Cult Movie: Silent classic Der Golem a strange, dreamlike gem of German expressionism

Silent classic Der Golem was hugely influential on the horror genre
Ralph McLean

Der Golem

DER Golem is a masterpiece of silent cinema that retains an odd, otherworldly charm despite its vintage.

Originally released in 1920 and now re-issued on an extras-packed Blu-ray in all its grand gothic glory by Eureka Entertainment, Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s strange, dreamlike masterpiece looks and feels like little else in fantasy cinema history.

Set in the Jewish ghetto of 16th century Prague it tells the tale of Rabbi Low (Albert Steinruck) who fashions a formidable Golem character from clay to protect the embattled locals from the evil Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebuhr).

He summons the demon Astaroth to learn how he can spark the creature into life and, while the creature initially saves the Jewish people, he also proves hard to control. Soon the whole of Prague is under threat from the lumbering figure.

A simple fable it may be but it remains an oddly affecting one all the same. Packed with striking images of the city of Prague, recreated beautifully in the Templehof studios, and an unforgettable central performance from Wagener (who also directed) as the Golem, it’s a true gem of German expressionism.

Strangely, Wegener had tackled the legend of the Golem on two previous occasions – but as both those efforts, from 1915 and 1917, are lost to the world with no known prints in existence, we have to take this as the actor/director’s definitive stab at the tale.

Less angular and jolting than say The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, it’s still a beautiful looking example of early horror movie making and the influence it would exert on future groundbreaking examples of on-screen terror, such as James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, cannot be overstated.

Cinematographer Karl Freund would go on to work with Fritz Lang on Metropolis and, through his time at Universal studios, on such gruesome gems as Dracula (1931) and The Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932).

There’s a moodiness at play here which casts a long shadow over much more than horror movie history, though: Check out those curving walls and deeply spiralling staircases and it’s possible to see the bleak world of film noir coming firmly into focus.

For Eureka’s re-release of this artefact of the silent era, we’re given a truly startling 4K restoration that allows the images to jump from the screen for probably the first time since 1920. A limited edition release of just 2,000 copies, it boasts all manner of enticing extras as well: There are options to listen to three superb scores for the film by composer Stephen Horne, acclaimed electronic music producer Wudec and composer Admir Shkurtaj, an exclusive new commentary track from Scott Harrison and a selection of video essays that contrast the different versions of the film that have done the rounds through the years and even a collector’s booklet that allows you to savour some of those incredible images once again.

A beautiful, strange film that has worked its offbeat magic on millions for almost 100 years now, Der Golem is a truly fitting tribute to a true German beauty.

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