Most of the history of the Jews gives the lie to the notion that life gets progressively better. The Nazi thing was clearly the capstone, but even pre-Nazi Jewish life was characterized by oppression, pogroms, and ghettoization in most areas with substantial Jewish populations (presumably, Gypsies, kulaks, Tutsis, and homosexuals got the same treatment in Jewless lands). And this stuff could be implemented at any time, on the whim of any priceling, so a sudden lucky streak didn't mean that you didn't have to worry about tomorrow's slaughter.
This is what THE GOLEM is about. It is also about Rabbi Löw discovering that a Jew-pogrom is imminent (because "you killed Jesus!" and other classic accusations). The Rabbi turns to arcane magic, shaping a monster called the Golem out of clay and infusing it with life via a magic word delivered by the demon Astaroth. The Rabbi lives with his daughter, who experiences a bit of magic of her own, the magic of love with a gentile boy who serves at the court. There is a lot of plot happening.
But THE GOLEM feels like a very balanced film. It incorporates things that we've seen in other silent horror of the place and era — the surreal, yawning sets; the interest in magic; the very expressive performances — but it doesn't lean on any one element. CALIGARI is maybe most notable for its physical traits, PHANTOM for its makeup and its Chaney performance, but you can't really pinpoint one thing as working best in GOLEM because it all works pretty well.
Ordinarily, I sigh like a disappointed dad when romantic subplots get shoehorned into horror films, but the one in GOLEM is integral. The wall above is a physical division between the Jew and Gentile worlds. The strict boundary is enforced throughout all the film's facets, including the way that magic & the supernatural is confined to the Jew's side of town, while the gentiles get all the political power. Early zoning. When the pogrom decree is printed, the Rabbi uses magic to solve real-world problems. In a development that will shock you, it works! With no bad consequences! Until there are.
Because there's not just romance in THE GOLEM, there's also necromance, which is the solution to and cause of many of the problems in fantastic cinema.
I really liked the portrayal of the Golem! Performed by co-director Paul Wegener, he intimidates the good people of Jewtown with his girth and his weird clay/stone skin and he is a monster, but a well-rounded one. Wegener is some actor, maintaining the Golem's imposing presence while adding lots of little touches to humanize it. Little things like the Golem's wide-eyed wonder at the world when he gets sent on grocery errands. Have you ever known anyone from not-America and been with them the first time they see Wal*Mart? It looks exactly like this, right?
I'm sure that everyone who sees this flags it as a precursor to FRANKENSTEIN, with its horrifying-yet-sympathetic creature. You could also cite the Rabbi's role as a scholar and dabbler in the forbidden as portending Victor Frankenstein's complex personality in the later film.
This was derived from an old legend and has a feel and tempo that's more old-tale than new-horror. THE GOLEM feels antique and leisurely and could have ended up overloose or scatterbrained in less capable hands. But Wegener and Carl Boese keep a firm handle on the story and drive all of our many plotlines to one common end.
So much epic goodness! I needed to be reassured about the 20s after some of the recent entries and now I am. Thanks, GOLEM!
TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2. Faust (1926)
3. The Golem (1920)
4. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
5. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
6. The Unknown (1927)
7. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
8. The Wind (1928)
9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
10. A Page of Madness (1926)