Der Golem Review

In the Jewish ghetto of 16th century Prague, Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück) gazes at the stars and sees portents of a great disaster to befall his community. Soon after this, the Holy Roman emperor, Luhois (Otto Gebühr) orders the jews to be expelled from the city. The Rabbi creates a clay golem as a protector for his people. He summons the demon Astaroth to learn the key to bringing the clay creature to life. The Golem saves the Jews from expulsion, but the lumbering creature is not easily controlled and when he runs loose, the whole of Prague is in danger of destruction.

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Der Golem, subtitled ‘How He Came into the World’ was Paul Wegener’s third and most ambitious version of the Golem legend. There are no longer any prints in existence of the 1915 or 1917 films, so it is a wonder that this wonderful example of silent German Expressionist cinema is still with us. The setting is fantastic – created at Ufa’s Templehof studio, the recreated 16th century Prague is warren of winding cobblestone streets, with gothic arches, deformed dwellings and towers twisting skyward. The interiors - less angular than other examples of German expressionism - also match the mood of the film and the characters, walls curving inward and staircases spiralling crookedly. The images are striking and many scenes will resonate in the mind, made all the more evocative and powerful through of the nature of silent cinema and the necessity of speaking through images. The look of the film clearly influenced the early horror and noir films in Hollywood. Cinematographer Karl Freund would later go to work with Fritz Lang on Metropolis and for Universal Studios on Dracula (1931) and The Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932). The influence of his work on Der Golem can clearly be felt through James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931).

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Eureka have released a new print of Der Golem, extensively restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung. The film’s projection speed has been corrected to 20fps for this release and runs to 85 minutes. The running time on previous releases is 64 minutes, so this is a considerable improvement.

The picture quality of the restored film is superb. It is astonishing to think you are looking at an 83 year-old film in such a remarkably preserved state. The aspect ratio is the original 1.33:1 and the film has been tinted as it originally would have been. There is no great range of greyscale tones, the image is pretty much high contrast chiaroscuro black and white and the tinting makes this more striking. See a comparison between the unrestored black and white image from an earlier Stonevision release and the restored tinted Eureka release below (thanks to Anthony Nield for the comparison screenshot). The newer image is sharper and the contrast offers a sense of greater depth (click on the images to enlarge).

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Marks are obviously evident on a film as old as this, although the film has been restored as far as possible without reconstructing beyond existing materials. The picture never looks seriously damaged - on the contrary, the clarity of the image is remarkable. It never has the luminous brilliance of the restored Metropolis, but it is still much better than anyone would reasonable expect for a film this old.

English and German versions of the film are provided. This includes intertitles and text that appears within the film itself (see example below). English text remains faithful to the style of the original.

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Obviously since this is a silent film, the sound quality is not the most important feature. The musical score however, is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and performs well.

Essay (16.02)
R Dixon Smith’s essay The Kingdom of ghosts: Paul Wegener’s The Golem and the Expressionist Tradition places the film in the context of its time and examines the Expressionist cinema of the period. The documentary is superbly illustrated with clips from the stunning early German Expressionist classics – The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Waxworks (1924), Faust (1926), The Student of Prague (1926) and Metropolis (1927).

Photo Gallery
The gallery shows photographs, illustrations and promotional artwork from the film and from a 1915 novel by Hugo Steiner-Prag. The chiaroscuro designs are very much in the character of the film. The stills can be navigated or they will automatically forward.

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What you have here is a wonderful film from a unique period of innovation and experimentation in cinema, producing such classics as Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Metropolis. Der Golem is a fascinating film that, through the magic of silent cinema is endlessly re-watchable and will speak to you differently each time you watch it. Like their forthcoming release of M, the Eureka DVD presentation of the restored version of Der Golem together with the extra features give a classic film a welcome new lease of life.

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