Reflections on Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920)

By Jed Wentz

Der Golem: how it came to the Utrecht Early Music Festival 2016

On September 1st the Utrecht Early Music Festival 2016 reflects on the phenomenon of ghettoization, as part of its commemoration of the establishment, 500 years ago, of the Jewish ghetto in Venice. Three performances on that day explore different aspects of this theme: at 15:00 Ensemble Lucidarium presents a programme dedicated to the soundscape of Shylock’s Venice; at 17:00 the Nederlands Kamerkoor, conducted by Richard Egarr, performs music that took Venetian Jewish melodies beyond the walls of the ghetto and into the English Protestant service; and at 22:30 a screening of the 1920 silent classic, Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, examines notions of cultural identity and ghettoization in the context of Weimar Germany.

Films made in the ‘silent’ period have in recent years been viewed as belonging to a separate genre from ‘sound’ films, a genre that has its own rules and its own beauties. An appreciation of these films as complex and rich works of art has been made easier by new restoration techniques. Far from being primitive, tentative works groping their way towards the perfection offered by sound, the best ‘silents’ combined symbolic images and complex subject matter with live music: today the resulting synthesis can still be both intellectually satisfying and emotionally profound.

Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) is an example of such a film. It is generally agreed to be a masterpiece of Weimar cinema (the name given to German films produced during the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933). Der Golem offers complex material in symbolic form, without forcing it into a consistent allegory. It is the object of this little essay to lay bare some of the major themes in the film, particularly as they relate to the issue of the ghetto and ghettoization. I will refer not only to the film itself, but also to a novel based on the film that was published in 1921.[1] Sometimes the novel makes things clear that are more ambiguous in the film.

On silent films

Before doing so, however, a word about the version of the film we will see tonight: Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam is now nearly 100 years old, and, although it has been restored, it still demonstrates a number of problems that plague historical film footage generally. Firstly, the restoration has not always solved the problem of distorted contrasts between light and dark, so that facial expressions are sometimes lost in a fuzzy ‘glow’. This is calamitous for silent films, in which the emotional narrative is carried almost entirely by the facial expressions and eye movements of the actors: such material damage makes it more difficult for us to understand the motivation of the characters at certain key points in the story.

Secondly, there are a number of crude ‘mistakes’ in the action (for instance, Miriam trips several times over her own train) which suggest that this was a version put together from lower quality takes. For technical reasons, the practice of creating several versions of a given film was common in the period: a premier version, made up of the best takes, was made to be released in the financially most important countries, while lower quality versions containing mistakes were released in areas where less was expected from the returns.

And finally, there are problems with the editing, some shots being clearly out of sequence (for instance, in the ‘Festival of Roses’ scene, and at the beginning of Act 5). This was possibly the result of editing done at the local level. In this early period cuts were often made according to the whims of the movie house manager without the director’s knowledge. Though Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam still has much to offer in terms of visual beauty and pure audience enjoyment, it probably is not the optimal version of the film.

One thing that may surprise viewers not familiar with silent films is the very colourful appearance of Der Golem. The application of colour dye to black and white film, known as tinting, was used to make a moving picture more legible, and to enhance its symbolic nature. For instance, green was used mainly for scenes involving magic; consequently, the rabbi’s mystical and unheimlich alchemical workshop is associated with green tinting. Tinting, however, was also used to help the viewer to understand the time of day or nature of the light that s/he is seeing: at this point it was not technically possible to film at night. Therefore, all scenes were shot in daylight and then dyed: blue tinting indicates nighttime, yellow shows us daylight or candlelight and pink indicates the rosy-fingered dawn.


Silents were of course, not silent at all, and the enjoyment of the musical accompaniment was an essential part of the movie-going experience. The grand cinemas in this period were lavish palaces of sensual pleasure: they combined spectacular architecture of often awe-inspiring proportions (some of the great American movie theatres could accommodate an audience in their thousands), up-to-date equipment for creating light shows, and a stage for live performances. Some theatres employed large symphonic orchestras, others housed mighty theatre organs with a huge array of dazzling stops, while some screenings, in the lesser venues, were accompanied by chamber ensembles, or merely by a lone pianist. Music was performed not only during the screening of the movie, but throughout the evening, and accompanied live variety acts, newsreels and even animated sing-alongs.

Films could be accompanied musically in various ways depending on the capabilities of each individual movie house: some films, like F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu or Frtiz Lang’s Metropolis, had full symphonic scores composed for them: indeed, as early as 1908, no less a composer than Camille Saint-Saëns wrote an impressive score for a film entitled L’Assassinat du duc de Guise.

Another form of musical accompaniment was the creation a score cobbled together from popular classical tunes, either for orchestra or piano. Finally, the lowly pianist in the less prestigious venues often relied on printed collections of stock affective music, with set tunes for chase scenes, war scenes or love scenes. Of course, in the grander theatres there were spectacular sound and light effects: thunder rumbled, bells rang, birds sang and the theatre was even flooded with colored light to strengthen the effect of what was being portrayed on the screen.

Despite the lack of artistic control that film directors had over the accompaniment and presentation of their films, music was by no means considered unimportant. King Vidor, a famous director of the period, estimated:

The music was so important...I would roughly say...forty, fifty percent of the value, of the person watching, in emotion.[2]

This was in part due to the fact that the films were shot as a kind of visual music: actors often played their parts in time to a ticking metronome, and live music was performed during filming to help them find the right emotion for their scenes.[3] Actress Viola Dana, looking back to the silent period, praised the power of music to help the actor during close-ups, where the expression of emotions was of paramount importance. To her, the music was:

[…] very helpful in scenes where we had to be sad and cry...I’ve always thought that close-ups should be taken first, because then you’re fresh and things are spontaneous...but by the time they take a long shot, then a medium shot, a shot here and a shot there, and then at the very last, they come to the close-ups. Now you’re worn out, you’ve cried your¾you know¾probably the last tear. So, we used to have music, and everybody had a favorite piece that they liked that would make them cry. [laughs] And then we’d be able to squeeze out a few tears with the violinist, and a guy playing the organ.[4]

The musical score that accompanies tonight’s screening takes the importance of music’s affective power into account. It was made specifically with the talents of keyboardist Olga Pashchenko in mind, after I had studied the rich holdings related to silent film accompaniments that are currently held in the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard. Tonight’s score, however, also takes up the glove cast down long ago by famed actress Lillian Gish, who felt that the music to accompany silent films should be of the very highest quality. Late in life Gish declared, with Puccini’s music in mind:

My personal belief is that silent film should be married to great music and we’ve never seen this done.[5]

Tonight’s score, therefore, has been put together using emotive, atmospheric and highly virtuosic scores by Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Niels Gade, Aleksandr Borodin, Edvard Grieg, Felix Mendelssohn and Aleksandr Scriabin. In order to avoid any aural anachronisms, I only used music composed before 1920. In the spirit of the play-sheets I consulted in Harvard, there are many musical repetitions, and some pieces even function as recurring leitmotifs: Lizst’s Monsonyi’s Funeral Procession, for instance, is used to express violence or rage throughout the film, while his arrangement of Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu Singen represents the tightly intertwined motifs of Miriam’s sensual love and Jehova’s merciful plan to save the Jews.

Searching for meaning, or the Golem as mirror of truth: SPOILER ALERT!

So, what is this film all about? On the surface, this question is easily answered: it is a predecessor of the Frankenstein films. It stars a man-made monster (played by Paul Wegener himself) that threatens to destroy organized society: the monster is vanquished and the status quo preserved. While this certainly is a valid way to read the film, there is much more complexity on offer in Der Golem, for the monster acts as a mirror to whomever he is with, reflecting each individual’s true nature, be it good or evil.[6]

This is made clear during the remarkable scene in which Rabbi Löw conjures up the dreaded Astaroth. The magic life-giving word that is forced from the apparition’s smoking mouth is aemhet, which means ‘truth’ in Hebrew. The Golem, brought to life by this magic word (when it is placed in a star-shaped capsule and affixed to his breast), then proceeds, throughout the film, to reflect the truth about everyone he meets: when he is given a rose by a beautiful girl, he dreams of love; when an innocent child gives him an apple, he smiles; but in the presence of jealous lovers he becomes a violent sexual maniac.

The ghetto

It is this characteristic of the Golem that helps us to understand the symbolism of the ghetto in the film: for Rabbi Löw is an angry man, angered not only by his daughter Miriam’s blossoming sexuality, but especially by the Emperor’s oppression of the Jewish people. Here the novel Der Golem gives us more information than does the film itself. It makes clear that Rabbi Löw creates the Golem in self-defense because the Jews are oppressed, even enslaved by the Emperor: “Thus his secret actions were determined by the love of his enslaved people.”[7]

Throughout the film, Christians are shown treating the Jews with disdain, and indeed, by mocking the magical image, conjured up by Löw, of Ahasuerus (the Wandering Jew) the Emperor’s court brings disaster down on itself. Though the film does present some Jewish stereotypes,[8] its Christian characters are in no way morally superior to the Jewish ones: the novel tells us that the weak and faithless Emperor, even though he had often ‘borrowed’ money from the Jews in order to pay for his lavish court entertainments, gave in to political pressure to banish the entire community (pressure applied by his envious Minister of State).[9] This helps to explain why the Golem, once back in the ghetto after saving both the Emperor’s life and the Jewish people, reacts with rage to the presence of the Rabbi: Löw, too, is full of unconscious rage.[10] He may have saved his people from

banishment, but life in the ghetto still continues. Thus, the dark dirty streets and poverty of the ghetto can be seen, in fact, as the embodiment of the systematic oppression of the Jews by their Christian masters, and concomitantly the Golem is¾¾at least when in the presence of Löw¾the embodiment of deep-seated resentments against this injustice.

The Jews are locked up in the ghetto and the men are forced to wear distinctive hats and circular badges on their clothes in order to prevent sexual relations between Jew and Christian. This is what makes the love affair between Rabbi Löw’s daughter Miriam and the Emperor’s messenger Florian so disturbing: their love-making is highly charged because strictly forbidden¾something that is made abundantly clear when Florian lays his trembling hand on Miriam’s breast. This interreligious love affair is doomed from the start and by the end of the film Florian’s broken body lies buried forever in the heart of the ghetto. Miriam, whose ‘sin’ (loving an outsider) was essential to the ultimate salvation of her people, is also heavily punished: in a film in which truth has the power of granting life, surely Miriam’s loveless marriage to Famulus, based on a dark lie, is no more that a kind of living death.

The final scene of the film, however, proposes a non-sexual solution to the Jewish-Christian conflict, one based not on lust, but on innocence.

An earthly paradise

In the film, the world of the Christian masters is clearly demarcated from that of the Jews: the ghetto, a dark “rat’s nest”[11] of crooked streets, is surrounded by high walls and can only be entered through a gate, guarded by a gate-keeper; on the other hand, Christian territory, guarded by a statue of the Virgin holding the baby Jesus, begins at the bridge leading from the ghetto to the Emperor’s castle. In between the Jewish gate and the Christian bridge is a place ‘without a master’, a no man’s land, in which the final scene of the drama takes place.[12] In the film this space makes a miserable impression, a desert in which sparse weeds languish, wilting, in the hot sun. The impressive film sets of the ghetto are justly famous, but in creating this no man’s land, the designers were a good deal less successful. The viewer must use her or his imagination to realize what the novel describes:

The meadow, a gorgeous spectacle of June flowers with columbines, catchflies and bellflowers was, because it lay without a master between the world of the Jews and the Christians, unmown; and the midday sun shone brightly, and the high wall completely blocked out the conflagration and billowing smoke of the dark ghetto.

But in the meadow blond children were playing. They had wreaths on their heads and they sang and danced in a ring like the dear angels in the fields of Heaven.[13]

It is into this heavenly scene that the Golem wanders, after leaving the unconscious Miriam behind. He has abandoned her because, without a conscious human soul to mirror, he has become entirely passive, a neutral being in search of someone or something to reflect. Outside the ghetto gate, in no man’s land, the Christian children scatter in terror at the sight of him. Only one young innocent¾like Eve, provided with an apple¾stays behind. It is she who inadvertently robs the Golem of life:

The little girl saw the gigantic apparition standing before her and was very frightened. But, all alone in the wide meadow before the clay giant, she bravely bit back her rising tears and offered the red apple to the Golem as a kind of peace offering. And the Golem bent down very low and looked into the little girl’s blue eyes. Then he took her in his powerful arms and lifted her high up upon his breast. The child felt afraid, but kept herself under control and looked the colossus in the face, and she felt he meant her no harm. The Golem, however, looked intently at the child, saw the fine blond hair in which the sunlight and wind were playing, and was amazed at the tender, strange sight. His clay countenance twitched. At this moment he is said to have, for the first time, silently, gently smiled. Then the child lost all her timidity and gave him a friendly smile, and touched his earthy face with her little child’s hands as if it were a plaything. The sun was bright, and the metal, star-shaped capsule that contained the shem [the magic, life-giving word] flashed and sparkled in the light. The little girl saw the shiny star, her childish hand reached greedily for it and playfully pulled the capsule out of the socket.[14]


Here, then, is the solution the film offers: if Christians were to approach the Jews with the simplicity of children; and if they would, in good faith, hold out the peace offering of a world without a ghetto and free of masters and slaves; then an earthly paradise could be established. The Golem allowed himself to be deprived of his amulet by an innocent child because in paradise no mirror is needed to reveal hidden truths.

This proffered happy ending, this promised utopia, is not, however, realized in the film. No adult Christians arrive to offer their honest friendship to the Jews. Instead, when the Rabbi and his people rush out in search of the clay giant, they frighten all the children away. The rejoicing Jews carry the Golem with them back into the oppression of the ghetto: they have, of course, nowhere else to go. The ghetto looms up, both like a prison and a fortress: a place of punishment and, oddly, almost a safe haven. In the final image of the film, as the great gate shuts, locking the Christians out and the Jews in, one sees the Star of David superimposed over the ghetto’s tower. It is only then that one realizes that the tower itself is shaped like one of the distinctive hats worn by the Jewish men, leaving the viewer to wonder how the dismal history of oppression and ghettoization can ever be ended.

[1] See: Paul Wegener, Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam: eine Geschichte in fünf Kapiteln von Paul Wegener (Berlin: A. Scherl G. m. b. H., 1921).

[2] See: Kevin Brownlow & David Gill, Hollywood, ep. 1, “Pioneers” (Thames: 1980), 3:46.

[3] It is worth mentioning that Murnau subtitled Nosferatu ‘eine Symphonie des Grauens’ and Sunrise ‘a song of two humans’.

[4] ‘[…] was very helpful in scenes where we had to be sad and cry...I’ve always thought that close-ups should be taken first, because then you’re fresh and things are spontaneous...but by the time they take a long shot, then a medium shot, a shot here and a shot there, and then at the very last, they come to the close-ups. Now you’re worn out, you’ve cried your¾you know¾probably the last tear. So, we used to have music, and everybody had a favorite piece that they liked that would make them cry. [laughs] And then we’d be able to squeeze out a few tears with the violinist, and a guy playing the organ.’ See: Kevin Brownlow & David Gill, Hollywood, ep. 10, “The Man with a Megaphone” (Thames: 1980), 14:35.

[5] ‘My personal belief is that silent film should be married to great music and we’ve never seen this done.’

Charles Affron, Lillian Gish, her legend her life (Berkeley: Univesity of Califoria Press, 2001), 346.

[6] The Golem’s mirroring power causes him function as a kind of Doppelgänger at several key points in the film. The most striking examples are the closely juxtaposed close-ups of the Golem and Rabbi Löw in the scene in which the monster comes to life and the image of Golem and Famulus side-by-side when the monster breaks into Miriam’s bedroom. The Doppelgäanger theme has a long and well-established history in the literature of the late 18th and 19th centuries and certainly is not confined to cinematic works of the Weimar period. For a discussion of the theme in Paul Wegener’s work see: Heide Schönemann, Paul Wegener: Frühe Moderne im Film (Stuttgart/London: Edition Axel Menges, 2003), 14-23.

[7] “So war sein geheimes Tun bestimmt durch die Liebe zu seinem geknechteten Volk.” Wegener, Der Golem, 10.

[8]The novel tells us that when Florian bribed the gatekeeper, “die Habgier erwachte in seinem jüdischen Herzen” (“greed was awakened in his Jewish heart”). See: Wegener, Der Golem, 38.

[9] See: Wegener, Der Golem, 13.

[10] Admittedly, this reading is contradicted by the pertinent intertitle, which attributes the Golem’s evil deeds to astrological factors and a vengeful Astaroth. However, this is not the only silent film in which the intertitles and the action shown are at odds: there are other examples, of which the most famous is, perhaps, Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). Seastrom’s He who gets slapped (1924) is another example. Such contradictions seem to be not so much the result of carelessness, as of a desire to create of a layer of complexity in the viewer’s experience of the film, demanding she or he question their interpretation of what is being shown.

[11] See: Wegener, Der Golem, 16.

[12] See: Wegener, Der Golem, 15-6.

[13] “Die Wiese war ungemäht, da sie wie herrenlos zwischen der Welt der Juden und Christen lag, und es war eine Junipracht an Blüten mit Akley, Pechnelken und Glockenblumen, und die Mittagssonne schien hell, und die Hohe Mauer ließ nichts hinüber von Feuersnot und Qualm der düsteren Judenstadt.

In der Wiese aber spielten blonde Kinder. Die hatten Kränze auf den Köpfen, und sie sangen und tanzten einen Ringelreihen wie die lieben Engelein in der Himmelswiese.” Wegener, Der Golem, 74.

[14] “Da sah das Magdlein die riesige Erscheinung vor sich stehen und erschrak gar sehr. Doch sie verbiß sich tapfer das Weinen, das sie ankam, da es so allein auf der weiten Wiese vor dem tönernen Riesen stand, und streckte den roten Apfel dem Golem entgegen, wie ihm um ihn freundlich zu stimmen. Und der Golem neigte sich ganz tief herab und sah dem Mägdlein in die blauen Kinderaugen. Dann faßte er es mit seinen gewaltigen Armen und hob es hoch empor an seine Brust. Unheimlich ward dem Kinde zumute, doch es bezwang sich und sah dem Koloß nah ins Gesicht und fühlte, deß er es gut mit ihm meine. Der Golem aber schaute das Kind unverwandt an, sah die feinen blonden Härchen, in denen Sonne und Wind spielten, und staunte über das zarte, fremde Gebild. Und es ging ein Zucken über sein tönernes Antliß. In diesem Augenblick soller zum ersten Male ganz still und leise gelächelt haben. Da verlor das Kindlein alle Scheu und lächlete auch ihm freundlich zu und tastete mit den Kinderhändchen an dem tönernen Haupte umher wie an einem Spielwerk. Die Sonne schien hell, und die metallene Sternkapsel, in der der Schem lag, funkelte blitzend im Licht. Da sah das Mägdlein den gleitzenden Stern, ihr Kinderhändchen griff begierig danach und löste im Spiel die Kapsel aus der Offnung.” Wegener, Der Golem, 75-6.