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Arts + CultureMoviesBringing classic 'Jewish Frankenstein' film 'The Golem' to musical...

Bringing classic ‘Jewish Frankenstein’ film ‘The Golem’ to musical life

Guitarist Gary Lucas plays his eerie live score for 1920 German Expressionist landmark at the JCCSF

Gary Lucas has been making spooky music for nearly his whole life. Raised on 8mm prints of horror films like Bride of Frankenstein and Creature from the Black Lagoon, a young Lucas would use his guitar to create his own soundtracks. Later, when he met keyboardist Walter Horn, the duo would create tapes of music to play on Halloween from above Lucas’s parents’ balcony—and “wait for unsuspecting victims to show up.”

Since then, the 71-year-old guitarist has accrued an enviable resume working with art-rock luminaries from Captain Beefheart and Nick Cave to former members of the Velvet Underground. He’s perhaps best-known among music fans as a member of the late Jeff Buckley’s band. But his love of horror films and their music has never left him, and since 1989, he’s been touring a live soundtrack to the 1920 horror film The Golem: How He Came Into The World that he co-composed with Horn—which he’ll be performing at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Tue/12.

The Golem is one of the earliest and most important works of German Expressionism, the 1920s film movement whose bizarre set designs and subjective view of reality still influence horror cinema today. Directed by Paul Wegener, the film tells of the Golem, a giant sculpted from clay and brought to life by a rabbi through “Kabbalistic magic,” which would serve as the protector of the Jews of Prague until it inevitably rages out of control.

“The idea that there was a Jewish Frankenstein story spoke to me,” says Lucas, who was raised in a Jewish family in Syracuse, NY. But The Golem was not an easy film to find, and Lucas was not able to see it until 1989, when he received a commission from the BAM Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn to compose a work using “another art form” besides music. “It could have been dance or a painting,” says Lucas, “but I chose film.” 

Lucas subsequently arranged to see a print of The Golem in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. “I saw it in a little screening room and I thought, whoa, this is definitely the film for me,” he says. “Then I involved Walter Horn, and together we hammered out a score that was a mix of composition and improv, ‘cause I love improv.”

Lucas initially toured with Horn on keyboards but has mostly performed The Golem on solo guitar for the past three decades due to Horn’s schedule. He’s never played The Golem the same way twice, and he’s performed the score live in over 20 countries—including Prague, capital of the Czech Republic and the original home of the Golem.

“II wouldn’t have persisted with the project as long as I had if I hadn’t had a chance to do something with improvisation,” says Lucas. “That’s what makes it new every time.”

Along the way, The Golem has sparked all manner of debate. One trenchant interpretation came from a critic at the Venice Bienniale in 2006. “There were Italian critics at a press conference,” he says, “and one of them said—well, of course, Mr. Lucas, when you’re showing this movie now, the Golem stands in for Israel, doesn’t it?”

Lucas personally disagrees with this reading—but “people are welcome to project whatever, and they’re gonna project their own fantasies or interpretations on it. I like working with and producing art that raises questions and doesn’t provide pat answers.”

Another common point of discussion at post-screening Q&As is its portrayal of the Jewish community. While many of the major players in the film were Jewish, including co-writer Henrik Galeen and composer Hans Landberger (whose original score was re-discovered in 2018 and premiered in 2020), director Wegener was not and became a state actor under the Nazi regime, appearing in propaganda films through the 1940s. 

“Another line of inquiry or attack is from people asking why Jews were portrayed as this other [in the film]: magicians, dark magicians, you know,” says Lucas. “And I’m like—well, that’s ’cause we are. The community always pulls together and keeps going and has endured over a couple thousand years of oppression. And I think that’s admirable.”

THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD LIVE SCORED BY GARY LUCAS Tue/12, 7pm, JCCSF. More info here.

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Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield is a San Francisco native and arts journalist whose work has appeared in the Bay Guardian, San Francisco Magazine, Resident Advisor, and various music sites. He ran the SF Rebirth blog, documenting all-ages shows in the Bay Area, from 2010 to 2013. His work can be found at danielbromfield.com

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