Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Golem as Metaphor

Golem-blogging, essay 5 of 21:

Political interpretation:  The strong man as savior in The Golem).
The Golem as Metaphor

My preferred way of looking at The Golem (1920) is as a monster movie, with no hidden agendas. But like many fantasies, The Golem lends itself to allegorical readings. Cathy Gelbin’s excellent essay “Narratives of Transgression, from Jewish Folktales toGerman Cinema” suggests three different possible approaches to The Golem:  first a political, then a religious, and finally an artistic interpretation.

The political interpretation: Apparently, this reading stems from Siegfried Kracauer and his well-known book, From Caligari to Hitler. Gelbin says that Kracauer “perceived the resentful Golem as reflecting Germans’ grudge against their international ostracism after World War I, and as anticipating the rise of the Nazi dictatorship.” The strong man comes to power as a savior and then goes out of control. Or to put it into a neat equation: the Golem = Hitler. If intentional, it would have been extraordinarily prescient of Wegener and crew to foresee all this in 1920. For me, the really fascinating thing about this idea is that it has the Jewish ghetto representing all Germany. It seems a little farfetched to me, but I can see how the movie could resonate with genuine feelings of post-war ostracism among the German people. Were some teenagers in the audience—the  up-and-coming Nazis of the future—identifying with the unfair discriminatory treatment directed towards the Jews when they watched this movie in the early 1920s? That would be ironic indeed.

The religious interpretation: God molds man out of clay in Genesis. Then man rebels against God. Fascinated by the God/Adam and Rabbi/Golem parallels, Argentinian genius Jorge Luis Borges wrote a poem called “The Golem.” Borges’ golem is a disappointment to his creator, never even finding the strength to become a true monster. He mimics the rabbi’s devotions and can’t even master the simple task of sweeping of the synagogue.

The end of Dr. Moreau in
Island of Lost Souls (1932).
When Hollywood mad scientists emulated God ("He meddled with things that man was meant to leave alone" is the classic line), they were invariably punished for their impudence.  However, the lessons of Borges and Hollywood don't fit comfortably with the 1920 Golem.  In the movie, Rabbi Loew's motives are pure, his intentions are good, and he is knowledgeable enough to understand the risks of his project.  In this, he functions more as a God surrogate than as an example of a person who dares to play God, like a Dr. Moreau or a Dr. Frankenstein. The movie never mocks or condemns Rabbi Loew.

The artistic interpretation:  The molding of the clay is an artistic act, and the artist breathes life into his creation.

Molding the golem's clay
in The Golem.
Rabbi Loew is the artist, and the Golem is his sculpture. Once the work is finished, it takes on a life of its own, and the artist watches impotently as the public misinterprets the meaning, purpose, and actions of the thing which he created.

Of these three approaches, the religious seems most helpful to me, and most likely the only one of them that may have intentionally crossed the minds of the filmmakers. Here’s Borges again, in a translation by James Honzick:

     In his thirst to know the knowledge of God
     Juda permutated the alphabet through complex variations
     and in the end
     pronounced the name that is the Key

     the Door, the Echo, the Guest, and the Palace,
     over a mannequin shaped with awkward hands,
     teaching it the arcane knowledge of
     symbols, of Time and Space.

                                                 Jorge Luis Borges

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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