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The German actor and director Paul Wegener (1874 - 1948) made many films, but he's particularly remembered for his three films centred around the Jewish legend of the Golem1. He first heard about it while working in Prague on his film The Student of Prague in 1913, and shortly afterwards he set to work making a new film inspired by the legend.
According to the legend of Golem, the Emperor Rudolph II was about to issue an edict against the Jews of Prague. Rabbi Judah Low Ben Bezalel2, one of the ghetto's elders, created a Golem, a clay statue brought to life by magic, to defend the Jews from the pogrom3. The legend has several variants, differing in detail. Sometimes the Golem is brought to life by a magic word written on his forehead; erase the word, and he ceases to live. Other versions mention a hot ball placed in the Golem's skull, or a tablet with the name of God written on it put in the Golem's mouth. In Wegener's films the Golem is brought to life by a shem, a 'Star of David' pendant concealing a piece of paper with the magic word on it. Remove the shem, and the Golem is rendered inert.
Wegener played the Golem himself in all three films. At over six feet tall, with an expressive face, he was well-suited for the part. He continued to make films and perform on stage throughout his life, even when Germany was under Nazi rule. However, he was plagued with ill health, and he collapsed on stage a few days before his death, a trouper to the end.
Der Golem (1914)
An antiques dealer discovers a statue and recognises it as the Golem of legend. He brings it to life and sets it to guard his daughter4. The Golem falls in love with the girl and tries to make off with her, but the shem is pulled from him and he falls, lifeless, from a high tower.
This film was written and directed by Wegener and Henrik Galeen. Galeen was a Dutch film-maker best-known for the vampire film Nosferatu, which he wrote. Der Golem was released several years later in the United States, under the title The Monster of Fate. As the First World War was breaking out, interest in a film from Germany was limited.
Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancer) (1917)
This film may well be the first horror movie sequel ever. A man (Wegener), after seeing Der Golem in a movie theatre, dresses up as the Golem to frighten a dancing girl (Salmanova). The film is meant to be a comedy. No print of this film is known to exist.
Der Golem - Wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem - How he came into the world) (1920)
This is the story as the legend tells it. Rabbi Loew5 creates the Golem to stop the Jews being expelled from the city. For a time, the Golem is an obedient servant, but it begins to rebel. The Rabbi's daughter Miriam (Salmanova) is again the object of the Golem's attention, as he turns against his master. After running amok and leaving Miriam behind, the Golem stumbles upon a group of children at play. One child plucks the shem from his chest, and the Golem is clay once more.
The film was photographed by Karl Freund, who went on to greater fame in Hollywood, where he directed Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932) and won an Academy Award for cinematography for The Good Earth (1937). This version was a great inspiration for later horror film makers, especially James Whale, whose 1931 film of Frankenstein can be seen as a direct descendant in style and approach.
Character actor Fritz Feld has a small role as the court jester. Feld also moved to Hollywood, where he played supporting roles into the 1980s.
Follow this link for an excellent biography of Paul Wegener with further links on his films and associates.