Der Golem (1920) Review

When you think of the classic movie monsters, figures such as Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Mummy come immediately to mind but what about the Golem? A supernatural being of folklore the monster inspired legends, stories and films but has somehow been forgotten in the pantheon of creatures we currently celebrate.

Luckily The Masters of Cinema Series has brought Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s classic silent movie, which is also a leading example of early German Expressionism, to Blu-ray in a 4K digital restoration of the original film negatives which were scattered across several countries completed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation in 2017.

The third attempt at adapting the Golem’s story to the screen co-director Paul Wegener plays the monster himself a creature made of clay that is infused with life in a desperate attempt by Rabbi Low (Albert Streinruck) to protect his people from persecution.

Set in a Jewish ghetto in 16th century Prague the Rabbi lives with his daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) and young assistant played by Ernst Deutsch in relative peace until a messenger arrives from the Emperor informing him and his people that they will be punished because of their beliefs.

Although well aware he is dealing with dark magic Rabbi Low creates the forbidden creature and summons the demon Astoroth, the Great Duke of Hell, to give him the magical word that, along with an enchanted amulet, will grant the inanimate statue life.

His ritual works and soon the great and gruesome Golem is working as his servant to the shock of everyone around them. When the Rabbi is summoned to the Festival of Roses by the wicked Emperor to plead his case for his people he sees the opportunity to impress and enthral them with his creation and takes the Golem with him. However disaster and destruction are on the horizon and the deal the holy man made with the demon is about to turn towards tragedy.

As always when viewing the classics of silent cinema it is surprising how accessible and entertaining they are. Filled with evocative imagery and emotive acting one soon forgets the absence of dialogue and gets swept up in the story helped along by the superb sets, lavish landscapes and great soundtrack.

For this release there are in fact four options of accompaniment; the brand new and exclusive audio commentary by Scott Harrison or 1 of 3 unique scores from composer Stephen Horne, acclaimed electronic music producer Wudec and musician and film-score composer Admir Shkurtaj each of which subtly alters the mood of the movie while remaining true to enhancing the plot, emotion and action on screen as any original music would have done when it was released.

The most essential element is the Golem itself wonderfully realised in its simple design and costume and perfectly played by Wegener who conveys the pain and puzzlement the being bares having been gifted autonomy and then enslaved by his creator.

Highly influential especially on James Whale’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein the Golem is a tragic character as much a victim as it is a villain, a theme that has perforated this genre of horror throughout a variety of monster movies up to today.

Being such an important film in horror history Der Golem is given the release it deserves coming with a collection of excellent extras including the US version of the film, new video essays from various experts and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the movie by Scott Harrison and reprints of illustrations from the original 1915 novel.

Vital for fans of silent cinema, monster movie maniacs and anyone interested in the origins of the genre we all love, Der Golem is a great creature feature combining folklore and fable with an insightful examination of the making of a monster.

The hope is spurned on by this restoration the Golem will rise again sometime soon reinterpreted and renewed for a modern audience as it would be wonderful to see this classic somewhat forgotten monster brought back to life.

Movie Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Trailer:

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