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31 Days of Halloween

Celebrating 100 years of ‘The Golem’

Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

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October 29, 2020 marks the centennial of the classic German silent horror film The Golem, How He Came into the World by Paul Wegener who both co-wrote and co-directed this film as well as portrayed the title creature. Based on medieval Jewish folklore, The Golem tells the story of Rabbi Loew, the spiritual leader of medieval Prague’s Jewish ghetto. Loew is an astrologer and sorcerer who upon learning that the Czech Emperor plans to expel the Jews from Prague summons a demon who instructs him in creating a golem: an automaton made from clay. But will Loew’s creation prove the ghetto’s salvation or the source of its ultimate destruction?

To celebrate the 100-year-anniversary of Wegener’s The Golem, Camden House – which specializes in books dealing with German culture – has released a new title, The Golem, How He Came into the World by Maya Barzilai, as part of their German Film Classics series. Barzilai is Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature and Jewish Culture at the University of Michigan and has previously written on Wagener’s landmark film in her 2016 book Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters (NYU Press), some of the arguments from which are summarized here.

Celebrating 100 years of 'The Golem'

As a fan of this film I had long wondered what exactly drew Paul Wegener (1874-1948) – who was not Jewish – to the Jewish folktale of the golem. As Barzilai explains Germans had long found the folktale of the golem fascinating, though they inevitably transformed it in their retellings. In the Jewish legends the ability of a rabbi to create a golem is seen as evidence of his erudition and holiness, but in the German imagination came to denote Jewish hubris and black magic.

Jacob Grimm – of the famous Brothers Grimm – was the first non-Jew to pen a version of the golem story in 1808 and in the process transformed the folktale into what Barzilai describes as a “German narrative of Jewish occult crime and punishment” in which the mystic tradition of Kabbalah is portrayed “as some kind of radical Jewish thaumaturgy.” Later in 1915 Austrian author Gustav Meyrink published his novel Der Golem which likewise reworked the folktale into an “occult thriller.” Wegener grew up around such retellings of the golem legend and as a result it is not hard to see why he would feel it would make ideal material for a horror movie.

Wegener actually made three movies based on the legend of the golem, the first in 1914/15 and a second in 1917 which served as a meta-spoof of the first film. Unfortunately both of these earlier films are now lost. Following the lead of his German predecessors Wegener’s inaugural golem movie nearly strips the film of its Jewish identity. Set in then-contemporary Germany, the protagonists are a pair of secular Jews that don’t create the golem put merely acquire it as part of their antique business. They subsequently accidentally animate the golem which briefly rampages before being destroyed. Barzilai notes that this version received a negative review from Jewish writer Arnold Zweig who accused Wegener of turning the golem into “a monster.”

Barzilai writes that Wegener seems to have taken such criticism seriously as he worked on his third and final cinematic version of the golem legend. However, in addition, Barzilai emphasizes that something else of profound significance happened to Wegener between his 1914/15 and 1920 adaptations: Paul Wegener went to war. Despite being nearly 40-years-old in 1914, Wegener volunteered to fight in World War I ultimately serving as a lieutenant in the German army. Wegener recorded his experiences in the trenches of World War I in graphic detail describing how he spent his days caked in “clay” and how the “senseless [acts of] murder” he was ordered to commit left him “dulled [to death and injury]” as well as “deeply depressed.” Thinking alongside film scholar Anton Kaes, Barzilai classifies The Golem (1920) as an example of “shell shock cinema” arguing that Wegener used his final golem film as a means of metaphorically communicating his wartime experiences.

Celebrating 100 years of 'The Golem'

Furthermore Wegener’s last golem film restores the narrative’s Jewishness, though Barzilai notes that it does regrettably indulge in some ugly Jewish stereotypes. Overall however, Barzilai argues that The Golem (1920) works to reaffirm Jewish identity and castigate those real-life politicians who – like the film’s Czech Emperor – were advancing anti-Semitic programs and propaganda; something which was simultaneously going on both at home in Wegener’s Germany and abroad in places like the United States. Barzilai’s writes that this message was not lost on contemporary reviewers, though she declines to point out the fact that it was tragically not heeded as evidenced by the events of World War II.

Brazilai’s new book is not totally dominated by historical and cultural analysis of Wegener’s The Golem (1920) but also delves into various aspects of the film’s production as well. Most fascinating were the details concerning the construction of the movie’s medieval Jewish ghetto with its narrow alleys and improbably slanting roofs. Though often likened to the expressionist cityscape of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Feb. 1920), Brazilai points out that while the city in Caligari was mainly created via matte paintings, Wegener’s ghetto was an actual set containing 54 buildings designed by Hans Poelzig with Marlene Moeschke and manufactured by Kurt Richter at Ufa film company’s Tempelhof studios.

Camden House’s The Golem is not a long book coming in at a mere 67 pages, replete with nearly 40 “color” film stills (The Golem is a black-and-white film; however Wegener had it tinted in post-production). However, as should by now be evident, despite its brevity Barzilai manages to pack this book with just about everything you might ever want to know about Wegener’s acclaimed film. Presented as a small paperback, The Golem resembles the type of book one might get packaged with a collector’s edition blu-ray from Criterion. Since the current blu-ray from Kino Classics comes with no such book this allows Camden House to provide a much needed supplement for any aficionado of Weimar-era horror cinema.

          

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