Wow. This was a treat. Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World) is the third in a series of movies about this figure from Jewish folklore. Which means it was a prequel made in 1920, if you can believe that. I'd seen images of the titular character before (he even shows up in the graphic novel Kingdom Come, in a background crowd of super-powered beings) but I'd never tried out the film before. The language and imagery (including the color tinting) was painstakingly reproduced on a dvd I recommend to everyone. I absolutely adore this early stuff.
The story opens on a starry night as seen above a 16th century Jewish ghetto in Prague.
Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel divines the future from the stars above, which foretell...
Disaster for his people. Sure enough, the next day a decree is sent from the Emperor ordering all the Jews to vacate their homes. Despite the protests of his worried apprentice, the rabbi shapes and brings to life the titular Golem (who was played by director Paul Wegener).
Before the Golem will walk, the rabbi must consult dark forces for the Word of Life. My absolute favorite scene was when the rabbi and apprentice commune from within the magic circle with the dark being Astaroth, portrayed with exquisite spookiness by a smoking mask. The jaw-dropping sights just never stop (I recommend clicking on all of these to see them bigger):
In case you can't tell, I'm absolutely smitten with this imagery. Not only are the sets and cinematography so bold and compelling (and also an outstanding example of German Expressionism, not that I know exactly what that means), but these old flicks are so wonderfully weird. Film was still so damn new, the cameras were turned with a hand crank, the actors had to do this new thing where they emoted without words. There's something so unreal about the intensity of their expressions, combined with the heavy stage makeup -- it's almost like the odd disconnect one gets watching stop motion animation, or maybe the wax-cylinder playback from a machine that records dreams.
The Golem tale is touted as a main inspiration for the Frankenstein story, and it's an easy connection to make. The longer you use your Golem, you see, the more his own will grows. One day you'll give an order and get a facefull of this:
Kind of like Tor Johnson but actually scary.
I don't know enough about the particular politics of 1920 to discern how much, if any, of the portrayal of the Jews is downright anti-Semetic. There's one scene of a man receiving a bribe that seems quite sinister, and the hats the Jewish populace wear in the streets look much like those of witches. But while the perception of the Jews is, at the very least, over-exoticized, at its heart the story is of a sympathetic community seeking to protect itself.
If you check this out, bear in mind it's pushing 90 and may drag at times; I kept it a half star from perfect for that reason. But I really can't hawk it enough. Along with Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, this is a horror afficianado's must-see.