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Film review: Der Golem (Blu-ray release)

08 May 2020

Stephen Brown revisits a German film of 1920

Paul Wegener as the Golem, in his film

Paul Wegener as the Golem, in his film

CALLING Paul Wegener’s 1920 Der Golem (Cert. PG) a horror film does not do it justice. Eureka Entertainment’s brand-new 4K restoration on Blu-ray transcends any one genre. As in the 16th-century Golem of Prague narrative, the Emperor (Otto Gebühr) decrees that he will “no longer ignore the many serious charges brought against the Jews”, including allegations of black magic. They must leave the ghetto immediately.

Rabbi Löw (Albert Streinrück) has to wrest a crucial word (aemeth, Hebrew for “truth”) from the spirit Astaroth. This, when inserted into a star-shaped amulet on a clay figure’s chest, brings life. The Golem is played by Wegener, himself a towering 6 ft 6 in. tall. He will protect his people. Initially, the juggernaut performs to plan, touches of humour arising when he is dispatched to do grocery shopping. Later, he enchants the Emperor’s court in a reversal of Samson’s collapsing the roof on his oppressors. Here, the Golem saves Gentile courtiers from annihilation. The Jews are given a reprieve.

Things go wrong only when Löw’s creature is misused. The rabbi’s assistant, Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) tries to manipulate the Golem for selfish ends. This leads to a trail of destruction. In accordance with Agnes Allen’s Law (almost anything is easier to get into than out of), putting the genie back into the bottle takes some doing. The film seems to suggest that it requires the innocence of a Christian child to redeem the situation. This isn’t an anti-Semitic piece. Under the Third Reich, Wegener secreted endangered people in his home, funded resistance groups, and was a dab hand at anti-Führer graffiti.

What are we to make of this film a century on? First and foremost, it is an outstanding example of German Expressionism. The grotesque ambience with its distorted sets and chiaroscuro lighting gives overt expression to conflicted humanity’s inner turmoil. We can read this as a commentary on a defeated nation striving to reassert its sense of worthiness. The Golem stories have, over the centuries, been subject to various metaphysical interpretations.

The film is subtitled Wie er in die Welt kam (How he came into the world). As such, Der Golem continues to speak powerfully to that universal sense that all of us entered here less than complete. A clue lies in recalling that the sole biblical use of the word golem appears in Psalm 139.16. It is a reference to our unfinished form: “Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.”

The Golem of the film is not the clay figure, but us. Becoming who we are meant to be is a work in process. Our hold on the “truth” about ourselves is, like the amulet, something that is only occasionally and temporarily grasped. If so, the task is to allow ourselves to be searched and led, as the Psalmist puts it, “in the way everlasting”. On the showing in this film, there are glimmers of hope, though still some way to go.

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