Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1920) is not as broadly known today as its German Expressionist peers, Nosferatu (1922) and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), despite having been a considerable influence on James Whale‘s Frankenstein (1931). The reasons are apparent. Wegener’s later propaganda films for the Nazis certainly hurt the reputation of both director and film. And the Golem itself, with his oversized fright wig, looks more comically surreal than horrific; it was undeniably surpassed by Frankenstein.
Still, The Golem deserves to be better known. It was Wegener’s third “Golem” film[efn_note]The previous two films, The Golem (1915) and The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), are lost, although fragments of the 1915 version survive.[/efn_note] based on the story by Gustav Meyrink, itself based on Jewish folklore. Wegener stars, co-wrote (with Henrik Galeen), and co-directed (here with Carl Boese) each of them. The cinematography by Karl Freund and set design by Hans Poelzig[efn_note]Yes, that’s where Ulmer later got the name for his Satanist antagonist in 1934’s The Black Cat[/efn_note] and his assistant Edgar G. Ulmer considerably enhance its stunning visuals.
The Golem opens in a 16th century Jewish ghetto in Prague with Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck) foretelling disaster for the Jewish community. Shortly after that bit of soothsaying, the Kaiser (Otto Gebuhr) orders the Jews banned. Loew creates a stone figure, the Golem, to protect his people, investing life into it through the demon Astaroth. The scene is impressively shot, with the rabbi encircling the Golem with fire (influenced by the “Magic Fire” of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkure”), climaxing with a smoky demonic face issuing forth a scroll. Taking the now-animated Golem to the court of the Kaiser, Loew impresses when his creation saves the assembly from a falling roof in a epically staged scene that must have made quite an impression to 1920 audiences. It certainly impresses (or, rather frightens) the Kaiser enough to get the deportation order reversed. Astaroth possesses the Golem shortly afterwards, however, and like the monster in Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” the Golem runs amok, destroying all in its path. It even turns on his creator, setting fire to Loew’s home and carting off his daughter, Miriam (played by Wegener’s wife, Lyda Salmanova). The scenes of the monster rampaging through the city, with its angular sets and idiosyncratic cinematography, is a testament to the work of both Poelzig and Freund. Anyone who has seen Frankenstein will immediately recognize much of its source. As accomplished as Wegener is as a writer and director, he is even better as an actor, giving an expressive, animated performance and eliciting empathy with his eyes.
The film ends with a group of blonde Aryan girls saving the day, which may be one of the reasons the film wasn’t destroyed by the Nazis and Wegener was not persecuted; especially since the Christians aren’t represented positively.
Pablo Picasso once said an amateur is influenced, but a great artist steals. James Whale certainly falls into Picasso’s description with his Frankenstein, an indisputable masterpiece that steals much from both The Golem and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Today, we cannot really fathom the impact Frankenstein had on the world. It forever legitimized horror as a genre, far more than Dracula, which was made only a few months before.
With the success of Dracula, Producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. tapped Bela Lugosi and director Robert Florey to make some tests for Frankenstein. When they came up with Golem-like makeup, Laemmle was reportedly aghast. After that, and seeing Florey’s early script treatment, Laemmle correctly concluded that Florey wasn’t right for the project. Further angered by Lugosi’s prima donna attitude, Laemmle fired them both and hired James Whale who, in turn, hired actor Boris Karloff. The rest, of course, is history.
Karloff undoubtedly studied Wegener’s performance, along with performances of Lon Chaney and Charlie Chaplin. It paid off in spades, with the actor delivering a silent film-like portrayal of pathos which, in many ways, surpasses all of his influences. As Picasso surpassed Cezanne (and many others), so too did Whale expand on Wegener’s film.
Unlike Whale’s later horror films, Frankenstein keeps the director’s eccentric British wit to a minimum. The look of the film is an idiosyncratic mix of Gothic and Expressionism, with superlative sets by Herman Rosse.
Whale’s choice of self-loathing alcoholic Colin Clive as doctor Henry Frankenstein was a bit of intuitive casting. The poor actor looks much older than his thirty years at the time (he died at the age of 37), and he brings all that melodramatic angst into his performance. It’s pure British ham, but you never doubt it. In his dour baritone, Henry declares himself a god in the orgasmic line (originally cut as “blasphemy,” but later restored): “Now I know what it feels like to be God.” Predictably, Henry winds up as yet another god who abandons his creation. Dwight Frye, the memorable Renfield of Dracula, excels in the smaller role of the hunchback Fritz[efn_note]Most people confuse the character with Ygor in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, who was played (imperfectly) by Bela Lugosi.[/efn_note]. Mae Clark plays Henry’s fiancee, adorned in an extravagantly exaggerated white veil (that’s a lot of virginity), one of the film’s bizarre touches of visual humor. Frederick Kerr, the type of eccentric character actor that Whale excelled in finding, is delightfully quirky as the Baron Frankenstein. Still, it’s Karloff’s film, and his performance is so startling and riveting it lays waste to any other claims as to who was the horror genre’s best actor.
His monster is an unwanted, abused child. When, after being brought to life, he reaches for light, he does so free of all those kitsch cliches. We know he’s reaching for something far more ambiguous, and that he’s tortured in his confusion and feeling of being aborted. When those feelings, exacerbated by the torment he endures from Fritz, gives way to rage, we understand it completely. (Inexplicably, the script retained Florey’s original explanation for the Monster’s eruption: he was mistakenly given an abnormal brain).
The Monster’s rampage is temporarily alleviated in the famous/infamous scene with the little girl Maria (Marilyn Harris). Yet, the Monster’s innocence leads to tragedy. Foolishly, censors excised the actual clip of the monster throwing the girl in the lake, believing she could float on the water like a flower. Cutting the scene led some in the audience to imagine that the Monster defiled her. Luckily, that scene too was restored, and its restoration gives a consistent arc to the Monster.
Our empathy is not with Henry or his bride to be at all and we don’t, for a second, buy into their bourgeois ending. 1931 audiences (and audiences since) sided with the monster in the burning mill. Such is the universal identity with the outsider that Whale and Karloff bring to life. Like Dracula, Frankenstein was based more on the play adaptation than the novel. In this sense (and including its immediate sequel), the film is an improvement on its source. Although copied, parodied, and retold countless times, 1931’s Frankenstein is still the yardstick by which all others are measured. Karloff perhaps summed it up best, later in life, when he pooh-poohed the idea of Frankenstein as a “horror” film, insisting it was a fairy tale.
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A few years ago, Black Francis (of the Pixies) recorded his own soundtrack for “The Golem”. You can watch the whole thing here: