Der Golem is one of the most iconic German expressionist films. Although the Germans did a version of Dracula with Nosferatu, they never did a Frankenstein film—this was the closest thing to it: in ancient Jewish mythology, a Golem is a human-shaped being created from something like clay or mud and then brought alive. Directed by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener, the film takes off from a novel by Gustav Meyrink, the most notable German writer of supernatural fiction, which was his most widely known work. Meyrink’s Golem story was serialised and then collected into a book that was published in 1915. There was also a 1915 Golem film, but only film fragments and stills from this remain, and Meyrink was not very happy with that version, which was more of a contemporary story. Both the novel and the film were loosely inspired by the legend of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bazalel, who was said to have created a Golem to protect the Jews in Prague.
In the film, an evil Roman emperor wants to evict all Jews from the city. Rabbi Loew creates the Golem to fight the emperor. The Golem becomes this indestructible juggernaut who can fight against all kinds of tyranny—it’s probably safe to say that the character of The Juggernaut in the X-Men universe is somewhat inspired by the Golem, even with some physical resemblance, and the film influenced James Whale’s Frankenstein. The rabbi’s assistant then tries to take control, but if someone without pure intentions tries to do that, it’s not going to end well…
The special effects are still pretty impressive, given what they had to work with, and it’s a fantastic-looking film. The sets shrouded in dark shadows are great, and I love the drawn-on lightning. It’s still a very effective movie almost 100 years later. It’s also one of the first prequels ever made: Der Golem was the third film in a series, but would have been first in chronological order. Unfortunately, the other two have been lost.
Director Wegener appeared in Nazi propaganda films and made some films in their studio—and also gave money to Resistance groups, wrote anti-Nazi slogans on walls, and hid people in his apartment. I think you could say he had a complicated relationship with the Nazis. Wegener later did one Hollywood film, The Magician, in which he plays an Aleister Crowley-like magician, based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel. The Magician was directed by Rex Ingram, who was also one of the five directors of the 1925 Ben Hur, and directed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with Rudolph Valentino. For Der Golem, it looks like Wegener focused on the visuals, while Boese was more involved with directing the actors.
The disc has a bunch of extras. There’s the US version, which was 26 minutes shorter than the full surviving version. This full-version was mastered from the original negative, so it looks great. There are three different scores, a commentary by Scott Harrison, a video essay by David Cairns, another video essay by Jon Spira, a video segment on the differences between the two cuts, and a booklet with some new writing on the film by Harrison and reprints of the illustrations from the 1915 novel.