Neither a companion to or contradiction of mounting German anti-semitism, The Golem camouflages its ideology beneath tinted swatches of color and atmospheric photography, suggesting an unbiased observation of Hebrew myth while revealing its prejudices in hushed tones. The warmth and richness of hue captured through staining does foster a self-contained cinematic language, one that provides supernatural characteristics to the four elements and celestial bodies, but these aesthetic pleasures only further the stereotype of Judaism as necromancy and alchemy, creating an uncomfortable rift between artistry and philosophy.
A similar discord occurs in the visual composition of the piece, varying between wide shot and intimate close-up, striking in its implementation of landscape and abstraction, but disharmonious in the clutter of its crowd scenes. Nocturnal images of structures and jagged surfaces work best, especially when a scurrying cat cuts a dividing line between dusky skylight and charcoal-colored rooftop, creating a natural, horizontal split-screen that symbolizes the balance between good and evil.
The color palette also functions as more than window dressing, establishing tone and symbol without the assistance of intertitle or exaggerated performance. Establishing shots reveal a rabbi, bathed in oceanic blue light, extracting prophecies from the constellations. As he gazes at the sky, a servant stokes the fire in his chamber, heavily shadowed and illuminated in an unnatural lime green. The shift from dulcet, soft pigment to brash neon foreshadows disaster, embodied by the bigotry of the Roman Emperor and the abomination created in its opposition.
Use of sunlight complements the celluloid tinting, adding a touch of authenticity to the terrain of rocky hollow and darkened chamber, casting beams of light onto the gloom of the cavernous “ghetto.” The tenebrous mass of doorframes and lofty bell towers increases as the “Decree Against The Jews” falls upon the community, coercing families from their homes by accusation of black magic and deicide. Summoning a colossal spectral being to protect his tribe from prescribed exodus, Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück) uses a pairing of sorcery and sculpture to fabricate “The Golem,” kneading clay into facial features and beckoning the underworld for spiritual guidance. In the film’s most surreal passage, Löw conjures spirits from the floor beneath, invoking a smog-breathing demon that spells out his wisdom in clouds of smoke, bombarding the altar with bolts of lightning as olive steam pours from the house and pollutes the azure sky.
Löw’s creation is far less compelling than his demigod, its eyes wide and limbs stiff like Caligari’s somnambulist, but performed with little of that film’s ardor or aplomb. Passive and phlegmatic, the titular monster begins to parallel the film’s messy ideology, never inspiring fear or pity, but clinging to emotional distance and impartiality in the name of entertainment. This nonchalance benefits the poetry of the visuals, but besmirches the integrity of the myth, transforming Judaica into burlesque sideshow.
The Golem (Universum Film AG, 1920)
Directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese
Written by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen
Photographed by Karl Freund and Guido Seeber