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The Forgotten: Jean Kerchbron's "The Golem" (1967)

A gem-carver in old Prague becomes embroiled in murder schemes and supernatural affairs in Jean Kerchbron's extraordinary "The Golem."
Jean Kerchbron is certainly a subject for further study, or would be if his available oeuvre occupied enough space to fill out a microscope slide. He worked mainly in French television and not much of that stuff has filtered out in a way we can watch. Intriguing works include President Faust (1974), clearly a film for our times, and yet another version of Saharan exotica L'atlantide (1972), both of which seem to show the same pop-art, surrealist, expressionist design ethic as his most famous work.
Le golem ignores Paul Wegener's German epic and goes straight to Gustav Meyrink's amazing Czech novel, which uses the figure of the clay man more metaphorically than literally: but if you're looking for mysticism, mystery and magic, neither book nor film will disappoint.
The novel behaves with Lynchian dream logic, tying its splaying narrative threads together with weird recurring images and phrases rather than rational cause-and-effect, and Kerchbron's adaptation takes this even further, maybe because he's left out some of the bits that would have been harder to render on film. He does throw in a cute but slightly cardboard clay man, which I don't recall featuring in the book at all, perhaps as a sop to viewers who would be disappointed by a golem film without its titular man-statue.
But it's the set designs and costumes and photography, rather than the small gesture towards being a monster movie, that keeps the viewer's eyes glued to the screen. The crazy mod stylings of the opening, which takes place in contemporary Prague (we think), give way to a more expressionist period decor as the movie enters a dream sequence without declaring its intent to do so. Daringly, Kerchbron keeps Meyrinks' absurd bookends: a nameless first-person narrator, attending church in scene one, mistakenly leaves with a stranger's hat. Wearing it all day, he naturally then experiences the stranger's dream when he goes to sleep, which unfolds as a long and crazy memory of his days in Old Prague.
At the end of the book/film, our hero awakens and realizes he is not Athanasius Pernath, gem engraver, and seeks out this gentleman to return his headgear. He finds him, miraculously alive and unravaged by time, despite the passage of many decades between the book/film's "now" and the period covered by the dream. The kindly old fellow relays to the hero, by way of a servant, his hope that "my hat did not give you a headache."
I read Meyrink's novel in one sitting while suffering from a high fever, and it fitted my condition perfectly. And I was impressed, of course, that a story of murder, madness, miracles and mental telepathy could be triggered by a simple Laurel & Hardy hat substitution. Kerchbron's telefilm brought back my delirium and added to it an amazing gallery of haunting images.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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