Plot: In 16th century Prague, the Jewish people are being oppressed by a vindictive emperor who blames them for the death of Christ and accuses them of engaging in black magic. To protect his people Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück) creates a Golem (Paul Wegener), a powerful creature made from clay. Löw summons the demon Azaroth for the magic word needed to bring the Golem to life, and brings him to the Emperor’s court. During a display of magic the people of the court break the one rule they’re told to obey – don’t talk or laugh – proving that people in horror movies have been unable to follow simple directions since the beginning of the medium. The Golem goes on a tear and the Emperor agrees to pardon the Jews if Löw saves them. All is well, until Löw bothers to read the next page in his magic book, where he learns that Azaroth is going to come back and turn the Golem against him. No problem, though, he simply removes the amulet with the word of life from the Golem’s chest. It looks like things are fine, until Löw’s assistant gets jealous that the girl he desires is running around with someone else. He brings the Golem back to life, and he goes on a tear that threatens the entire city, forcing Löw to step forward and fight his creation once more. In the end, the Golem escapes Löw, but is defeated when he befriends a little girl, who simply plucks the amulet from his chest.
Thoughts: I didn’t know it when I chose this film to begin my experiment, but this silent German classic is actually the third film in a trilogy. The original The Golem was released in 1914, and its sequel, The Golem and the Dancing Girl, came out in 1917. This concluding chapter is the prequel to the other two, though, and is the one that is best-remembered today, and for good reason. First of all, it’s the only film in the trilogy that survives intact. More importantly, even at this incredibly early juncture, it’s easy to see in this movie a lot of the horror movie tropes that are so familiar today.
Beginning with Rabbi Löw himself, the character visually evokes both the archetypical pointy hat-wearing wizard, and the lab coated mad scientist of the likes of Victor Frankenstein. In fact, even though this film predates the most famous version of Frankenstein by eleven years, it displays a lot of the themes and ideas that we most clearly recognize as part of that franchise: the Golem himself is the creation of man, a giant creature of incredible strength that is turned to dark purposes against his will. Even his interaction with the children at the end seems to feed the later scenes of the Frankenstein monster playing with the famous little blind girl.
This film is considerably darker than Frankenstein, though. While Vic’s monster is usually portrayed as the misunderstood beast, a gentle giant of sorts, the Golem is no benign creature. He’s angry and surly from the first, and seems to revel in the destruction he causes. In fact, in the scene where he carries Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) down from the tower where he kills her lover, there’s a truly disturbing hunger in his eyes. When he lays her down on a table and runs his hands over her body, there’s a second there where the clay beast actually raping the young woman seems like a distinct possibility. Then there’s the demon-summoning scene itself. When the creature’s head first appears, it’s a jump-out-of-your-seat moment. It snaps into frame, this ugly face with bulging eyes that seems to be looking down at Löw with terrible glee. Once the shock passes and the camera zooms in at the head, you start to appreciate it for the prop that it actually is, but by then you’re already invested in it as a creature of darkness. Smoke billows out of its mouth, and you question just what the hell kind of Rabbi Löw actually is, if he’s willing to deal with a beast of this nature. Today, you know the head would be CGI and the smoke would probably billow with the shapes of Hell itself, and you know that it wouldn’t be a tenth as effective as it is in this simple scene.
This isn’t the first horror movie ever, of course, although it seems to be credited as being the first ever horror franchise, and I think that’s fair enough. It also gives me a chance, very early in the process, to make an important point: although I’m looking at film in this project, it would be a terrible mistake to pretend any art form exists in a vacuum. Movies can be influenced by novels, can influence comic books, can later be influenced by comic books, can feed influence back into novels. The film is based on actual Hebrew legend, but the filmmaker presents the legend in a way that’s very evocative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818. The actual framework, though, as is the case with so much supernatural horror, comes from a religious stance. Regardless of your own personal religious faith (or lack thereof), it would be foolish not to recognize religion as part of culture, and as those things we find scary come directly from our culture, religion plays a vital role in deciding that. If anything, that’s only going to become more obvious as this little adventure continues.
Come back tomorrow and we’ll look at what may be the first vampire film of all time, the 1922 classic Nosferatu.