Early silent horror, specifically in the German Expressionist mode, influenced generations of horror filmmakers. From their stark, often frame-filling shadows to the exaggerated look of the monsters and madmen, silent horror cinema produced chills we’re still feeling today. One of the most interesting, and for a long time hard to track down, works of the era is Paul Wegener’s 1920 film The Golem: How He Came into the World. It’s a follow-up of sorts to Wegener’s nigh-lost 1915 movie The Golem and the 1917 comedy short The Golem and the Dancing Girl.
The film has a brand new 4K restoration by the F.W. Murnau foundation which accentuates the pioneering expressionist techniques. It’s coming out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and is a must-watch for fans of the genre. But Wegener’s titular man-made man wouldn’t just influence horror, but seems to be the basis for at least of few of your favorite Marvel comics heroes.
Wegener was a huge star in early German cinema, both as an actor and a director. A striking looking man of 6 feet 6 inches, Wegener himself portrayed the Golem in the three outings. The Golem itself is a mythical creature from ancient Jewish folklore. A being made of inanimate material, it comes to life through magic to protect its masters and do their bidding. Wegener accentuated his already enormous features with lifted boots, a massive chest and arms, and a strange head or hair piece. In all respects, this creature cuts the massive figure of the superhero of the comic book age.
The Golem: How He Came into the World is a prequel to the 1915 movie. In that film, Wegener’s Golem appears in then-contemporary Berlin. An antiques dealer finds the statue in the ruins of a Jewish temple and manages to bring the creature to life to do his bidding. In the course of the story, the Golem develops feelings for the dealer’s girlfriend. However, when the woman does not return the creature’s affections, it goes on a rampage. It uses a fairly archetypal story of a monster wanting love but finding only fear. It’s not much different than any number of tragic monster stories.
However, The Golem: How He Came into the World does something much more interesting. It doesn’t hurt that we can actually watch this movie; but it acts much more like a superhero origin story than a straight-up monster movie. And, as film historian Tim Lucas points out in his excellent audio commentary, aspects of the Golem appear as parts of a few of the most famous Marvel Comics characters.
In the Jewish ghettos of medieval Prague, community leader Rabbi Loew reads the stars and sees a prophecy of doom for his people. The next day, the Holy Roman Emperor signs a decree that all people of Jewish decent must leave the city before the new moon. He sends the Knight Florian to the city to carry out his order. Rabbi Loew and his assistant decide to consult Kabbalist texts and beseech the demon Astaroth to give life to a clay man. After writing magic words on a piece of paper, Rabbi Loew places them into a star emblem and affixes it to the Golem’s chest. His eyes open and the Rabbi uses it as a servant.
Meanwhile, the Rabbi’s assistant is in love with the Rabbi’s daughter Miriam, though she and Florian are making eyes at each other. The Rabbi takes the Golem to a festival at which the Emperor and his court will be; the crowd is initially terrified of the giant creature but the Emperor is impressed and wants to see more Jewish magic. Rabbi Loew projects a history of the plight of the Jewish people on the wall, which elicits laughter from the derisive court. Suddenly the walls of the temple begin to crumble and the Emperor’s life is saved by the Golem who holds up the falling arches. The Emperor pardons the Jewish people as a thank you.
So everything seems to be going great, but the Rabbi’s assistant finds out about Florian and Miriam and he awakens the Golem to kill Florian. But the Golem is now under Astaroth’s control and he begins terrorizing the ghetto. However, upon finding a group of little girls playing, the Golem overcomes Astaroth’s control and allows himself to die.
The Golem has a lot in common with themes in stories like Frankenstein; a creature made of man’s meddling becomes the pariah of the community. Not only that, even though the Rabbi creates him for good, to aid the Jewish people, the Golem is still the product of Astaroth’s magic. So on the surface, it’s more a cautionary horror tale than an outright heroic origin. However, let’s look at the Golem itself.
The Golem is a massive, muscular figure, outside of the human world but seen as the savior of it. He’s an idealized, pardon the term, “Super Man” able to perform feats of strength for the betterment of humanity. He’s the quintessential outsider, but one intended for good. In his initial first appearance, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Incredible Hulk, the character was gray in color; only in subsequent issues would be become his trademark green. The Hulk embodies great power that is always in danger of going berserk but who can be a force of good. It’s something Bruce Banner has to try to control; a part of his own nature he fears yet has to live with. While externalized, the Golem becomes the id and force of retribution for the Rabbi’s assistant.
Let’s even look at the method for which the Golem attains life. While, yes, there’s magic involved, the magic item—in this case, a piece of paper with words of incantation—that brings him to life is placed on his chest beneath a star, the emblem for the Golem’s life. If someone were to remove the star, the Golem would cease to live. This is not unlike Tony Stark, a man with shrapnel in his chest, always on the verge of killing him. Without the arc reactor in his chest, he would die. However, that arc reactor becomes the symbol for Iron Man’s power and will to survive and make change in the world. Iron Man’s original suit is a big, gra
y monstrosity; it would only be later he’d adopt his more hopeful gold and orange look.
That comic book superheroes like Superman, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, and many others were the creations of Jewish Americans who brought with them all of the history and folklore of their people, is no coincidence. Outsiders, never truly part of their newfound country; flawed people able to achieve greatness if they can overcome their circumstances; subjects of fear and hatred who nevertheless strive to save those around them. That’s what all the best superheroes do and represent. Whether conscious or otherwise, all the themes—and even some of the visual trappings—of the tale of the Golem, and Wegener’s film, made their way into these iconic characters.
The Golem: How He Came into the World is a horror film, yes. But it’s also the Rosetta Stone for the modern superhero. 100 years later, it still proves its importance.
The film is out in a gorgeous Blu-ray presentation from Kino Classics on April 14. It offers three different full scores on the German release version; a new score of the U.S. release version; a comparison of the differences between the two versions; and the aforementioned excellent commentary from Tim Lucas, upon whose observations most of this essay was based.
Featured Image: Murnau Stiftung
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!
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