Der Golem [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (10th November 2019).
The Film

In the Jewish ghetto of medieval Prague, Rabbi Loew (The Jew of Mestri's Albert Steinrück) has curried the favor of the Emperor (Fridericus Rex's Otto Gebühr) by providing his horoscope and entertaining the kingdom with feats of magic; however, the danger he sees in the stars for the Jewish people comes in the Emperor's decree that all Jews must leave the city before the new moon on charges (citing not only the blood libel but also the practice of black magic). The decree is delivered to Rabbi Jehuda (The Lost Shadow's Hans Stürm) by foppish Squire Florian (Destiny's Lothar Müthel) who takes him to Loew. Loew begs Florian to take a secret message back to the Emperor begging an audience with him to make an appeal, and the elders are sure he will do it when they notice that he becomes taken with Loew's daughter Mariam (Monna Vanna's Lyda Salmonova). While waiting to hear if he can speak directly to the Emperor, Loew finishes his long-neglected state of the Golem, a creature sculpted out of clay that will come to life and defend the Jewish people through the powers of necromancy and the secret life-giving word that can only be discovered by summoning the spirit of Astaroth. Loew confides in his apprentice Famulus (The Third Man's Ernst Deutsch) the secret of the Golem after Astaroth manifests himself to the horrified pair, writing the word on a piece of paper and placing it within an amulet that can wake the creature when it is affixed to its chest. The word works and the Golem (Sumurun's Paul Wegener) comes to life whereupon Loew tests its abilities by putting it to work with manual labor (and Famulus abuses this by having it go on its errands even as it terrifies the ghetto locals). When Florian returns and tells him that the Emperor has granted him an audience provided he bring with him some form of amusements, Loew brings the Golem with him while Florian and Miriam have an assignation in his absence. The Golem both horrifies and marvels the Emperor's court but he only provides so much amusement. Loew projects moving images of the Exodus, but the image of the Wandering Jew cursed to walk the Earth for taunting Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion provokes blasphemous laughter that causes the palace walls to crumble and the ceiling to fall in. The Emperor promises to pardon the Jews if Loew will save him; whereupon Loew calls on the Golem to hold up the ceiling. Loew returns to the village with the good news but realizes that he must destroy the Golem now that it has done its job because his studies also warm him that Astaroth will eventually wrest away the power over the creature and use it against its creators, but he only removes the amulet before he is called away to the temple for the festivities. When Famulus discovers Florian in Marjam's bedroom, he brings the Golem back to live unaware of the danger and orders the creature to chase Florian out of the house (in the American version's intertitles Famulus orders the Golem to kill Florian), setting the stage for the uncontrollable creature's murderous rampage in which many Jewish people are killed and buildings go up in flames; but worse yet, the Jews fear that the Emperor will bring his wrath down upon them if the creature breaches the ghetto gates and makes its way into the city.

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Der Golem was actor/co-director Wegener's third turn as the titular, the earlier 1915 The Golem and the farcical The Golem and the Dancing Girl long lost. Whereas the 1915 film was a domestically-successful follow-up to his previous supernatural star vehicle The Student of Prague, the 1920 film was as German Expressionistic a take on the material as its contemporaries The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu – with which The Golem shares screenwriter Henrik Galeen (The Man Who Cheated Life) – couching the Faustian plot and its occult doings within the light and shadow further of Karl Freund (The Mummy) distorted by the sculpted surfaces of vaguely uterine stone chambers of Wegener's fellow Max Reinhardt acolyte Hans Poelzig with an Astaroth that looks more alien than demon and a Golem whose smoothness, symmetrical build, and upright posture contrast with the hunched, lurching, and swooning living characters, their coarse clothing and flowing hair and scraggly beards. The film cannot really be said to be prescient of the Jewish experience in World War II because the religious justifications for Christians to scapegoat Jews had been weaponized before, just not on as grand a scale; however, the Faustian bargain and its twist in the rampage of the Golem can be seen as the symbolic of a sense of desperation and limited means of resistance when constantly aware of what can spring being "othered" by another population. With its monster turning on its well-intentioned creator scenario, chiaroscuro photography, and not so much distorted as tormented sets, Der Golem is not just one of the three key German Expressionist horror films but perhaps the most demonstrative of the movement in the genre.

Video

Released theatrically in the United States in 1921 by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, The Golem has had a rather convoluted history of availability with no German prints surviving and versions of varying quality and completeness in different film archives. The film was shot simultaneously with two cameras from two slightly different angles. Negative A was comprised of the best shots and used to assemble the German version while Negative B was intended for export. The widely available American version did not use the export negative but recut the German version and inserted English intertitles. While the earliest public domain VHS and DVD editions – including Elite Entertainment's Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema set with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu– came from usually 16mm reductions of 35mm elements of the American version, the first restoration that had been carried out in German in the seventies has been unavailable on video. In 1995, the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna carried out a restoration of the German version but it had to utilize Negative B as Negative A was thought to be lost at the time, and this was the version that appeared officially on DVD from Kino Video in the U.S. (also available in German Horror Classics with Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Waxworks) and Eureka Video in the U.K. (where it is also available in Classics of German Cinema with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Asphalt, both versions of The Blue Angel, and Münchhausen). Negative A was subsequently discovered in the Belgium film archive and a restoration was undertaken by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation attempting to restore the domestic German version utilizing Negative A, the American version for missing shots, and material from Negative B while an Italian release print was utilized for grading. This restoration debuted on Blu-ray in Germany from Universum Film in an edition that also included an HD transfer of the American version (which was available since it was used to patch up the German version) and a choice of three scores for the German version and one for the American version. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray utilizes the same masters for the German (76:12) and American (59:53) versions. Quality is understandably variable, but the German version looks quite spectacular compared to the earlier transfers. The substitution of the Golem statue and Wegener in his make-up is a bit more obvious, and the enhanced resolution does seem to exaggerate the facial performances of Wegener and Salmonova (to an embarrassing degree in the case of the latter), but there is a true sense of depth in the image thanks to the sets which are built and lit in direct response to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's backdrops and painted representations of shadows and light. The most notable damage seems to denote that bits that came from the American version going by a viewing of that transfer but Negative A also has some lesser damage here and there. It is by and large the best we will likely see of this film as other restorations are unlikely to come so soon and from any better materials. The bits from the American version have been tinted to fit the rest of the presentation while the American version remains in black and white.
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Audio

As with the German Blu-ray, Eureka includes a choice of three scores in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo. The first by Stephen Horne (also available in a 5.1 mix on the German disc) is the most conventional, not particularly lively but comparatively less bombastic than the brash and shrill Lukasz "Wudec" Poleszak score which at moments recalls Klaus Schulze's "Death of an Analog" in its drum machines and electronic strings while the Admir Shkurtja score is probably more successfully "experimental" than the former. The American version comes with a score by Cordula Heth in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo (the German version also had a 5.1 version). The German intertitles (in a font reminiscent of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation restorations of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) while the American version retains its original 1921 intertitles.

Extras

The Blu-ray extras start off with a new audio commentary by film historian Scott Harrison on the German version in which he notes the influence of the film's visual on films as far flung as King Kong and The Neverending Story, contrasting the film's set design and photography with that of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, citing the writings of Siegfried Kracauer ("From Caligari to Hitler") and Lotte Eisner ("The Haunted Screen") on both films, and also noting that the variations on the Golem story involving Rabbi Loew date more recently from the nineteenth century, and that the film's innovation on the myths is providing an explanation for the creature becoming uncontrollable as that of Astaroth reclaiming the powers he bestowed (making Loew's invoking Astaroth for the word suggestive of a Faustian pact and tying it to The Student of Prague). "Golem Time" (25:40) is a video essay by critic David Cairns and Anne Billson (unbilled here and also unbilled on Cairns' essay for The Fate of Lee Khan which might mean that she is only contributing her vocal delivery to Cairns' research). In addition to reiterating the lack of connection to the Meyrink novel, he notes that the film's subtitle "Wie Er In Die Welt Kam" (how he came into the world) denotes the film as a prequel to the 1915 film in which the Golem was unearthed in the ruins of a synagogue and brought back to life (the origins of the Golem explored in that film in flashback). Cairns also discusses the substantial contribution of co-director Carl Boese (The White Spider) from whose interviews come much of the information on how certain in-camera effects on the film were achieved (although Cairns notes that some of the accounts may be embellished) as well as Freund replacing Guido Seeber (Secrets of a Soul), and the sets of Poelzig. Billson chimes with regard to Poelzig and the unsung collaboration of his wife Marlene Moeschke who was the architect and builder to his conceptual designer even though her uncredited work is more certain than that of Edgar G. Ulmer whose claim to have worked on this and other Expressionist films is the only source of his collaboration while he is nevertheless the link between German Expressionism and American noir (and indeed named the architect/Satanist antagonist of his The Black Cat after Poelzig).
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"Where Are the Jewish Horror Films" (10:17) is a video essay by filmmaker Jon Spira who also contributed a similar essay to Arrow Video's recent Blu-ray of An American Werewolf in London but asks here why the rich tradition of Jewish folklore has produced so few horror films despite Hollywood becoming a haven for Jewish talent fleeing World War II Europe. He notes the legend of the Golem did not seem to travel well, only coming to English audiences as far as England with the lesser It! while noting the presence of Jewish filmmakers behind the three most popular and influential Christian horror films in Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen. He notes the presence of child-killing succubus in low budget American horror films of the nineties (that period when the horror genre melded with the erotic thriller genre) with such entries as Night Angel while the dybbuk has more recently become popular in low budget horror films following the theatrical releases The Unborn and The Possession, and questions whether the 2018 Israeli film The Golem will spawn more Jewish horror films. "The Kingdom of Ghosts: Paul Wegener’s The Golem and the Expressionist Tradition" (14:51) is an audio essay by film historian R. Dixon Smith ported from the Eureka DVD and is pretty much a generalized discussion of German Expressionism that references the Wegener film but could probably accompany releases of other German silent horror films. The restoration demonstration (22:15) does not compare the current HD master before and after damage cleanup and grading but is actually a split-screen comparison between the 1995 and 2018 restorations which reveals some of the different angles between the two as well as stronger tints on the 1995 version in which detail seems to be lost and contrast higher, but this may be the effect of the tinting technology of the time and the lesser detail of the standard definition master (the 1995 restoration presumably does not exist in high definition).

Packaging

The first 2,000 copies come with a limited o-card slipcase while all pressings inclue a collector's booklet featuring reprints of illustrations from the original 1915 novel and the essays "Paul Wegener: Pioneer of German Expressionist Cinema" by Philip Kemp and "The Haunted Screen: Der Golem and the Ghosts of the Great War" by Scott Harrison along with viewing notes and Blu-ray credits.

Overall

With its monster turning on its well-intentioned creator scenario, chiaroscuro photography, and not so much distorted as tormented sets, Der Golem is not just one of the three key German Expressionist horror films but perhaps the most demonstrative of the movement in the genre.

 


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