Queen did for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) back in the 1980’s, a “rock” approach to accompaniment. And not to say that this couldn’t work or that it shouldn’t be done, adding lyrics to accompany a narrative isn’t exactly adding to it but more distracting. I’d be interested to know what other people thought.