April 22, 2007

THE EMPEROR'S BAKER (1951) and more GOLEM movies

The hunt for another good Golem movie

Based on an ancient Jewish legend, the Golem is a creature modelled from clay and brought to life to protect the oppressed in a medieval ghetto. The German silent classic film The Golem (1920), reviewed here, influenced both the story and the look of Universal Studios’ classic Frankenstein (1931), where the creature was similarly man-made. Besides lifting several scenes, like the creature meeting a little girl, Frankenstein also used The Golem’s cinematographer, Karl Freund, who later directed his own horror films, The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935).

Widely available on DVD, the silent 1920 version stars the imposing Paul Wegener as the creature. But this is by no means the only Golem movie, and I’ve tried to see them all. One has just emerged on DVD in France, The Emperor's Baker.

Two of the earliest versions of the legend also starred Paul Wegener, The Golem (1915) and its sequel The Golem and the Dancer (1917), but both are now believed to be lost films (some fragments can be viewed on this site, in The Nitrate Vault). Note the slimmer look of Wegener's monster suit, above.

The first version with sound was a French/Czech co-production. Photos of the creature show a very modern make-up design, that makes this Golem look more like a classic stylized bronze statue. The impressive stills make me still want to track this version down. It was last seen on French VHS, reviewed on SciFilm here.

The plot is fairly similar to The Emperor's Baker, but is harder-edged and less humorous. It's a period costume drama, mostly revolving around the Emperor and his paranoid fear of the Golem and the Jewish elders who control it. While struggling to keep hold of his own sanity, he viciously tortures one to find the statue's hiding place. In the climax, the Golem finally awakes and saves the day, destroying major chunks of the palace in the process. The lions used to eat prisoners in the dungeons are set free on the palace subjects and justice is served. The Golem looks impressively scary and inflicts major damage on his rampage of revenge, even stomping someone's head flat!

This is the best of the Golem movies made with sound. Though the Emperor gains a fair amount of sympathy due to the complex performance of Harry Baur, completely overshadowing the rather pious, one-dimensional goodies. The most glamorous of the women plays the rabbi's wife - looking inappropriately like Marlene Dietrich. The sets are huge and are slightly expressionistic, in a nod to the silent versions.

Veteran director Julien Duvivier later had a brief run in Hollywood, directing the lush portmanteau Flesh and Fantasy (1946) among others.

The next version of the Golem also came from Czechoslovakia and has just been released in France on DVD by Artus Films (I bought it here). This time, the Golem is in colour. I saw a photo, of this creature piling through a wall, in a Sunday magazine back in the seventies and have wanted to see it in action ever since. It looked huge and terrifying, with a unique monster design…

Actually two shorter films shot back to back – The Emperor’s Baker and The Baker’s Emperor – both appear on this new 2-DVD set from France. But unfortunately it’s not a horror, but a big budget comedy costume drama, one of the most handsomely mounted films made in Eastern Europe at the time. Huge elaborate sets, hundreds of extras, lavish costumes – it’s a rambling comedy about an eccentric Emperor who switches places with a baker (both played by Jan Werich). He’s searching his kingdom for the Golem (making this a sequel to the silent versions) but his ministers are more interested in using it as weapon of war… Most of the humour comes from the dialogue, only included as Czech language or French subtitles. The picture looks good, but the colour has faded a little, and the print is quite heavily scratched near the reel changes.

The Golem eventually makes a relatively minor appearance in both films and is doubly disappointing because it’s a solid prop. When it walks, it’s merely pushed forwards, twisting it’s body without moving it’s legs.

It only looks good when standing still. It’s stature is imposing, towering above the cast, and when activated the eyes (nostrils?) glow red and smoke pours out.

An impressive production, beloved in Eastern Europe (where you can still see statues of this version on the streets), it’s good to finally see it, but the 1920 version remains unbeaten in the realms of fantastic cinema, for its focus on the supernatural aspect to the legend.

IT! (1966)
Lastly, a rather melted-looking Golem appeared in a low-budget British horror film that starred Roddy McDowall (star of many Planet of the Apes) and a young Jill Haworth (Tower of Evil, The Haunted House of Horror). IT! (1966) has the Golem committing robberies and minor havoc around modern-day London, much like the treacherous penguin in The Wrong Trousers. McDowall has a psychotic mother-fixation and sees the benefits of using such a monster to rule the world! I keep going back to It! and I'm finally warming to it... Updated review of IT! here.

UPDATE 2008: IT! premiered on DVD in the US on a double-bill with The Shuttered Room.

My 2012 review of THE GOLEM (1920) is here.


  1. Are you familiar with Daimajin,
    a Japanese movie from 1966? It has a sort of Golem-like figure. And rather impressive special effects.

  2. All three have recently been released on blu-ray. But good call, parallel stories!

  3. There is a French version made for tv in the seventies.