Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) is a great scholar of the stars, and has the ability to predict the future from what he sees in them, but what he now sees has greatly disturbed him. He climbs down from his tower observatory and informs his underling that he has a strong feeling there is to be a terrible disaster visited upon the Jewish people. As he and their fellow Jews live in a ghetto in Prague, they know all about persecution, but according to his divination there will be a new pogrom on its way unless he can find a way to prevent it. He could appeal to the King to show leniency and not listen to his wicked advisors, or the Rabbi could take more drastic action and use his magical powers...
He could, in fact, build a clay man which thanks to its invincibility could destroy any threat to his people, which was what he did in this, possibly the most famous of films to feature the Golem as a character, though that may be primarily down to its wide influence. It is well known that when the James Whale-directed Frankenstein of a decade later was made, it drew as much from this film as it did from the Mary Shelley source, even down to the similar look to the monsters (those platform boots, for example) and certain scenes and inclinations, though the Whale effort tended to eschew the religious element in favour of a moral one. But the religion has gotten this project into trouble.
Since its main instigator, director and star Paul Wegener was not Jewish, there's the worry about cultural appropriation, a modern one, but what was not so modern was its accusations of antisemitism. In light of his later work as a propaganda maker under the Nazis, could it be Wegener was less than respectful, and actually was trying to whip up ill-feeling against the Jewish population of Europe? It is not an easy question to answer, for despite this Nazi position, there were stories of him secretly giving money to resistance causes and doing his best to keep fugitives from the regime safe until they could escape, so was this complicated figure a genuine good guy in the conflict?
He said he was fascinated by the old folk tales of not merely Europe, but the entire world, and wanted to bring them to life through film, his great love after the theatre. So it could be that no matter the Jewish characters in Der Golem's wild-eyed gesticulating and cartoonish countenance, they were not playing stereotypes but simply actors performing in the accustomed style of the day - when some make comparisons between this and The Birth of a Nation across the Atlantic, they're not really fair, since the D.W. Griffith epic was expressly crafted to demonise the black population, whereas Der Golem is not exactly the thirties version of Jew Suss when it comes to poisonous spreading of bigotry. You can, at least, tell Wegener and his team were keen to immerse themselves in this world.
With bizarre, almost organically moulded set design and a selection of special effects work that may be primitive, but had an undeniable attraction, there was a mystical and arcane atmosphere to this akin to an old grimoire or somesuch sprung to life, not unlike the contemporary witchcraft study Häxan. The plot sees Wegener in his signature role as the supernatural Golem, the third time he had played it (the previous two had been set at the time they were made, a horror and a comedy in that order) and as a prequel to his first major hit. Really it is a film where the imagery was more striking than the plot or the acting, which leaned on the histrionic, but what visuals! Be it the title creature causing havoc or taking a liking to the Rabbi's daughter (Lyda Salmonova), eventually dragging her through the streets by her hair (!), or the invocation sequence where the two magicians conjure up Astaroth the demon who offers them the word that will animate their clay figure, there was plenty to captivate the eye. With a variety of edits to choose from, maybe the one that cuts to the chase is the best, yet while flawed, that appearance was like little else.
[Der Golem is released by Eureka on Blu-ray with restored picture (it looks great) and these features:
Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase (First 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 critics David Cairns and Fiona Watson
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