THE GOLEM (1920) - A Review
Last night we had the pleasure of going downtown to the Whiteside Theatre (still in the process of being restored, but looking great) to see the silent German film, The Golem, with a new piano score performed live by its composer, Beth Karp. My wife and I got to the theater just as the outside lights came on, and there were already a few other people there. By the time the doors opened there was a good sized crowd waiting to get in, and, by the time the film actually started, I'd guess the crowd had grown to something like 500 people. Who knew that German films from the 1920s were such a draw?
Anyway, for those who don't know the legend of the Golem, it's a defender of the Jewish people that's made of clay or other materials, and brought to life by invoking a secret magic word. In any case, that's the Golem we see in the film, and though he is a welcome defender at first, eventually he strikes out - literally - on his own, and then must be destroyed. In the Golem, we can see the roots of many a man-made monster and cautionary tale, perhaps the most obvious being Frankenstein. (When we got home, my wife asked, "Is Gort a Golem?" I think Gort is indeed a Golem.)
Silent films are so far removed from what we are used to today, such a completely different cinematic animal, that it's difficult to "judge" them fairly. Some of the acting in this film should really be called over-acting, or wild emoting. The gestures are so broad, the style so out-of-touch with modern expectations, that some of it is, unfortunately, humorous.
But...The Golem itself, as played by the six-foot-six Paul Wegener (who also directed and co-wrote the film), is a figure of imposing presence. Playing a character that does not speak, Wegener is not hindered by the film's silence, and he manages the create a creature that is visually striking and often quite menacing. When the Golem finally goes on a rampage, and the streets are filled with hundreds of extras fleeing, and flames are ripping across the red-tinted screen, The Golem creates a majesty and sense of menace that stands the test of time. (Again, my wife commented, "People at the time this came out must have been terrified." I think she's right about that, too.)
The new score by Beth Karp was just fine, and helped to move the film along. I don't know if you'll ever get to hear her score - who knows what the market is for an updated DVD of The Golem - but it was nice to have her there to make the evening that much more special. It all took me right back to being a kid, hiding behind the couch at the house of one of my mom's friends as the adults watched a 16mm print of Nosferatu (1922). Silence isn't just golden - it can be pretty damned spooky, too.