Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Golem: Archetypal Story

Golem-blogging, essay 13 of 21 

Archetypal father-and-son plot in The Golem (1920).
Archetypal Story

In Jungian theory, people of all cultures tell archetypal stories based on universally experienced situations. Unconsciously or subconsciously, we place these situations and our life experiences into pre-wired story formats with all of us working from the same pool of basic elements: birth, youth, breaking away from parents, sex, love, death, and much more. Representatives of very different cultures can find shared humanity through the medium of story because the basic pattern usually remains the same, even when the external cultural differences may appear extreme. The Golem (1920) offers a series of fascinating variations on one of these archetypal stories.

In its basic structure, the 1920 Golem movie is a tale of parent/child separation. It largely takes the perspective of the father (Rabbi Loew) who loses control of his offspring. As usual with these tales, the basic mood is one of sadness and wistfulness, rather than tragedy. The archetypal story builds on a truly universal human experience: a parent has a child, loves the child, and then must separate from the child, recognizing that the changes of time and maturity have placed the child beyond the parent’s control.

The story goes back to the beginning. It’s the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, with God as the parent, first creating, then loving, and then painfully separating.

Usually the story is told with a conventional parent-child relationship. However, there are variations that anticipate the Golem by working through this basic story outline, but with the parent represented by a creator of a different sort, usually an artist.

The created confronts the creator:
Eliza (Wendy Hiller) and Henry
Higgins (Leslie Howard) in
Pygmalion (1938).
The Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea improbably gives the story a happy end, offering a welcome break from the usual downbeat world of Greek mythology. Pygmalion carves his statue, falls in love with it, prays that it be brought to life, and then the couple lives happily ever after. George Bernard Shaw wisely realized that this story wasn’t true to its archetypal origins, and tweaked it closer to its real source. The creator and the created cannot live happily ever after. They need to separate.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein introduced the darkest variation on this story. With Shelley, it is the creator/parent who turns away from the creation, leaving the offspring wracked with the agony of separation. Frankenstein creates a living being, only to feel revulsion at the idea that his act of creation was unnatural. Like God in Genesis, Frankenstein feels that he must destroy his creation (God uses a flood in the Noah story) because it has all gone horribly wrong.

The 1920 movie of The Golem taps deep into this vein. Rabbi Loew is the father, and the Golem and Miriam are his flawed offspring (brother and sister). There is sadness in the Golem’s fall from grace and the movie captures this nicely. The movie heads inevitably down its archetypal path to a conclusion that feels more melancholy than happy.

Oh! And there's that archetypal beauty and the beast theme
running through The Golem, too!

Watch The Golem (1920):
Purchase through Kino International
or at Amazon,
rent through Netflix,
or sneak a peek at YouTube.

© 2011 Lee Price

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