Monday, October 17, 2011

The Golem: The Occult and Orientalism

Golem-blogging, essay 7 of 21:

The Occult and Orientalism

Rabbi Loew studies the stars in The Golem.
Google The Golem (1920) and you’ll easily find comments criticizing the movie for being anti-Semitic. Most of this criticism is nonsense.

The first ten minutes of The Golem establish the character of our Jewish heroes while explicitly addressing the wrong-headedness of Christian prejudice against the Jews. This means that the opening is explicitly anti-anti-Semitic.

Using classic movie grammar (far shot to medium to closeup), The Golem opens by introducing the protagonist, Rabbi Loew, on his rooftop observatory. In the first intertitle, he is referred to as the “revered Rabbi Loew” and the intertitle goes on to establish the looming crisis that will propel the narrative: “…Rabbi Loew reads in the stars that grave misfortune threatens the Jewish community.”

This opening assumes that viewers will: 1) accept that astrology and Kabbalistic Jewish mysticism are realities in this movie’s fantasy world and that only wise men are able to read the mystical signs, and 2) accept that the community represented by the Rabbi does not deserve “misfortune.” There is also a floating assumption, missed by many writers on this movie, that the viewer will not be offended by references to the occult and mysticism. Actually the movie is clearly targeted for the audiences that were open to the weirdness of Caligari and that made Meyrink’s Golem novel a huge success just a few years before. This audience would not assume that occult = evil, but would be fascinated by the suggestions of supernatural influences in the world.

Miriam, the Rabbi's daughter.
In swift movie shorthand, we’re introduced to the flirtatious semi-romance between Famulus (Rabbi Loew’s assistant) and the Rabbi’s daughter, Miriam. The Rabbi tells them of his astrological discovery, and the Rabbi and Famulus rush off to see the community elder, the Rabbi Jehuda. Then the community gathers for their response: prayer and lamentation before a Menorah.

The hero of The Adventures of
Prince Achmed
In these scenes, the characters are presented as exotic, in the “Orientalist” style popular in paintings of the 19th and early 20th century. Miriam, in particular, is depicted in an Orientalist style, with her large earrings, flowing dress, and ambivalently flirtatious attitude. This is not a presentation that suggests evil, anymore than audiences would be expected to view the heroes of Orientalist entertainments such as The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) or The Thief of Bagdad (1924) as evil. There’s no ethical/religious judgment here. Orientalism and heroism often go hand in hand. See Shakespeare’s Othello for an early exercise in Orientalist heroism--an example which is actually mildly relevant to the tangled relations between ethnic groups depicted in The Golem.

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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