Flush with success from their sold-out screenings of early cinema classics Nosferatu, White Zombie and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Newcastle Castle expanded upon this killer concept masterfully by presenting another rarely seen silent masterpiece, this time accompanied by a heart-stopping live performance specially tailored for the venue.
Asked to introduce the film, I delved into both the golem legend itself, as well as the true story of this unique, nearly-lost chapter of cinema history.
It’s my pleasure to welcome you to this very unique opportunity to see an incredible piece of early cinema complemented by an equally incredible live soundtrack here in the stunning Great Hall of the Castle Keep.
What you are about to see is a 96-year old German silent horror film, one inspired by an ancient Jewish legend in which an unformed, inanimate mass of clay is moulded into a living creature via a mystical spell, a fortuitous alignment of the planets, and a helping hand from no less than the Great Duke of Hell himself, the diabolical Astaroth.
It’s a legend that has been around for quite some time, with the earliest known written account of how to create your very own golem appearing in the 12th century, morphing through time as legend and word of mouth combined to form the now-classic version of the tale arising in 16th century Prague. This time concerning a rabbi who created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from an anti-Semitic attack, it is this version of the legend that the film is based on.
Its full title is the Golem: How He Came into the World, and it is actually the third in a trilogy from director Paul Wegener, who not incidentally also plays the golem creature himself across all three films.
The first film in the series was released in 1915, and told the ancient legend through a story set at the turn of the twentieth century, with a contemporary antiques dealer finding the golem brought to sinister life by the Prague rabbi four centuries earlier. The dealer resurrects the golem as a servant to assist in his mansion, but the subservient monstrosity goes on to fall in love with the dealer’s wife. As she does not return his love, the spurned golem – setting the standard for generations of lumbering silver screen monsters yet to come – commits a series of horrific murders.
the Golem was a sensation upon its release and went on to leave a lasting legacy within the movie industry
This was followed up with The Golem and the Dancing Girl in 1917, which extraordinarily enough is a short comedy sequel in which the director plays himself dressing up as the golem as a practical joke, impersonating the screen monster he himself made famous and leading to no doubt hilarious results.
Heartbreakingly, for the foreseeable future there can only be doubt as to how these tales unfolded, because although small snippets survive and rumours of tempting reels of existing footage in far-flung corners of the world persist, these two films are both considered entirely lost now, which makes the film we are about to see even more precious and special.
The director himself had been quite unhappy with his previous attempt to tell the legend in the original film due to the various compromises he had to make during its production – not least the contemporary setting forced upon it – and so the third film was his attempt to more directly convey the legend. Not only did Wegener spectacularly succeed in this ambition, he also followed up the surreal, ahead-of-its-time meta narrative of the second film with what may very well be the first prequel in cinema history.
Not only this but as one of the earliest horror films, the Golem was an absolute sensation upon its release and went on to leave a lasting legacy within the movie industry. While often overshadowed by the much more famous and more visually outlandish Cabinet of Doctor Cagliari which came out the same year, the cinematography of the Golem is often cited as one of the most outstanding examples of German Expressionism.
fascinating use of light and shadow and an underlying, unnerving and sinister atmosphere
Highly symbolic and stylized, German expressionism favoured bold, new ideas and artistic styles, including sets with wildly non-realistic and absurd angles, and extreme distortions in expression intended to show an inner emotional reality rather than what is on the surface. Watching the film in advance of this screening, it really is quite an extraordinary thing, with incredible sets, interesting performances, fascinating use of light and shadow and an underlying, unnerving and sinister atmosphere common to films of this unique style.
As with all silent films of the era, you really do get what you put in. The film is nearly one hundred years old, in bad shape and hailing from a time when cinema was young and being forged into the form we know today. The conventions we’ve all became accustomed to were still being established as creators worked to convey new ideas and narrative methods to an audience, and the audiences of the time reacted in turn to this exciting new medium.
The acting is incredibly overwrought and histrionic, the effects are primitive and the morality is of another time altogether, but let the story and the eerie atmosphere get under your skin, appreciate the fact that this is a pioneering piece of cinema almost completely lost to history and you are in for a bit of a treat.
that we are lucky enough to have this film in any form is completely remarkable
The unique soundtrack for this screening is brought to you by Newcastle upon Tyne’s very own Noize Choir, who specialise in creating experimental sound through voice, alongside composer, turntablist and director Mariam Rezaei and collaborator Adam Denton of the Old Police House.
Originally performed live in 2014 at the Star and Shadow cinema as part of the British Film Institute’s Gothic film season, the event sold out and was incredibly well-received, and was repeated shortly afterwards at Pop Recs in Sunderland. Earlier this year, the Castle approached the creators about tailoring a special encore performance for the Great Hall of the Castle Keep, and the result is what you will experience tonight.
That we are lucky enough to have this film in any form is completely remarkable, but we are luckier still to be a bunch of strangers in a fantastic space experiencing it together with a very special, one-night-only soundtrack from these hugely talented artists.
Thank you for listening, and enjoy the show.
The Golem: How He Came Into the World can be watched (sadly without the exceptional Noize Choir/Old Police House soundtrack) in its entirety below.
Leigh Venus at Newcastle Castle, 19 June 2016