The silent German film ‘The Golem: How he came into the World’ (1920) was the last of a trilogy.
In ‘The Golem’ (1915) the medieval creature commits a series of murders after being brought to life in contemporary Germany. The next ‘The Golem and the Dancing Girl’ (1917 – now lost) was a fantasy comedy/ thriller.
The 3rd explored the legend of Rabbi Loew creating a golem in the late 1500s to protect the Prague Jewish Ghetto from pogrom – anti-Semitic persecution, often organised by the State.
The international success of the films helped create the monster-on-a-rampage genre of horror. Using the same makeup in the 3 films established the idea of a monster as the star; successfully exploited in 1930s Hollywood with Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman.
‘The Golem’, a 1914 German novel reworking the Prague legend, might have inspired the films. However, golem stories have been told since biblical times. In the early 11th century the Spanish philosopher Solomon Ben Judah allegedly created a female golem to cook and clean for him.
Echoing God’s creation of Adam from spit and mud, a golem is a clay figure brought to life by writing ‘Truth’ in Hebrew on its forehead. It is stopped by rubbing out the first letter, turning ‘Truth’ to ‘Death’.
Rabbi Loew’s method was to write God’s name on a piece of paper, which he placed in the creature’s mouth. Jewish myth says Adam was originally created as golem and only became human when God breathed into him giving him part of his spirit.
In folklore and Christianity breath, spirit and the Word are often considered one and the same.
In folklore, cats will suck a new-born’s breath (or soul) causing cot death.
In Greek, the Holy Ghost is Hagia Pneuma meaning Perfect Breath (of God).
The breath of God bore the Word, made flesh when the Archangel Gabriel whispered in the Virgin Mary’s ear making her pregnant – or so early Christians believed.
Golem originally meant ‘raw’ or ‘unformed’. Later it came to mean ‘dumb’, which gave rise to the idea golems cannot speak; as they possess no spirit or soul.
Under Jewish law, a golem cannot work on the Sabbath. In one version Loew forgets to remove God’s name on Friday night. In another the golem falls for a beautiful girl. Either way the result is a murder spree. In the movie, a Christian nobleman seducing Loew’s daughter causes the golem’s rampage.
In legend, Loew succeeds in removing God’s name, but in the movie it is an innocent child, and the creature crumbles to dust.
Some claim Loew’s golem was kept in the attic of the old Prague Synagogue. A well-respected rabbi asserted his father-in-law had seen it, but said no more. When nothing was found during renovations in 1883, rumours claimed the golem was moved to an ancient graveyard for safekeeping.
Loew was a staunch defender of his people and hence his association with the golem. But the same story was told about another rabbi in a Polish ghetto. This means the golem may simply be the longing of a frightened, desperate people for a champion, or at least a sign from God.
See other German silent horror films: