Der Golem – Paul Wegener (1920)

Before the Second World War, mythology was in a healthy and respectable state of affairs.  With Jewish mysticism in particular dominating the beliefs and influences of many fields, it was only a matter of time before it found its way into film.  The fantasy elements and myths in particular seem a perfect mould for the cinematic medium, yet it seems to have been resisted in more serious lines of work.  Psychology in particular was paranoid beyond belief with Freud in particular adamant on getting Carl Jung involved so his theories would carry more weight and not be tarnished by the potential of ironically being just another piece of mysticism.

Der Golem doesn’t take this approach though and instead embraces everything from astrology to magic in its attempt to portray the message of rebellion and its fallouts.  The emperor of a community in Prague orders the expulsion of the Jews from a Ghetto in his city.  Rabbi Low who predicted doom from a reading of the stars creates a Demon out of clay to fight for the Jewish community.  All is settled when the Golem saves the life of the emperor and things at first seem normal.  It is only when the Rabbi’s assistant uses the Golem for his own personal battles (the fight for a woman) that the Golem turns to evil and steals the woman himself before setting the Rabbi’s house on fire.

Taking this at face value, the film has a relatively simple narrative and is extremely entertaining.  However reading into some of the more audacious actions of the characters uncovers a wealth of potential readings on both Germany in the 1920′s and the dark future of the country itself.  Some discourse has been raised about the potential anti-Semitism of the film, with some suggesting that showing Jewish people to believe in what is in essence magic, to be offensive.  However this reading is invalidated by the fact that the film is set in the 16th century; a time when even in Britain there were Witch hunts and the worry of black magic was a genuine concern.

The creation of the Golem itself can almost be seen as the creation of a political ideology.  With this being a film about the oppression of a Jewish community, it’s ironic that it ties into fascist connotations with certain future governments acting like they were the initial savoir of Germany before it brought the country to its knees through totalitarianism.  When the Golem is used for selfish and unjustified actions against the innocent it turns and creates havoc for the creators suggesting that the highly personal ideology of the creator allows the idea to turn to evil in the end and the prediction that it would destroy all the creator had worked for beforehand was pretty easy to second guess.

What’s different in this interpretation is how it ends its presentation of the creature.  The film sympathises with it and he ends his existence of his own accord.  This is where the reading falls down as it’s clear the future German government did not go down lightly.  However the film covers an issue that would come to define German history and in many ways be a relationship that would shape the future of the whole world.

Within the visuals, we are presented with one of the earliest examples of pure gothica, mixing German expressionism with genuinely innovative location work.  With films from the 1920s and before, when early time is represented, it feels authentic and almost real with the film being ninety years old itself.  This adds a treasure like feel to the film, as if it’s just been discovered in an ancient burial.  Magic realism it may not be, but there are certainly hints here of magical acceptance and the visuals are quaint while boasting a dark streak simultaneously.

Der Golem is an interestingly ironic piece of art.  Almost predicting the potential future happenings of the country it was made in, history itself can almost be too distracting.  However this shouldn’t sour what is an innovative and intelligent piece of early fantasy film that has aged far better than its modern day counterparts can ever hope to achieve.

Adam Scovell

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