Audrey Kupferberg: The Golem And The Great Leap | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: The Golem And The Great Leap

Apr 29, 2020

Kino Classics has released two films from the golden age of German cinema – films from the Weimar Republic, a particularly rich period for the arts that lasted from the end of World War I until the rise of Hitler.

The Golem from 1920 is one of the most well-known films of this period.  Many consider it, and other golem films of the silent era, a precursor to the Frankenstein films.  The Golem deals with an ancient Jewish myth of a larger-than-life monster in human form, made from clay, who comes to life to defend the Jews against evil forces.  The golem as a character has appeared over and over in literature and film, but the 1920 film, written, directed by, and featuring Paul Wegener as the monster, is considered the granddaddy of screen depictions.   

The Golem, with very creative hand-constructed sets and expressive, mood lighting, is typical of the dark-themed films and horror genre so popular in Germany at this time.  Many have already seen The Golem, but not in its current restoration.  Various versions of the film were collected and preserved by archives through the years, and there have been archival restorations in 1995, 2003, and this latest version in 2018.  This version is based heavily on the German distribution negative, and the pictorial quality is stunning.  Also included on the disc is the original U.S. version of the film.

Not only is the myth of the Golem gripping – how a revered rabbi brought the clay monster through to life with the aid of sorcery and utilized the clay man’s strength and imposing presence to save the Jews of Prague from expulsion by the Hapsburg emperor in the 16th century.  Equally interesting is the manner in which the Jews are portrayed in this film.  They are ghettoized; separated by massive walls, revealed as a strange breed.  Their facial hair, caftans, odd head-coverings…  They look and dress differently from those in the main part of the city.  Mingling is rare.  A forbidden secret affair between the rabbi’s daughter and the emperor’s aide emphasizes this point.  The Golem in its latest restoration is a must-see for silent film fans and horror or fantasy fans, as well.

The second movie from Kino Classics is The Great Leap from 1927 filmed in The Dolomites.  Unlike most films in the mountain film genre, this is a comedy.  The stars, including the infamous Leni Riefenstahl, are most capable and occasionally genuinely comical as they perform mountain climbing stunts and tricks on skis.  The most significant and telling aspect of this genre is the beauty of Tyrolean nature and how equally beautiful Arian people fit into its purity and magnificence.  Many consider that philosophy to be one of prejudice, a forerunner to even more widespread anti-Semitism in the late 1920s and early 1930s.    

What also puts a damper on The Great Leap for me, is the fact that so many participants in the production, as well as other mountain films such as The Holy Mountain and The White Hell of Pitz-Palu, went on to support the activities of the Nazi Party.  Riefenstahl is the most talked-about.  She developed a close relationship with Adolf Hitler and made the most powerful propaganda tool of the National Socialists, the documentary Triumph of the Will.

If viewers can separate the real-life choices made by these filmmakers from their onscreen characters, then The Great Leap could prove somewhat amusing.  It’s no classic, just a playful entertainment.  For me, the importance of The Great Leap is its place in history. 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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