Blu-Ray Review: DER GOLEM (1920)

It is entirely possible that Der Golem aka The Golem, 1920’s German expressionist trend-setter from director Paul Wegener (and co-director Carl Boese), can actually be classed as the first cinematic franchise, given this particularly well-regarded effort stands as the third time Wegener portrays the titular Golem. It may also be the first cinematic prequel.

Don’t quote me on that. Far harder cinephiles may well be able to pull an obscure 1910’s example out of the hat to prove me wrong, and naturally Der Golem never directly clues you in to the fact this was set before the previous Golem films, but Wegener & Boese’s movie is at the end of the day an origin story. Set in the Jewish ghetto in 16th century Prague, it focuses on a small village where an enterprising Rabbi (played by Albert Streinruck) forges a Golem via black magic to protect the people from a tyrannical Emperor (Otto Gebuhr), only for the creature to ultimately turn destructive when he is used for personal gain. It is, in that sense, a cautionary tale of playing God, of man creating monster, and I know what you’re thinking: Frankenstein. The inspirations are clear but, in truth, they work both ways.

While Wegener & Boese undoubtedly would have been in some way influenced by the Gothic literature of Mary Shelley, the legend of the Golem stretches back into Hebrew myth and you can entirely see the inspirations in the work of James Whale and his own seminal, early 1931 Hollywood take on the Frankenstein story. These stories all have their place in romantic narrative and, in the case of Der Golem, a formative part of ‘Weimar Cinema’ in pre-Nazi Germany.

We are of course some years away from the advent of the ‘talkie’, as it would originate in America toward the middle of the 1920’s, but Der Golem’s silence does nothing to limit the striking visual palette on offer. If you consider Wegener & Boese’s film in the context of when it was made, it was decidedly ahead of its time.

Wegener himself portrays the Golem, a lumbering clay beast with more than a passing resemblance (strangely) to an Egyptian pharaoh, but the director imbues the character with a haunted, tragic quality. The Golem is created for good but morphed into evil, yet the paradox is that he was created using demon spirits and dark, forbidden magic. He represents, as many of the myths concerning men and monsters particularly in 19th century literature, the duality of human nature. It’s worth considering that cinema simply did not make these kinds of mythic, supernatural stories at the beginning. It takes Hollywood a decade before the Universal monster movies come to bear. Der Golem, with its early visual effects of the golem’s formation and period setting brought to life, is bravely experimenting in ways which stand the test of time.

Eureka, as a result, go out of their way to deliver another comprehensive release, as befitting what the film deserves. In particular, they provide a remarkable three different scores to choose from presented with the film which give the picture an alternative texture on each watch. Here’s a full list of provided bonus content:

  • Limited Edition O-Card [2000 copies]
  • Presented in 1080p from a stunning 4K digital restoration of the original film negatives, completed by FWMS in 2017.
  • Original German intertitles with optional English subtitles
  • Option of THREE fantastic and unique scores, by composer Stephen Horne; acclaimed electronic music producer Wudec; and musician and film-score composer Admir Shkurtaj
  • Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by Scott Harrison
  • Brand new and exclusive video essay by critic David Cairns
  • Brand new and exclusive video essay by filmmaker Jon Spira (Elstree 1976)
  • The Golem [60 mins]– The US version of the film, also fully restored, and featuring a score by Cordula Heth
  • A video piece highlighting the differences between the domestic and export negatives of the film [22 mins]
  • PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Scott Harrison; and reprints of illustrations from the original 1915 novel

Almost a century old, Der Golem remains a key test in the formative history of cinema, and particularly German expressionism. Lyrical, experimental and bold, Paul Wegener & Carl Boese’s film is a striking feature that decades worth of films across the world have taken a cue from since. A terrific release.

Der Golem is now available on Blu-Ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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