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Der Golem

I just watched Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam, a silent horror film made in 1920, directed by Henrik Galeen and Paul Wegener, and written by Henrik Galeen and Gustav Meyrink. It’s part of a trilogy, though most of the footage from the first film is lost. I confess: none of those names meant anything to me before watching Der Golem, and they still don’t mean much, except these guys made a great film when my great-grandmother was 10. And it is a great film.

The visuals are stunning. The scenery especially—it feels like a dream. It’s black and white (obviously, for that time), and huge swaths of highly contrasted tone dominate; sometimes they obscure, sometimes accent. I found myself wanting to hit pause to savor certain shots—the way the light hits the stone on the houses, the curving walls inside the rabbi’s house, the shots on the road and looking over the hills, a cat walking along a rooftop: nearly every shot gave me something to think about, or at least drove the story on.

The plot (don’t worry, no spoilers here) is based on an old Jewish legend. In the 16th century, the emperor has issued a decree banishing all Jews from the city of Prague, and Rabbi Loew, a well-loved pillar of his community, is planning to resurrect the Golem—a man-shaped creature of clay—to protect his people. He appeals to the powers of darkness, namely Ashtaroth, to reveal the name which will give life to his clay giant. The melding of astrology, magic and traditional religion is particularly intriguing—they pray to and thank God at various points in the film, generally right after performing some ritual or casting a horoscope. Rabbi Loew treats magic like we treat technology.

A beautiful but vain lady in Rabbi Loew’s household (whom I assumed was his daughter, but may have been his wife) falls in love with the gap-toothed messenger named Knight Florian, who brought the decree, and they contrive a secret rendezvous. Love, in 1920, is apparently composed of hugging, breathing heavily, and looking askance at one other. Sometimes they even hold hands. Seems to work for them, though.

Rabbi Loew’s semi-idiot assistant’s main job is falling over and lighting things on fire (he has his own living room smithy/kitchen). He’s terrified of the Golem. He grows by the end, though, and ends up acting the man—not that I’m going to ruin the ending for you.

I’ve never watched a silent film before; I liked it. The black-and-white and the absence of spoken dialogue make watching the film into a bit of a puzzle. It was still plenty accessible, but I found myself doing a bit of guesswork regarding plot. I was almost telling myself the story as we went along, which I think is great. It brings the film into prose territory—my brain—and everything is better in my brain.

Something else about the high contrast black-and-white: I think it works similar to Scott McCloud‘s idea of amplification through simplification (something he speaks on very well in both Understanding Comics and Making Comics).

I connected with the Rabbi more easily through the lighting decisions, and felt the Golem’s alienation and frustration at his lack of independence. I identified more profoundly with him when they obscured his face, either by white-out or shadow, leaving in either case only his colorless eyes. The level of contrast probably wasn’t a stylistic choice, though the lighting certainly was—in 1916 I think that’s just how the film came—but I like it nonetheless.

Certainly a film worth watching. It’s even available for free.

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