DER GOLEM (1920) Directed by Paul Wegener
My first exposure to Paul Wegener’s The Golem: How He Came In to the World (I wouldn’t learn of it’s full title for several years) came with finding a copy of Denis Gilford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies in 1973. I was in my second semester at San Francisco State studying film when I came across the large, blood red hardback with a green dustcover featuring famous monsters of yesteryear at the bookstore.
As I glanced through the pages, covered with mostly black
and white photographs to accompany the text, I suddenly
choked at what I saw; an image of a giant clay man holding
up a collapsing ceiling with terrified partygoers looking on.
The photo credit said, “The Golem (Union 1920) Paul
Wegener, monster and director.”
Did I have a relative who was a filmmaker? As I read, I
discovered he was not only a filmmaker, he was a famous
I bought the book, took it to my dorm room in Verducci
Hall and devoured all of it in a single night.
I learned there were three Wegener Golem films;
The Golem (1915), fragments of which have recently been recovered.
The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917)- Rumors have it there is an existing copy of the satiric comedy in the hands of an anonymous collector, but so far all we have is a great line from film critic Gwynplaine MacIntyre, “Her muddy buddy is no fuddy-duddy.” and a single frame and poster.
and The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920). In fact, Wegener is credited with inventing the monster movie sequel.
I became obsessed with the horror genre and Paul Wegener’s work in particular. I wanted to see his films, but at the time (this was before VHS or DVDs) SF State’s film library of 16mm prints didn’t include any of Wegener’s works.
It was decades later, when I finally got to see a copy of his last Golem film.
Even though he didn’t consider it such, the films are considered early examples of German Expressionism, with stunning use of light and shadow, glowing stars and wonderfully twisted sets.
The 1920 film was the first international movie to make money in the United States, and Wegener himself taught Boris Karloff how he did the Golem’s lumbering walk for 1931’s Frankenstein.
After researching the original stories in the archives at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, I came to the conclusion that I wanted a more relatable golem than Uncle Paul’s version, which was literally a living clay statue.
I wanted my golem to fall in love, and for the girl (Rivka, the winemaker’s daughter, played by the amazing Emma Carlson-Berne) to have feeling’s for him as well. Hard to do if he doesn't appear to be flesh and blood.
Both of our plots followed much of the original source material-the golem Yossel is created after catastrophe is predicted in th stars. I took the liberty of
adding the real-life relationship between Lowe and the arrogant
gold-nosed astronomer Tycho Brahe (Jon Huffman)and his protoge
Johannes Kepler (Billy Chaffin).
I think I stuck closer to the source material regarding Yossel’s
creation. Paul’s golem was brought to life in the rabbi’s cave-like,
distorted laboratory with the help of a demon, while I chose to
use the wilderness banks of the Vltava River (shot at our 88 acre
set near Mainville, Ohio- supposedly the home of Doc Denton of
footed sleepwear fame), surrounded by shadowed vegtation.
Here, after several recitations of Kabballic incantations, the life energy of aide Yitzak Katz is pulled into the clay form like electricity seeking ground. The body begins to steam, glowing white hot. As it cools, the newly formed champion is fully formed. On the rabbi’s command, a bolt of lightning strikes from the heavens, lifting Yossel into the air.
I loved the imagery of the golem being made from the earth that surrounded him, and that it was the forces of the natural world, directed by the learned rabbi that gave him life.
An episode in the original tales that Paul truncated was of the golem fetching water for the rabbi’s long suffering wife. It was used by Disney in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment of Fantasia), but we were the first (that I know of) to have it fully realized as part of a golem movie.
The sequence required our talented set team building the exterior of the rabbi’s home completely water-tight to about three feet. Yossel pours hundreds of buckets of water into the house through an open half door, after being told to “fetch some water for the floor,” but never being told to stop.
We pumped water from a well into the set for two days. When the wife returns from the garden and opens the door, a wall of water hits her, knocking her to the ground.
The crew cheered for the successful shot, as we would have lost another two days if we would have had to refill the house.
Another nod to Paul’s version-I wanted to shoot part of the film on location in Prague as he did.
Delta Airlines offered direct flights from Cincinnati at the time, and with a great deal of salesmanship on my part, granted videographer Larry Deal and I free passage to the Czech Republic, if their name appeared in the opening credits of the film.
Since none of our actors could accompany us, we just shot background plates of Rabbi Loew’s still in use synagogue, the Jewish Old Town, and the clock tower where Katz would have his fight with the gnostic.
We were actually able to shoot inside the clockworks of the world famous astronomical clock, something unheard of!
For those who haven’t seen it, the Astronomical clock, built in 1410, has an hourly display of the Apostles, summoned by Death itself, emerging from one side of the clock face and disappearing on the other.
In writing the script, I envisioned Katz fighting the gnostic amidst giant gears, turning dangerously close to their struggle. Prior to the striking of the hour, the wooden Apostle figures (suggesting lifeless golem replicas) look over the life and death battle of an overpowered Jew with blind wooden eyes. Our Czech crew was astounded that we were actually able to make the scene happen. So was I!
During the third act, as the evil Father Thaddeus of the Green Church and the rabbi engage in a mystic battle royal comes, for both me and the audience, the greatest disappointment of the entire film.
The script called for a statue of a golden idol of a Jacob’s ram to be magically enlarged gigantic proportions to fight the golem. I had brought on a computer animation student from the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP program to create the beast. The faculty insisted he was the best animator on campus. He was very confident, promising Jurassic Park quality work. He had been brought on very early in the process, and provided with footage of Jacob’s rams walking, running, head butting, etc.. I tried to provide him with all the reference materials he would need.
Unfortunately, he produced very little, and instead of Jurassic Park, we got Pokey and Gumby.
The CG creature had been slapped together in the last two weeks before its airdate, and was a complete embarrassment.
It is for that reason alone I never released the film on DVD. My apologies that the film's images for this article can only be pulled from an old VHS dub of the original Beta master.
Still, I have held onto the original raw footage of the impacted scenes and hope some day to remaster the film, reanimate the ram and release the film digitally.
I am not sure if the three Emmy Awards the production won were in spite of the terrible animations, or because the judges made their determinations without watching the entire 100 minutes.
In any case, The Golem holds a very special place in my heart.
It was my first international production.
It occupied by far the largest set (88 acres) of any film I have ever made. We built our
own version of the Jewish Ghetto, complete with a synagogue, winery, stable, the rabbi’s home, and the well all enclosed within a ten foot high wall 110 feet long with a giant gate at one end of the set.
It was also my first period piece, set in the 1500’s, which required racks of costumes and props.
The production utilized the largest crew of my career-costume designer/builders, set designers, a construction crew, specialized makeup teams. We brought in several extras from the Ohio Renaissance Festival, with more costumes, horses and wagons.
One of our set designers, Charlie Lower, even built a working 10 foot high Quadrant, the precursor to the telescope for Tycho Brahe’s observatory.
I am quite proud of the work we did on such a massive scale, with virtually zero budget. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
THE GOLEM (2000) Directed by Scott Wegener