The Golem; a myth takes over the cinema screen

The silent movie classic by Paul Wegener made ist way into the cinemas on October 29, 1920

A Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview with Professor Matei Chihaia of Romance Studies

On October 29, 1920, the silent film classic "The Golem : How he came into the world" had its world premiere in Berlin. What kind of character is the Golem?

Chihaia: The mythological figure of the Golem appears for the first time in Jewish wisdom literature of the Middle Ages. The name itself is a Hebrew word that can be translated as "formless mass". As with all myths, there is a variety of versions, local variations, translations and appropriations that go back and forth between science and art. In 1920 another creative reinvention of this figure made its way into the cinemas. There are usually two themes at the core of the myth. First, there is the imitation of the divine act of creation: just as God formed Adam from earth, the pure man, the priest, can also give form and life to matter. The second theme arises from the myth's need for events worth telling: The Golem either serves as an aide in a story that has already begun before his birth, or he involves in a conflict within himself through his imperfection. Just like Adam, who is cast out of paradise because of his mistake. One can compare the Jewish Golem myth with the Greek Prometheus myth. In one version, the Greek Prometheus myth also contains the creation of artificial clay creatures. Both myths have been recurring figures in fantastic literature since European Romanticism: the Golem appears in Achim von Arnim's "Isabella of Egypt"; Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" is subtitled "The New Prometheus". But both myths are also complementary in a certain way: in the Golem myth the creature plays the leading role, whereas in the Prometheus myth it is the creator.

After "The Golem" (1914) and "The Golem and the dancing girl" (1917), director and leading actor Paul Wegener had already shot his third film "The Golem: How he came into the world" (1920) on this subject. The Israeli brothers Doron and Yoav Paz even created a continuation in 2018 under the title "Golem - Rebirth". Why is the Golem such an attractive theme?

Chihaia: I actually anticipated the answer to this question by drawing the attention to the comparison of Golem and Prometheus. Prometheus is the identification figure of the classical and romantic author as the creator. However, the Golem, for the first time, offers the possibility of bringing the art of the actor to the fore, that is, the creature, the artificial human being. For Paul Wegener, who was primarily an actor, this was the role of his life. The nuances between the rigid and souled clay sculpture and the Golem, which gradually moves and becomes sensual, which feels sensual desires, jealousy, etc., were a celebration of modern, expressionist acting. In addition, the Golem was a mute servant in one version, which fitted perfectly with the media restrictions of silent films. These two specific reasons are accompanied by two unspecific reasons: cinemas offered the technical possibilities to make the fantasies of romanticism visible. This representation of magic through film tricks led to the tendency of the Weimar cinema, to fall back onto the tradition of fantastic literature. It was finally possible to give this literature life and visual reality. Murnau's "Faust", Lang's "Metropolis" are further examples of this fantastic cinema. And finally the exotic: one could travel to the past or far away with the screen. Wegener was subscribed to such roles as Othello, Holofernes, a Yogi... The Prague Jews of the Golem film of 1920 are also exotic clichés. The story of the monster created in the ghetto was of course well suited to fueling fears of the other religion and xenophobia. However, the fact that the Paz brothers adpoted the subject matter in 2018 to make an original and efficient horror film out of "Jewish Frankenstein" suggests that Wegener's caricature did not damage the relationship between the myth and Jewish culture permanently. The major exhibition of the Paris "Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaisme" in 2017 showed many other current versions of the Golem in art and comics. They prove that the myth lives on, even beyond the souvenir stores of Prague.

"The Golem : How he came into the world" is unique in German cinema history. Despite the typical sceneries, the film cannot be attributed to the expressionism typical of the time, but belongs in its fairy-tale narrative style to the fantastic cinema of the pre-war period. For this purpose, the film architect Hans Poelzig created expressionistically serrated nightmare sceneries in a claustrophobic Prague in restless post-war Berlin. Even in the USA and China the film even caused a sensation. How could a horror film be internationally successful shortly after the First World War?

Chihaia: Cinema was a relatively young art at the time. Viewers were in some ways more receptive to certain effects, that at some point developed into a genre. What you refer to as "horror" was something quite new in 1920. In some respects, the "Golem" together with the "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was in fact the first experience of this kind in long format. "Nosferatu", for example, came up only two years later. These nightmare sceneries, the demon apparitions, the monster, the figures emerging from the screen, the collapsing hall in the Prague Castle, the man thrown from a tower, these were all things that had never before been depicted in this realism in art, and not only gave the audience a fright, but also confronted them with completely new visual experiences. In today's image- and film-saturated world, we no longer are able to imagine this amazement of the audience. Do a thought experiment and imagine that a medium was invented which transmits tactile sensations... Of course, World War I, with its massive industrial violence and specific explosion wounds, was such a new experience, but in a purely negative way: a trench war in which the enemy could not be seen, blinded by the flash of shells and splashing mud. Cinemas countered this with the possibility of a perfect visual recording of borderline situations and suggested that everything - even clay - could still be brought under control with the right technology. This is the difference between cinema horror and the real horror that the First World War had meant for soldiers and war refugees.

At the Venice Film Festival in 2018, a version of various negatives found in Brussels and the United States, which was restored by the Murnau Foundation, was presented. Does the restored version allow a different view on the film?

Chihaia: Yes, this is a beautiful find. I admit that I have not seen the new version yet. I really that someone discovers a copy of "The Golem and the dancing girl".

Mr. Chihaia, you have also dealt with the figure in your book "The Golem Effect". What interests you about this being?

Chihaia: When the cinema was introduced, to many critics it seemed like an art to present life in its fullness, as the earlier genres, especially theater and sculpture, were not able to do. From this artificial representation of life to the creation of the artificial human being, there is only one step left: this is the magic of film in its early days. The audience quite often confused the actor with his role, or forgot that it is in a showing and is not experiencing real circumstances. This is an effect that can be described as the "immersion" of the spectator in the artificial world. We experience this in the cinema, especially in action or horror films. We jump back and forth in our armchair to avoid the danger that can be seen on the screen. This means that we perceive our body as if it is in the art world itself, and follow the camera in our orientation. I think "The Golem- How he came into the world" is a film that deals with this experience among many other topics. There is a scene in which the rabbi, who created the Golem, uses a magical trick to show the Prague royal court the exile history of the Jewish people. As a film within a film, projected onto one of the walls of the hall. At one point, a figure from this film approaches the camera with a threatening gesture. This causes the hall to collapse. The parallel to the artificially animated Golem, which also becomes a threat, seems clear to me: in both figures Wegener embodies the artistic potential of cinema, but also the psychological consequences for the audience, who can dive into the world of action, but also get lost or lose their way. Wegener had already portrayed the theme of the scary double as an actor in 1913 in "The Student of Prague". The Golem now, not only raises the problem of individual identity, but also of the temporal and spatial anchoring of the human being. The building of our reality is a highly relative psychological construction. Our orientation, an unstable equilibrium, can easily tip over into disorientation. For this state of affairs, on which cognitive psychology as well as psychoanalysis are researching at the beginning of the 20th century, a film like "The Golem" seems the perfect illustration.

Alchemy, artificial intelligence and eternal life. Is the Golem perhaps also the unfulfilled longing of man to create eternal life?

Chihaia: Yes, like all myths, the gGolem answers questions that people ask themselves at different times. Currently, it is perhaps artificial intelligence that concerns us the most. In Wegener's work, the Golem is not particularly intelligent, but above all extraordinarily powerful and, on a very elementary level, impulsive and emotionally controlled. This, by the way, shows itself in a way that, despite all the fear, can also arouse sympathy: he is beguiled by the scent of a rose or moved by the little child who gives him an apple. Only in Norbert Wiener's "God&Golem, Inc." does this figure become the patron of cybernetics and "machine learning". By the way, there is a drama, "R.U.R.", released in the same year 1920, in which Karel Čapek invents the concept of the "robot". You might want to interview a colleague from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering about this work of the century.

Uwe Blass (Interview on May 23, 2020)


Prof. Dr. Matei Chihaia studied Comparative Literature, Romance Studies and Philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich and at the University of Oxford. Since 2010 he has been teaching French and Spanish literature at the University of Wuppertal.


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