In 1920, at the very beginning of the Weimar era in Germany, director Paul Wegener released the 3rd movie in his Golem trilogy and effectively fired one of the first shots in the expressionist film movement.
After 2 movies using the Golem creature in a modern-day setting, Wegener finally had the resources and budget to make a full scale movie in which he retells the Golem myth he had learned about while filming a movie in Prague in 1913. (That movie was the Edgar Poe story William Wilson, later re-titled The Student Of Prague, which is itself a seminal embryonic expressionist film)
The idea of a Golem dates back to early Judaism.Psalm 139:16 says “Your eyes saw my unformed body;” and in Yiddish “my unformed body” is the word golem. The Talmud, the book which discusses the Jewish Oral tradition, a tradition extending back much longer than the Written Tradition which is the Bible, discusses golems on several occasions. A wise and holy man, who in his wisdom and holiness is becoming more like Gd, could do miraculous things like create life also, but his creations would be inherently flawed. He too could create a man out of mud, but this man would be a lumbering thing, unable to speak.
This eventually led to the most well known Golem myth, which takes place in the Jewish ghetto of Prague in the 16th century. Rabbi Loew created a Golem to protect the ghetto from violent antisemitic attacks. He put either a Hebrew word, or in some accounts the secret 24 letter name of Gd into the creature’s forehead, and the creature was brought to life. The Golem kicked the asses of the Jews’ enemies. In some versions the Golem goes out of control and in others the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II begs Rabbi Loew to stop the Golem, promising to end Jewish persecution. The Golem is dismantled by erasing the word of power on its forehead and stored in an attic to await the day when it is needed once more. (WWII would have been an ideal time…)
So, in 1920, Paul Wegener makes his movie retelling this story and changes cinema forever.
The screenplay was written in conjunction with Henrik Galeen who went on to write Nosferatu. Henrik Galeen was an enthusiastic occultist and Rabbi Loew’s bringing to life of The Golem is peppered with imaginative occult imagery as opposed to anything even remotely Jewish (other than a rather ridiculous waving around of a Star of David). The Golem in the movie goes out of control when the Rabbi’s assistant takes control of it to stop one the Emperor’s men from wooing the rabbi’s daughter, Miriam, and much mayhem ensues.
The film is so important, because like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, also released in 1920, it put a great number of the ideas defining German Expressionist Cinema on the map. Dark, deep, eerie, otherworldly moods; non realistic, symbolic sets; incredibly inventive and brilliant lighting; and fantastic plots open to interpretation which would keep generations of artsy people debating excitedly over coffee, cigarettes and wine, Der Golem has it all.
Wegener’s aim was : “The real creator of the film must be the camera. Getting the spectator to change his point of view, using special effects to double the actor on the divided screen, superimposing other images — all this, technique, form, gives the content its real meaning. Everything depends on the image, on a certain vagueness of outline where the fantastic world of the past meets the world of today. I realized that photographic technique was going to determine the destiny of the cinema. Light and darkness in the cinema play the same role as rhythm and cadence in music.”
The film is behind the 1931 Frankenstein movie, and even, yes, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Mickey Mouse anyone?). It was a major inspiration for the cyborg in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Indeed, The Golem is one of the first movie monsters ever. More so however, most of the major German Expressionist films are influences upon the next century of film making in ways that cannot be counted. This Golem myth, of powerful man made creation created to help but spirals out of control and causes an orgy of destruction is so well known and well trodden it’s not even worth it to list all the variations of this idea in film i can think of. We’d be here all day. This is one of the first movies in cinema to play with that concept and its influence is immeasurable.
Here is the famous scene in which the Golem is brought to life:
I would be remiss i didn’t include the full movie which is indeed available online, like everything else that has ever existed in the past 100 years. It is available to watch in its entirety at http://www.archive.org/details/Choronzon333-DerGolemPEmersonWilliamsScore568