Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Golem: The "Wandering Jew"

Golem-blogging, essay 17 of 21 

The "Wandering Jew"

The fleeting Jewish stereotype:
Bribing a greedy servant in
The Golem (1920).
“Although The Golem (1920) does not have a profound Jewish sensibility – and in fact is distinctly Germanic in its romantic obsession with death and destruction – it is true to the story, the invention of a powerless people who imagine for themselves a savior whose unholy creation leads them into even greater peril…

The Golem features one fleeting negative Jewish stereotype: a greedy servant who is bribed by (Florian) to bring Miriam his letter. But (Florian) is by far the most sinister and foolish character in the drama, which generally conveys sympathy for the predicament of the Jews and respect for the power of their teachings.”

                                                     Quoted from 
                                                     The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies: 
                                                     A Critic’s Ranking of the Very Best 
                                                     by Kathryn Bernheimer

Bernheimer’s four-page write-up on The Golem is largely complimentary, while acknowledging the areas where the movie diverges from Jewish tradition.

The scene that Bernheimer singles out as a negative Jewish stereotype is suggestively offensive. The Jewish gatekeeper’s fingers reach through the door, feeling for the money that Florian is offering. The emphasis on the grasping fingers is exactly that which is seen in the most stereotypical performances of Shakespeare’s Shylock or Dickens’ Fagin. Fortunately for the movie, this scene lasts only for a few seconds and it is the only suggestion—in a full-length movie centered on a Jewish community—that any of the characters is unusually greedy. The absence of further scenes speaks louder than the inclusion of one.

Nevertheless, I think Bernheimer missed another stereotype of Jews, which is also presented in a somewhat offensive way. When Rabbi Loew summons up his vision of the wanderings in the wilderness for the imperial court, the vision is climaxed by the approach of “Ahaseurus, the Wandering Jew,” as he is identified in the intertitle. The character is played for comedy. The court’s reaction—laughing uproariously at this character (against the Rabbi’s strict admonition not to talk or laugh)—brings down a seemingly divine judgment on the palace. 

An intertitle identifies, "Ahaseurus, the Wandering Jew."

The Wandering Jew is a popular medieval concept, but it is a Christian conception that historically plays into Christian persecution of Jews through the ages. According to legend, the Wandering Jew was a man who taunted Jesus on his walk to Calvary and was then cursed to wander the earth until the Second Coming. From at least the 17th century, the name of Ahasuerus has been associated with the Wandering Jew. This story has been picked up by artists in virtually every medium, from Dumas to Shelley to Dore to Wagner. 

Detail of "The Wandering
Jew" by Gustave Dore.
Until the late 19th and early 20th century, the Wandering Jew was exclusively an image perpetuated by non-Jewish artists. Jewish artists avoided it. Certainly a medieval Rabbi Loew would not summon it as an image “so that you may better know our people.” But Jewish artists eventually did explore this concept, mainly using it as a symbol of the diaspora.

That’s not how The Golem uses it. Rabbi Loew’s projected image of people wandering in the desert isn’t invested with any narrative significance until the Wandering Jew appears. He seems to be there as comic relief, but his presence really just seems strange. It raises questions: Did Rabbi Loew know that this character was going to appear? Did he anticipate that a comic character would appear, tempting the audience to laughter against his warning? Was this done intentionally in order to threaten the people in the imperial court and force the emperor to withdraw the edict against the Jews in exchange for saving their lives? The scene is ambiguous. Judging from the one closeup of Rabbi Loew after he hears laughter in the court, he looks genuinely alarmed and troubled, as if this was not a deliberate setup of his choosing.

Nevetheless, this “Wandering Jew” episode is weak and a poor choice for a catalyst to move the plot forward. Fortunately, it sets up one of the strongest scenes, as the court is threatened by destruction and the courtiers reluctantly accept the Golem’s heroic intervention. Throughout the movie, the Golem often appears almost like a piece of surreal architecture, so it’s appropriate that one of the central images of him is as a pillar holding up a roof, in a beautiful triangular composition that brings the Jewish and Christian communities together in a shared moment of crisis. 

The mighty Golem.
Watch The Golem (1920):
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© 2011 Lee Price

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