Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"The Golem" -- A Silent Film

"The Golem: How He Came Into the World" (Der Golem, Wie er in die Welt Kam) is a 1920 silent film by Paul Wegener, a German director. It's a mixture of  the classic Golem legend with additional conventions of silent movies and German cultural references.

The Golem in Wegener's version is made by sorcery, using a book titled "Necromancy" and spells and rituals that don't have much connection to Jewish lore, though the walls are sometimes covered with Hebrew words.  Rabbi Loew fits the stereotype of a sorcerer or a witch more closely than that of a medieval Jew -- for example, indoors he wears no hat.

In the street, all the Jews wear pointy hats like traditional witches, but also wear the circular badge that was one of the marks required by medieval Jews. (Hitler's reintroduction of the star-shaped badge was a few years in the future, so it's not a reference to that). Their image is negative -- though there may be a bit of sympathy for their impending exile, announced by the emperor. The Jews gather in masses, blow huge shofars, engage in breast beating and hand waving which all do at once, and seem pretty out of control sometimes.

I felt as if the stereotypes were mixed together. In the more Jewish versions of the story, the spell that makes the clay statue turn into a living Golem is a dangerous imitation of God's creation of Adam by breathing life into a clay man; Rabbi Loew wrote the word "Emet" (Hebrew for "truth") on the creature's forehead (or sometimes on a paper under his tongue).

In Wegener's version, the spells are executed more as if by traditional witchcraft or black magic. The final bit of magic that creates life in the Golem is to place a paper with the word "Emet" in a star, which is fastened on the Golem's chest. The Jewish version decommissions the Golem by removing the first letter (aleph) from the beginning of the word Emet, changing it from "truth" to "Death." The film version has small blonde children pull the star off of his chest, making a happy ending in which the children are no longer endangered by a creature who has become a dangerous and angry murderer.

In the film, Rabbi Loew has a daughter, Miriam. Beautiful Miriam falls in love with Florian, a knight who brings rolled up parchment messages from the Emperor to Rabbi Loew. Like in Ivanhoe, The Merchant of Venice, and other stories, the "Jewess" is a temptress -- beautiful, forbidden, enchanting. Miriam falls for Florian, lets him into her bedroom, doesn’t resist like Rebecca or marry like Jessica, daughter of Shylock. The end result is disastrous for Florian -- the rabbi's assistant discovers them in bed and has the Golem throw him from a tower.


The plot is complicated -- the Rabbi and some of the Jews, threatened by the edict of expulsion from their Ghetto, are invited to bring the Golem to entertain the Court. They show hallucinatory images of "Ahasuarus the Wandering Jew" which appear to be like movies projected on the wall. The rabbi warns them not to speak or laugh, and when of course they do, the roof starts to fall, and the Golem must hold it up like Samson in the Philistine palace, shown below.

I've tried to stick to just talking about the content of the movie. The visuals are impressive in early-silent-movie style, like the works that appear in the currently popular film "Hugo" about the early silent film-maker Georges Melies. Studio sets with slight special effects, high contrast between light and dark images, and in the reissued edit of the film from 2000, hand-tinted scenes (based on a surviving copy of the film) so that the entire color changes constantly.

Trying to understand the film historically, I've read a bit of analysis in the book The "Jew" in Cinema: From The Golem to Don't Touch My Holocaust by Omer Bartov.

"The Golem is not an overtly antisemitic film," Bartov writes. "On the contrary, in some ways it is sympathetic to the plight  of a community threatened by the power and whims of an arbitrary and frivolous ruler." Though Wegener, who directed and played the role of the Golem, later became an "Actor of the State" in Nazi Germany, here Bartov believes he was only reflecting "existing notions about Jews" and further popularizing them, providing stereotypes that have driven large numbers of films and filmmakers subsequently. The three main themes that emerged and lasted, says Bartov, are Jews as malevolent outsiders, anxiety about Jewish transformation, and obsession with sexual relations between Jews and gentiles. (p. 3)

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