This ain’t your grandson’s Frankenstein. We’re going old school monster movie for this entry. According to Wikipedia scholars, The Golem may have been cinema’s first movie monster. Unless you consider the Danny DeVito-shaped subject of Thomas Edison’s 1910 film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I don’t because Edison’s Frankenstein is 16 minutes long. It’s not even as long as an episode of According to Jim, and the monster on According to Jim is way scarier.
I’m not sure where The Golem lies in the modern film consciousness. It hasn’t been featured in any hit supernatural romance novels, at least none I have read. Nor has The Golem received a gritty reboot with Jeremy Renner playing an ass-kicking rabbi. There has been nothing. Is there no place in today’s Apple Watch wearing, Tupac holograming, Oculus Rift-ing modern world for an ancient Jewish monster?
Before The Golem: How He Came into the World, the last I saw of the Golem was in a 2006 The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror segment where Bart finds a Golem voiced by Richard Lewis and forces it to do his bidding. At the end the Golem marries a lady Golem voiced by Fran Drescher. Oy vey. I get it. It’s hard to stay relevant in an age of sexy vampires and crap your pants found footage films. The Golem is a relic. Though, one thing I noticed watching this old German film was its influence.
The Golem begins with an elderly alchemist in outer space, though I later found out he was just an old rabbi watching the night sky from an observatory. I also didn’t realize this rabbi character, Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck), was a real person. Rabbi Loew was a Jewish mystic in nineteenth-century Prague. “A Jewish Mystic?” I didn’t know you could be famous for that. There were legends back in the day claiming Loew once constructed and animated a Golem, so this is basically a true story.
Through Rabbi Loew’s stargazing, he concludes his people are on the verge of disaster. Loew informs his assistant (Ernst Deutsch) and gathers the elders to spread the word. The next day, a hoity toity knight named Florian (Lothar Muthel)–who makes Little Lord Fauntleroy look like John Shaft–comes to Loew’s ghetto to spread the Emperor’s word. He also hits on Loew’s daughter Miriam (Lydia Salmonova) for an extra dose of douchebaggery. Florian informs Loew that the Holy Roman Emperor (Otto Debuhr) has decided all Jews must leave the city before the next new moon. Have European politics always been this firmly based in astrology?
Desperate for a solution, Rabbi Loew builds a stone monster known as a “Golem” to defend his people from the Emperor. Loew and his assistant summon the Canaanite spirit Astaroth, who I only know as a second tier Soul Calibur character, and enchant a piece of paper with holy text. The paper is placed in an amulet and the Golem is brought to life.
First off, the Golem is a sweet monster. He’s big, imposing as all hell, and does an excellent job of rockin’ the Connie Benge haircut from Nickelodeon’s Doug. Want to hear something else crazy? The Golem is played by the film’s director Paul Wegener. Dedication right there. Can you imagine if Michael Bay was like, “F@#k it! I’m Optimus Prime!” It’s a ballsy move, but it pays off. Wegener is a scary looking dude. What doesn’t pay off is how long we have to wait for the Golem to act like a monster. Rabbi Loew sends him off on lame errands like grocery shopping while Florian is “courting” Miriam on the side. Bad news because the assistant to the Rabbi also likes Miriam. I sure would hate to be him. He doesn’t even have a name.
Rabbi Loew is granted a court with the Emperor and presents his Golem to the crowd. They are into it. Loew then uses magic to project a screen of the history of the Jews. Modern board room meetings could learn a thing or two from this film. Then, for no good reason, the palace collapses, only to have the Golem save everyone. The Emperor is thankful, the Golem is put to rest, and the Jews get to stay in Prague. “Movie over, right?” Wrong.
Remember the knight who was playing squatter with the Rabbi’s daughter? The Rabbi’s assistant finds out and is so pissed he summons the Golem to kill the knight. The Golem does and then goes on a rampage. Maybe if they had given the assistant a name this wouldn’t have happened. The Golem takes Miriam and rampages until a little girl out of all people removes his amulet. The Rabbi is reunited with his daughter and a Star of David appears on the screen.
The Frankenstein parallels are everywhere; man makes a monster, monster becomes uncontrollable, monster kills, there’s a poignant scene with a little girl, etc. Except everything would have been fine if the dumbass assistant just kept his dick in his pants. It’s annoying how easily the conflict of the last half of the film could have been avoided. Nonetheless, there’s a lot I like here. The sets, designed by Hanz Poelzig, are finely detailed recreations of of medieval Prague and Karl Freund’s cinematography is hypnotic and surreal.
Though The Golem may be overshadowed by similar “Man-Plays-God” films, it is a noble effort. Not to mention it was one of the first of its kind. The film takes a unique spin of combining horror with folklore and historical oppression. Who knows, maybe it could even see a resurgence some day? What’s Jeremy Renner up to?