Today (just in time for Halloween) is the anniversary of the original German premiere of the pathbreaking silent horror classic Der Golem, wie er die Welt kam (1920).
The film is the third part of a Golem trilogy, co-directed and co-written by its star Paul Wegener. Adapted from Jewish folklore (by way of a novel by Gustave Meyrink), The Golem has much in common with German Expressionist classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — one looks at it and sees a visual and thematic antecedent to everything from Frankenstein to The Mummy. Plus it has these amazing cultural overtones, rare for a film of its time. Set in the Jewish ghetto of Prague during medieval times, the film opens on a rabbi bringing the titular clay monster to life with kabbalistic magic…very scary, he calls up a devil, and receives a magic word. The creature, which resembles a 7 foot tall toddler, is supposed to stop the Emperor’s pogrom. He does indeed terrorize the Emperor and his minions, literally bringing down the roof at the very moment when they have the gall to laugh at a magically conjured vision of the 40 years wandering. Unfortunately, the rabbi begins to lose control of his creature. The golem runs amok and starts to tear apart the ghetto. He throws the fey messenger-knight (who has been bedding the rabbi’s daughter) off the roof. In the end, he picks up a sweet little girl (presaging a similar scene in Frankenstein). But she innocently takes the magic word off his chest making him go back to clay.
For more in early film history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc