March 30, 2007

Der Golem, 1922: Dir. Paul Wegener

Der Golem

Der Golem DVD Cover

Eureka DVD Cover of Der Golem

The Golem


This version of Der Golem was the third one to be made by Paul Wegener Der Golem (The Golem, 1914) and Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancer, 1917). Paul Wegener (1874-1948) had already directed and performed in several films which can be described as German art cinema, including Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, 1913), Rübezahls Hochzeit (Rübezahl's Wedding, 1916) as well as the Golem films. According to Cathy Gelbin (see Kinoeye article in the Webliography):

“The first two renditions of the Golem legend,) transferred the story into the present. They are less remembered today. It was Wegener's third version of the material—this time recreating Jewish folk tales in a period setting—that became the highlight of his acting career, and that made its mark on cinema internationally.”

At the level of narrative structure the film fits in well with Toderovian analysis. Initially all is well then the status quo is challenged with an external threat. A response is elicited the threat seen off, to be replaced by a greater threat which in its turn is seen off and the situation returns to the status quo in a hopeful or ‘feelgood’ ending.

German Expressionist Film & World War 1

There are a number of strands and levels at which the film can be read including national trauma, issues of gender and ethnicity particularly anti-Semitism and a crisis of modernity’s vision of progress. Not all these themes can be adequately be dealt with here.

Firstly there is the theme common within expressionist versions of modernism of technology out of control fears of technological determinism. Starting with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the hubristic claims of Enlightenment rationality are explored. Here though magic is invoked as a method of creation for it is the creative act which goes back to Prometheus and perhaps beyond which is always at stake. In the aftermath of World War 1 the first machinic war killing combatants by the million proved to be the unprecedented unbearable flipside of modern claims to progress. Here myth and allegory combine through expressionist cinema to explore that which could not be spoken. How many German films are there after all, about the straightforward nature of the defeat of Germany in World War 1? Here one must look for the cultural lacunae as well as what was made.

At a social level the expressionist films of the early Weimar period expressed a social form of the ‘return of the repressed’ as Freud has it in his essay on the ‘Uncanny’ which itself a translation from the German word unheimlich. It is indeed the unhomely nature of Germany itself in the post war period which needed some form of cultural expression. Germany was a nation which was not one. Confusion and discontent reigned with its old system of government removed, with much of the Army on the old Eastern front refusing to believe that Germany had lost the war, with war reparations exacting a huge toll in a country which had been starved out by blockade combined with a crumbling situation on the Western front, social mayhem, social revolution from the left and reactionary Putsches from the right were an ever present danger.

Wegener’s Der Golem of 1920 appeared early in the Expressionist cycle of films with the at times awesome but cumbersome Metropolis marking the end of the cycle which had already gone beyond its sell be date as the muted audience response to Metropolis showed.

Was Der Golem Anti-Semitic?

Cathy Gelbin’s article (see webliography) deals with this issue head on firstly analysing the recent poles of critical treatment of the film from the perspective of this question of anti-Semitism:

“Dietmar Pertsch discusses the film in its visual context, noting that it largely escapes the anti-Semitic iconography of Jewish figures in concurrent European theater and cinema,[6] Paul Cooke considers the film an example of cinematic anti-Semitism.[7]”

This probably results in a complex answer. As Gelbin notes any anti-Semitism can’t be equated with the representation of Murnau’s Nosferatu creation as having stereotyped traits visually and also in its analysis of parasitism and specifically bloodsucking which could have been equated to Jewishness in the Germanic cultural imaginary and / or more immediately to the issue of reparations and particularly French presence in the German industrial areas in the aftermath of the war.

By comparison Gelbin’s Kinoeye (no relation) article sees the film as questioning and reversing the mythology of the money-grubbing Jew:

‘Abstaining from the dominant Shylock tradition of the cruel and money-grubbing Jew, the bribing of the pain-bent and emaciated gatekeeper of the ghetto by the arrogant Knight Florian instead exposes the Christian dominance over Jewish people at the time.[9] In reversing the notion of the Jews' financial hold over the Christian, Der Golem effectively undoes the most dominant anti-Jewish stereotype since the Christian Middle Ages’. (My emphasis).

I will admit to an uncertainty here. Close textual analysis is useful here for the Gatekeeper was hardly portrayed sympathetically. The close up of a framed hooked nose and the seeking hand through the framework of the hatch in the main gate seems to me to entirely accord with the dominant stereotype. Doing anything for money seems to be the dominant ideology that is signified. Closer visual analysis of many of the characters outside of the character of Low himself frequently reveals artificially hooked noses for example. This frame by frame level of textual analysis requires more time than I currently have time for but it seems pertinent to raise it as an area for closer attention as something for others to investigate on the course.

The next issue to be raised is the lack of ethnographic evidence about how audiences were reading this film. My own sense is that there is an ambiguity within the film. Those who have done some audience theory work will know that readings can be against the grain, negotiated preferred and dominant. My preferred question is to ask, how did Hitler and fellow anti-Semites read this film? Whether there is evidence in the archives of the right wing press at the time or even in more mainstream reviews is of interest and relevance here as the possibilities of interviewing contemporary audiences are more or less obviated through the ravages of time.

Rejection of Hybridity and the Maintenance of the Other

One theme which the film effectively supports is the rejection of cultural and ethnic hybridity. Illicit desire crossing the boundaries of ethnicity is specifically denied as Florian the aristocratic messenger / lover is hurled from the top of a tower. The strange magical powers of the Jews are combined in an unlikely way with astrology and necromancy to reinforce their ‘otherness’. This allows for the elision of the six-pointed star of David with the pentagram of necromancy. In footnote 10 Gelbin points out that Cooke in his book Paul Cooke, German Expressionist Films (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2002) makes a mistake:

“10. The five-pointed star is not a Star of David, as Cooke falsely asserts in interpreting this imagery as anti-Semitic”.

It is interesting though that this potential elision of the two is specifically referenced in Metropolis for the Pentagram is highlighted on the front door of Rotwang’s house very ostentatiously. Again here a salient question is was there a common cultural reading of these two signs which elided them in anti-Semitic consciousness? Was there a common elision between magic and Jewishness in popular consciousness? Both represent different aspects of the other brought together in two seminal expressionist films, is this merely coincidence? As it is impossible to know from all practical purposes it is only possible to raise the question at the level of semiotics and the creation of meaning.  In a country deeply troubled at the level of identity at the time in terms of being an international pariah as well as the more obvious material issues of food, work and inflation audience response to these films is a vital missing link in the cultural equation.


Gelbin’s internet article makes some useful points about gender and this is a recommended first stop in the exploration of this particular issue although it clearly overlaps with the issues of national identity as well and arguably it is the instability of national identity within Germany at the time which is what makes the expressionist strand of German art cinema still resonate today. The film can be seen as one of optimism for the future through its representation of children. Their innocence and inquisitiveness was what finally disarmed the Golem. Playing outside of the gates of the Ghetto in the space between the Ghetto and the gentile city seems to open out a spatially represented possibility for the future an open space redolent with possibilities. Here one can think about the representations of children in Lang’s Metropolis and later in ‘M’. It is as though the appeal to think of Germany’s future represented through children gets ever more bleak epitomised through the words of the bereaved mother in the closing scene of ‘M’ as the Weimar becomes increasingly polarised.



At the time of writing the following sites I consider the best researched academically or else are present because of the quality of their links. This is searched down to page 10 of Google.

The following entry by Cathy Gelbin on the Kinoeye magazine site (no relation to this Kinoeye) gives a useful historical analysis of the Golem tale and also deals with issues about whether the film can be read as anti-semitic. The article also deals with gender issues and as well as the legacy of the film.

The 'All About Jewish Theatre Site'

Deutsche Film Portal entry:,,,,,,,,BEF9494ADD804C6FBFB2C578CDBE2F8E,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,.html

BBC Article on The Golem

Background on Jewish Legends

The Eureka edition page. Thi s link goes direct to the Eureka Video paqge on Der Golem. Eureka have propbably the best version available and comments in the main text are based upon this ediution.

The German film Archives entry. Der Golem is canonical and perceived as one of the best 100 German films:

Link to filmography of Karl Freund the cinematographer

Link to German Film Archive entry on Paul Wegener

Link to the scriptwriter Henrik Galleen Forum

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