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Directed in 1920 by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener, The Golem (or, if you prefer, Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, takes place in the Prague of the 16th century where a man known as Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) is well regarded amongst the Jewish community and is also known as a bit of an astrology expert. When, during an astrology session, he foresees the impending downfall of the Jewish community, he becomes concerned, even more so when, shortly after his vision, the local authorities start placing laws that are clearly discriminatory against the Jewish segment of the populace.
With some help from his Famulus (Ernst Deutsch), Rabbi Loew decides to create a giant humanoid creature out of clay, the titular golem (played by Paul Wegener), and use their knowledge of Jewish mysticism to bring him to life. Once that's been accomplished, Loew brings the golem to the castle where the Emperor resides where he shows to the Emperor and his many Christian guests just exactly what his new creation is capable of. Loew and the golem are laughed at, which doesn't sit well, and Loew threatens to have the golem kill them all by bringing down the building around them. Meanwhile, Loew's daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) becomes involved with Knight Florian (Lothar Müthel), stirring jealous with Famulus, who decides to use the golem to edge things in his direction in that regard. Soon enough, Florian has been thrown to his death, but the golem's rampage has only just begun...
A movie very much ahead of its time in terms of effects work and scope, The Golem is quite tense and very inventive. The story itself is quite interesting, drawing on elements of Jewish mysticism and dealing with anti-Semitic themes and ideas head on (interesting, given that Wegener, who had made to golem films before this one, would wind up working regularly on Nazi propaganda films throughout the 1940's), which was certainly uncommon in films of this era. It's the effects work, however, that makes this really stand out. The heavily made up Wegener is quite interesting to watch. His movements and facial expressions are quite fitting and effective, and while Steinrück and Deutsch are great in their roles as his creators, it is very much Wegener who winds up leaving the strongest impression on the audience.
At eighty-five-minutes the film is paced quite well. The cinematography is very good, quite atmospheric in spots and always interesting to look at. The acting, overall, of course relies on body language and facial expressions, so things might seem a bit over the top in that area to those not accustomed to silent films, but everyone working in front of the camera does fine work here. The set design is wonderfully weird and very creative. The costume design and the characters' wigs and makeup work is also pretty impressive for a movie celebrating its centennial.
Note that this Blu-ray release from Kino offers viewers the choice of three fairly different score options: a wonderful instrumental composition from Stephen Horne, a more experimental electronic score from Lukasz "Wudec" Poleszak and an alternate option from composer Admir Shkurtaj. All three are quite interesting and do a nice job of accentuating the film's many qualities as well as its impressive atmosphere.
Kino Lorber brings The Golem to Blu-ray on a 50GB disc with the feature taking up just over 19Gbs of space in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.33.1 and taken from a new 4k restoration of original elements produced by The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. It looks very good given the age and origins of the picture. There is some print damage here and there but the image is pretty stable for the most part. Detail is quite good and the color tinting used on the black and white image looks quite nice here. The image is free of noticeable compression artifacts, edge enhancement and noise reduction problems, it looks naturally filmic and is often times quite impressive.
Each one of the three different scores provided for the film is presented in 16-bit LPCM 2.0 and they all sound very good. The music is clean, clear and properly balanced with good amount of depth to it. Optional English subtitles translate the German language intertitles used in the film.
Extras start off with an audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas over the German version of the movie that covers a lot of ground. There's plenty of info here about the director and the cast that worked on the film as well as discussion of its importance and influence in genre cinema. He dissects much of the imagery and talks about where a lot of the inspiration for this picture came from. As is the norm with Lucas' commentary tracks, it's very well-researched and informative.
Lucas also narrates a twenty-two-minute Comparison Of The German And U.S. Versions that's done using a split screen style presentation. Basically, two cameras were running when this production was made, one shooting a version for Germany and one for the export, and while much of the material is remarkably similar, there's also some interesting differences here that Lucas does a nice job of exploring and explaining.
Speaking of the U.S. release version of the film, this alternate version is included here as well, running an hour in length (about fifteen-minutes shorter than the German version) and presented with music by Cordula Heth. The presentation is done by way of an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer, again with 16-bit LPCM for the audio, and it looks and sounds quite good.
The Golem is an inventive, eerie and influential silent horror definitely seeing (or seeing again, for that matter). Kino's Blu-ray release is a great way to do just that, presenting the film in very nice shape and with some extras that are well worth your time as well. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.