Magic Man

Paul Wegener, The Golem: Or How He Came into the World, 1920, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 85 minutes.

IT IS SOMEWHAT COMFORTING to know that in the past one hundred years of film, the major tropes and formulas of the horror genre have changed very little. Its stories still probe our subconscious, feeding off human insecurities; evil creatures or disturbed slashers still threaten otherwise sleepy settings where virtuous characters survive and the bawdy ones are violently eliminated. These shocks and chills, which contemporary audiences have come to expect, were established early on and Paul Wegener’s 1920 telling of the golem legend is a strong specimen. The third film in what was the first horror sequel ever produced (the first two were released in 1914 and 1917), Wegener’s adaptation The Golem: Or How He Came into the World remains an important example of German Expressionist cinema that influenced later films like Faust (1926) and Frankenstein (1931).

The film’s first intertitle reads, “The Golem: Pictures based on events in an old chronicle,” and like a written account, it is divided into five “chapters” recounting the fifteenth-century Hebrew myth of a manlike creature brought to life from clay to defend a Polish Jewish ghetto from a threatened pogrom. The story opens with a view over the stylized crooked rooftops of the ghetto, where a rabbi reading the stars learns of a threat to the community. (It is unclear whether the omen points to the pogrom or the creation of the monster.) As in so many horror movies, the warning sign is ignored, and as Venus enters Libra, the rabbi casts a spell that gives rise to an otherworldly protector. Here, the Prometheus myth meets Kabbalistic mysticism, and the results of playing God do not go unpunished; the rabbi loses control of his creature, and the golem wreaks havoc on the community. Escaping from the ghetto, the golem encounters a young child—who offers the monster a flower, a scene directly lifted by James Whale for Frankenstein—who eventually steals the beast’s life-giving amulet and returns him to inanimate clay.

While the similarities between The Golem and Frankenstein films are unmistakable, it is important to note the way science replaces religion as the popular narrative evolves, setting the stage for the height of sci-fi by the 1950s. But there will always be something captivating and mysterious about this first silent being, the golem, brought to life not by experimenting with corpses but through language, a secret word placed in an amulet. And though the remakes and sequels of horror movies continue to hold a cathartic and ritual-like power in our culture, I have yet to see a film that so simply and enigmatically deals with metaphysics and religion as this 1920 masterpiece.

The Golem screens October 30–31 at REDCAT in Los Angeles with a live score by Brian LeBarton. For more details, click here.