We tend to think of the modern era as a creatively defunct cesspool of franchise obsession where original properties are a rare gamble in a never-ending ocean of sequels, prequels, reboots and reimaginings. The idea of the film franchise has been around for a long while, though. Consider The Golem: How He Came Into the World. It’s one of the most infamous horror films of the silent era, yet it’s a prequel in a three part series (in which the other two films are considered lost works). Think about that the next time you refuse to give Prometheus II or Leprechaun 4: In Space a fighting chance based on principle. There’s a long history of precedent in the never-ending horror franchise.
An ancient German Expressionism creature feature about Jewish mysticism, The Golem: How He Came Into the World bounces back & forth from being an incredible work that nearly rivals Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon in sheer beauty & ambition and the most standard issue silent horror you can conjure in your mind. After consulting the stars a wizardly group of rabbis foresee disaster for their community, which prompts them to start constructing a monstrous creature for their own protection, The Golem. It’s more or less the same story as the North Korean kaiju classic Pulgasari and is inspired by real life Jewish folklore. When the Jewish people are forced to evacuate by emperor’s decree, The Golem is constructed out of clay & brought to life through prayer to be the muscle that protects them from persecution. As with Pulgasari, he eventually becomes dangerously erratic, however, and poses a threat to the very people he was designed to keep safe.
Part of the reason I fail to connect with this film as much as its legacy propped up my expectations for was the design of The Golem himself. Portrayed onscreen by the film’s director, Paul Wegener, there just isn’t much to the lumbering bastard. His slow, awkward, Frankenstein-esque movements are amusing enough, especially on his first errand: buying a rabbi’s groceries; it makes total sense that the character would later appeal in the comedic sequel The Golem and the Dancing Girl. He’s not very convincing as a terror, however. His entire design more or less amounts to what it’d look like if pro wrestler Dave Bautista wore an Asian-cut wig. The Golem’s design is tied to a long history of tradition & folklore, but considering the terror of films like Nosferatu, The Phantom Carriage, and The Man who Laughs pulled off visually in the same era, he just doesn’t cut it as a silent movie monster.
That’s not to say that The Golem: How He Came Into the World is lacking in terms of striking imagery in a more general sense. The film’s beautiful, hand-built sets are a feat of expressionism in sculpture & architecture. Its tinted film cells have a Masque of the Red Death vibe in how they differentiate between separate interior spaces: reds, blues, greens, pinks, etc. The Star of David is employed as some kind of powerful source of magic, appearing in the starry sky & bringing The Golem to life during some kind of mystic ritual. Judaism is portrayed here as a kind of ancient cult complete with spells, fires, robes, and circles of smoke. In its best moments the film recalls the ancient mysticism of historically-minded works like Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages & The Witch. Like The Witch, it even claims to be “based on events in an old chronicle”, despite being based on a then-recent novel.
There’s, of course, a few points of historical context to the film that also makes it of interest. A German production before the rise of Nazism, The Golem can be very interesting in the way it portrays Judaism as a religion and as a culture. On the one hand the film has a way of othering the Jewish people as some kind of mystic band of magical weirdos. At the same time, though, they act as a sympathetic underdog culture always suffering under the tyrannical whims of uncaring royalty. In one particularly poignant scene the rabbi who created The Golem tries to change the emperor’s heart by employing a vision of his people’s plight to “amuse” the court. This sorcery is essentially what Roger Ebert refers to as “the empathy machine.” Showing oppressors what is fundamentally a moving picture wins the rabbi no sympathy for his people & the heartless dandies instead laugh in his face, causing a life-threatening scene with The Golem at its center.
With a better creature design The Golem: How He Came Into the World might’ve reached all-time classic territory. As is, I’m just not feeling that with the film as a whole. It’s a pretty decent silent horror with occasional flashes of over-the-top brilliance. I was entertained, but I wasn’t floored.