The First Prequel Ever Is a Long-Overlooked Horror Classic

Apr 13, 2023

Film prequels have a long history in Hollywood, where they hold a unique place. Some are used to reboot a franchise. We already know that any film with even the most moderate success is likely to breed sequels. But when the sequel well runs dry? Start from before the beginning, like 2018’s Bumblebee. Some prequels build a backstory for a beloved film and/or characters in it: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them or the upcoming The Hunger Games prequel The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. And others restore a filmmaker’s original vision, which brings us to the oft-overlooked 1920 horror classic The Golem: How He Came Into the World, the first prequel ever.

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The Stories and Films That Preceded the Prequel

Image Via Paramount Pictures

A golem, for those who don’t know, is part of Jewish folklore, an effigy brought to life by charms or letters containing a sacred word placed in the golem’s mouth. Early tales colored the golem as a perfect servant who took things too literally, while in the 16th century, the golem was portrayed as a being made from clay that protected the Jews in times of persecution. This idea came to prominence in a tale created by 16th-century rabbi Judah Löw ben Bezalel of Prague, which in turn became the basis for the novel Der Golem in 1915 by Gustav Meyrink. It also piqued the interest of actor/director Paul Wegener, who heard the stories while working on The Student of Prague in 1913. The tale became the basis for 1915’s The Golem, in which the clay statue – brought to life by Rabbi Loew in the 16th century – is found in the 20th century among the rubble of an old synagogue. The golem is brought back to life by an antique dealer and used as a servant. Unfortunately, the golem falls in love with the dealer’s wife, and when that love proves unrequited, the creature goes on a murder spree.

The film proved popular enough that a sequel, The Golem and the Dancing Girl, was released in 1917. However, while the original helped to create the German silent horror era, this film was considered one of the early examples of a horror spoof, a comedy in which a horror actor (Wegener) wears his Golem costume to a party, in the hopes of catching the attention of a dancer. Sadly, both films disappeared over time, leaving only a few traces of their existence here and there. What we do know is that Wegener was not happy with production compromises that plagued his 1915 film, prompting him to work with co-director Carl Boese and writer Henrik Galeen to restore his original vision with a new version, one that was part-remake part-prequel (and not, as suggested, based on the 1915 Meyrink novel). That vision would be recognized with 1920’s The Golem: How He Came into the World (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam), the only one of the trilogy that has survived.

What Is ‘The Golem: How He Came into the World’ About?

Image Via Paramount Pictures

The film opens in the Jewish neighborhood of medieval Prague, where Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) predicts that dark times are coming for them. The prediction becomes realized when Florian (Lothar Müthel), a knight in the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, brings news that the community will be forcibly removed. The news prompts the rabbi, in an effort to save the community, to bring his secret creation, the Golem (Wegener), to life using sorcery… and the summoning of the demon Astaroth. Now alive, the Golem accompanies Loew to the palace, where the creature terrifies and intrigues those in the court. When the palace begins to crumble, Loew orders the Golem to prop up the ceiling. With disaster averted, the Emperor (Otto Gebühr) pardons the Jews and calls off the planned removal.

Loew returns to the community to spread the good news, but upon returning to his home he notices that the Golem is acting strangely. Turns out that Astaroth will soon possess the Golem and attack the people, so Loew shuts him down. Unfortunately, Loew’s assistant (Ernst Deutsch) finds Loew’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) in bed with Florian and reanimates the Golem to have the knight removed. Only the Golem is now full-on Astaroth, and proceeds to kill Florian, set fire to the home, and rampage through the streets. Loew performs another spell that exorcises Astaroth, and the now-docile Golem leaves the ghetto, only to find a kind, unafraid little girl. He picks up the girl, who, fascinated by the life-giving amulet the Golem wears, removes it, rendering the Golem lifeless.

How Did ‘The Golem: How He Came into the World’ Become Lost in History?

Image Via Paramount Pictures

The film was very popular, even spawning off its own direct sequel, 1936’s Le Golem from French film director Julien Duvivier, a cringe-worthy affair with cardboard sets, iron bars made of rubber, and a Golem that looks like a fat, middle-aged man with anger issues (so, Homer Simpson). Its influence is easily seen in the Universal monster films of the 1920s/1930s, particularly Frankenstein. It is also one of the pioneering films of German expressionism, with the likes of Nosferatu and F.W. Murnau’s Phantom. But the film, often confusingly shortened to The Golem, is rarely cited, lost in the acclaim that is afforded the German horror film that preceded it by a few months: Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the film that Roger Ebert cites as the first true horror film.

Prequels would pop into the world of film off and on since then, before entering what could arguably be described as its Golden Age at the onset of the 21st century, with films like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Cruella, and Paranormal Activity 2 deepening the on-screen mythology of the franchises they’re associated with. But despite the fact one will never see the first two films in The Golem trilogy, it would do your inner cinephile well to take in this touchstone moment in the history of filmmaking.

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