A shot of the golem and a little girl with a flower, seen here as it appears on the poster for "The Golem Rescored," was famously copied in the 1931 “Frankenstein” film.
A shot of the golem and a little girl with a flower, seen here as it appears on the poster for "The Golem Rescored," was famously copied in the 1931 “Frankenstein” film.

Reanimating ‘The Golem,’ horror cinema’s century-old urtext, just in time for Halloween

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A century-old hit silent horror film has been resurrected just in time for Halloween. “The Golem,” long considered one of the foundational works in horror and monster cinema, is now available with a moody new soundtrack from an array of musicians and commentary from a range of scholars and artists.

A project of Reboot, the N.Y.-based Jewish arts organization with a strong Bay Area footprint, “The Golem Rescored” can be streamed at rebooting.com starting today.

The main character in “The Golem” — other than the golem itself, a hulking character with a waxy, clay-like mop of hair — is Rabbi Judah Loew, a real-life 16th-century mystic and Kabbalist who has entered legend and occult mythology as the creator of the famed golem of Prague.

In the film, the rabbi is portrayed as a harried, wide-eyed sage — one who reads in the stars that doom is coming for the Jews of his ghetto. So he begins work on a golem, a being made of clay and brought to life with magic to protect the Jews in times of hardship. Soon after, a dashing young messenger (who has the hots for the rabbi’s daughter, of course) sent by the emperor declares that the Jews must vacate the ghetto. Though the golem was created to protect them, the people of the ghetto are scared of the creature.

The full name of the film is “The Golem: How He Came Into the World.” Produced in Germany in 1920, it was actually the third golem-centric film by Jewish director Paul Wegener, but it is the only one that survived World War II. Wegener himself plays the golem.

This new version is the brainchild of David Katznelson, Reboot’s S.F.-based executive director. 

“I’m a massive horror movie fan. I’m the bad father who showed my kid ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Shining’ at 11 years old,” he said.

“I’d seen ‘The Golem’ years ago. It’s one of the great early horror films, from that interwar German expressionist period.” (Other well-known works from that genre include “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu.”) 

“If you think of those films, and then fast-forward a decade or two to the Universal monster movies — ‘Dracula,’ ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘The Mummy’ — it’s all there in those German films,” Katznelson said.

David Katznelson
David Katznelson

“The truth is that there’s a lot in ‘Frankenstein’ [1931] and ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ [1935] that has nothing to do with the Mary Shelley novel, but everything to do with ‘The Golem.’ An example, on the poster [for ‘The Golem Rescored’] we have the shot of the golem with a girl handing him a flower. That shot is exactly repeated in ‘Frankenstein,’ the positions and stances.”

The similarities in plot and theme between “The Golem” and “Frankenstein” are obvious. Both tell the story of an inert body that is brought to life — one through magic, the other through science — and horribly misunderstood.

The film was a mega-hit when it reached New York in 1921. As it was distributed around the world, it would have come with sheet music for each movie theater’s organist to play during the film. In “The Golem Rescored,” that original score is replaced with eerie, atmospheric contemporary music that suffuses the movie with a sense of dread and foreboding that matches the dark, flickering images of life and magic in the twisted, fortress-like set of the ghetto.

Rabbi Loew and his creation in "The Golem."
Rabbi Loew and his creation in “The Golem.”

For Reboot’s project, the movie has been divided into eight episodes, each with a unique score by different musicians, including members of Los Lobos and the Flaming Lips, and Jeremiah Lockwood of the Sway Machinery (and occasionally of services at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco).

“The Golem” is a classic for a reason. It’s packed with striking imagery, affecting moments and themes that remain relevant a century later.

To bring those themes and the historical import of the film to the fore for modern viewers, each episode is followed by an interview with a scholar or artist. The first episode features Justin Sledge, a scholar of mysticism and the occult behind the YouTube channel Esoterica, who discusses the history of the golem as an idea in Jewish texts and culture. Another features Riva Lehrer, author of the memoir “Golem Girl,” who discusses representations of people stigmatized because of their bodies or identities. And in another episode, Ken Goldberg, an inventor and UC Berkeley professor, discusses artificial intelligence.

“We put this together for a bunch of different reasons,” Katznelson said. “First of all, I hope people love the music. We hope that people really feel connected to the film in a way that they haven’t before, or will feel connected to it if they haven’t seen it before. The second thing is that there’s so much baked into the story: Jewish history, traditions, the way cinema-makers view this Jewish story, robotics, how we can think about the golem and think about ourselves and about technology — all of these things are packed in there.”

David A.M. Wilensky
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
J. The Jewish News of Northern California Staff Headshots.
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky