Monday, October 31, 2011

The Golem: How to Kill a Golem

Golem-blogging, essay 21 of 21

Part One, How Not to Kill a Golem

You can cook a Frankenstein monster to death, as in Abbott and Costello
Meet Frankenstein
(1948), but not a Golem.  Clay enjoys being fired in
the kiln.  It emerges stronger.

You can kill a werewolf with a silver bullet fired by the one who loves
him, as in House of Frankenstein (1944), but not a Golem.  They have
no vital organs to aim for--it's clay all the way through.  Not to
mention, no one loves a Golem.

Oh, that's just silly.  You can't kill a Golem with a crucifix.
(Image: Peter Cushing improvises a crucifix in Horror of
Dracula (1958).)

In The Golem (1920), Florian thinks maybe you can kill a Golem with
a dagger.  He's fatally in error.

Part Two, How to Kill a Golem

Rabbi Loew writes down
the magic word.
According to most Kabbalah sources, Golems are clay men that are brought to life through ritual, including the inscribing of the Hebrew word “emeth,” meaning truth, on their foreheads. To kill a Golem, you smudge out the first letter, leaving the word “meth,” meaning “he is dead.” As with much Kabbalah wisdom, words and letters are vitally important.

For some reason, The Golem (1920) abandons this wordplay. The filmmakers use the German translation, “aemaet,” and lose the wordplay in the process. Maybe it would have been too convoluted to explain in an intertitle, but the loss is unfortunate as the idea is a central element in the Golem legends.

The Golem breaks the gate that
separates Jews from Christians.
Instead, Wegener and company opt for an entirely original scene, where the Golem’s rampage is stopped by an innocent little girl offering him an apple. It’s a lovely idea, beautifully executed.

Various critics have suggested that there’s lurking anti-Semitism in the destruction of the Golem by an Aryan child, rather than by a Jewish agent. This idea puts the emphasis on Aryan, rather than child, which is likely a mistake. When the Golem first goes out shopping in the Jewish ghetto,
The smallest of the children
brings down the monster.
the shots emphasize the Jewish children, who are both fascinated and fearful around the Golem. They scatter if he gets close, but keep peering back to get a closer look. When the Golem breaks down the gate and enters the Christian area of the city, the children react in precisely the same way. They are not portrayed as more attractive or wiser than the Jewish children were earlier. The point of both scenes lies in how innocent children react and not on the ethnic background of the children.

Innocence kills the beast here, just as 13 years later, beauty would kill the beast in King Kong (who, similarly, breaks down massive gates). Unlike the Rabbi’s and Famulus’ attempts to grab the amulet off the Golem’s chest, the girl’s actions are playful, performed without knowledge of the possible consequences of playing with the amulet. The Golem visibly enjoys her playfulness in his last moments of consciousness. There’s a genuine link between the innocent child and the recently-born giant. His fall is very different from the original concept (the link between truth and death), but it is easily as poetic and visually stunning in the contrast between inhuman giant and tiny child.

Children gather around the Golem, returned to lifeless clay.
Watch The Golem (1920):
Purchase through Kino International
or at Amazon,
rent through Netflix,
or sneak a peek at YouTube.

© 2011 Lee Price

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Golem: A Celebration of Judaism

Golem-blogging, essay 20 of 21 

Rabbi Loew gives thanks to God at the end of The Golem (1920).
A Celebration of Judaism

The Golem at the
Most people assume that the little girl is solely responsible for stopping the Golem. This assumption says more about the primacy of current secular worldviews than it does about the actual content of the movie.

When the Jews gather for prayer near the beginning of The Golem (1920) and during the fire scene at the end, the movie grants them much respect. Just compare the dignity of these scenes with the shallow frippery of the scenes at the imperial court. The movie is as fascinated by prayer as it is by magic, and the entire narrative takes place in a world where spiritual forces are very real and to be respected.

This is why I think we are expected to accept the Rabbi’s final statement at face value. He tells his people to thank Jehovah for saving them three times that day, referring to their salvation from the imperial
edict, salvation from the fire that
The Rabbi reunited with his daughter.
threatened to engulf the entire ghetto, and salvation from the threat of the rampaging Golem. God receives credit for all three deliverances. In the context of a movie deeply steeped in the world of prayer and the supernatural, I don’t think this should be lightly dismissed. In the Rabbi’s mind, God’s plan was worked through the girl. At this point, the Rabbi is the spokesperson for the film itself, much like Carl Denham when he delivers his final, conclusive word on Kong (“Twas beauty killed the beast.”).

In fact, the movie dissolves from the Rabbi and his people to its concluding image, the Star of David. The filmmakers weren’t Jewish but I think they were deeply fascinated by Judaism as a form of exoticism. They were acquainted with currently popular occult books and were fascinated by the whole idea of the spiritual world intersecting with reality. I think they welcomed this imagined fantasy world of Kabbalistic Judaism as a truly exciting way to view the world.

That final image of the Star of David serves to underscore the Rabbi’s openly expressed statement of faith. It ends the film triumphantly with an image that celebrates Judaism, both as a religion and as a culture capable of generating wonderful stories such as this one. 

The closing shot of 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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Golem: The Famulus

Golem-blogging, essay 19 of 21 

Ernst Deutsch as Famulus in The Golem (1920).
The Famulus

Before beginning these Golem essays, I was unaware of the word “famulus.” I assumed it was just the servant’s name—not a job description. But it is a word as well as a name, and that’s why some critical writings on The Golem (1920) refer to “the famulus” as opposed to his proper name in the movie, Famulus. And a famulus is defined as a private secretary or attendant, usually the assistant to a scholar or a magician.

In The Golem, this particular famulus is named Famulus.

Blissful in Miriam's bedroom before the Golem
comes knocking.
Famulus ends up with the heroine, so if this is a textbook fairy tale, we might assume that he is the hero. I am deeply uncomfortable with this reading of the movie, and love the movie’s ambiguous presentation of Famulus. As I’ve mentioned before, the stock identities, hero and heroine and villain, are very fluid in The Golem. Florian acts mildly villainous throughout, but in his final moments, he shows some heroism, attacking the Golem with a knife in an effort to protect Miriam as much as himself. And he is the victim in this scene, in a movie that always identifies with the victim. He sleeps with the heroine, but I don’t see any visual condemnation of their tryst. They both look pretty blissful in the pre-Raphaelite setting of Miriam's bedroom.

When Famulus discovers that Florian is in Miriam’s bedroom, his jealousy becomes palpable and he swiftly changes tactics, rushing off to reanimate the Golem. From the standpoint of both plot and images, Famulus is now the villain and Florian and Miriam are the sympathetic characters. It could conceivably be argued that Famulus is only the villain to the extent that Mickey Mouse is the villain in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment in Fantasia (and the parallels are considerable, with the sorcerer in Disney’s movie even moving much like Rabbi Loew when he summons magical forces). But Mickey is sympathetic because his motivation is a very innocent curiosity and ambition; it is much harder to sympathize with a jealous character in a love triangle.

Jealous Famulus; angry Golem.
Famulus triggers the Golem’s rage when he restores the clay to life. Famulus’ jealous renders him indirectly responsible for Florian’s death. Furthermore, Famulus becomes indirectly responsible for the fire that spreads through the ghetto, destroying the Rabbi’s house. He has a lot to answer for.

Miriam, draped across a rock
by the Golem.
Julie Adams draped across a rock
in The Creature from the Black

In his last scene, Famulus has a private moment with Miriam. She has been abandoned by the monster, draped across a rock in a time-honored horror tradition that would later memorably include Julie Adams in The Creature from the Black Lagoon and many others. Famulus asks her: “Can you forgive?” Then he says that all evidence of Florian will be lost in the fire, and that he will never tell.

Famulus and Miriam, a couple
with secrets.
My response is: Beware of this relationship, Miriam. You are setting yourself up for a lifetime of blackmail. Forgive him if you want, but then walk away. Quickly.

But the movie ends with the implication that Miriam takes the bait. I don’t see this as a “happily ever after” ending at all. It’s intelligently and pleasantly complex, leaving you with that sour, uneasy feeling that you sometimes get from the best of Hitchcock.

A side note: The actor playing Famulus is Ernst Deutsch. He's okay in the part, often playing very broadly but no worse than the other actors around him (excepting Wegener's magnificent performance). Deutsch went on to a very successful career as a film actor, eventually moving to Hollywood where he played Nazis, doctors, and decadent aristocrats. If The Golem wasn't enough to ensure him of screen immortality, he can also claim a memorable performance as Baron Kurtz in another of my all-time favorite movies, The Third Man (1949).

Ernst Deutsch, 29 years later, as Baron Kurtz in The Third Man (1949).

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

© 2011 Lee Price

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Golem: Expressionist Monsters

Golem-blogging, essay 18 of 21 

Expressionist Monsters:
Part One, The Halloween Collection

Some Halloween ideas for fans of the great German expressionist monsters.

Golem with trick-or-treat basket.  The Golem costume
can be easily assembled by borrowing skirt, blouse,
pentagram, and very wide belt from mom and thoroughly
scrubbing them with a mixture of clay and water. Leave
overnight to harden. Workboots and wig are essential
and should be treated similarly.

Count Graf Orlok looking for the door. It requires some advanced makeup
technique to transform a typical human face into the rat-like visage of
Nosferatu's vampire. Start with a normal zombie pancake foundation
(white or grey) and embellish with excessive eyeliner, clip-on Spock
ears, a bald cap, and rat teeth. A Matrix-style trenchcoat, preferably
dusty from long storage in the attic, can suffice for the costume.

Cesare eyes the candy. You can cheat with Cesare the
Somnambulist (resident of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) simply by
taking a readily-available store-bought Edward Scissorhands
costume, leaving off the scissorhands, and calling yourself
Cesare instead of Edward. After accepting candy while out trick-
or-treating, graciously treat your benefactor to a prediction of
the hour of his or her death.

Something for the ladies: Assembling the full-body robotrix outfit from
Metropolis requires a full team of certified costume technicians, but its
stunning appearance is well worth the trouble.

Expressionist Monsters:
Part Two, Shadows in the Night

The shadow of Max Schreck as
the vampire in Nosferatu (1922).
German expressionist monsters are great. They dominate their movies, leaving the other performers in the dust. Three particularly memorable monsters are played by Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Max Schreck in Nosferatu (1922), and Paul Wegener in The Golem (1920). From these three movies, Werner Krauss in Caligari is the only actor to offer the monsters any acting competition, and he does it through a prototype mad scientist role. To this list, I could add Brigitte Helm as the memorable false Maria in Metropolis (1927). She receives admirable support from its mad scientist character, played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, but no one else is having any acting fun in the futuristic city. Good means dull
in this world, and even Brigitte Helm bores when she’s the nice Maria.

This isn’t always the case with monster movies. Many are spiced with memorable supporting performances. In classic Universal horror movies like The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale populated his landscapes with whimsical character actors happily chewing the scenery. But that’s not the case in most German expressionist horror films where the majority of the actors broadly play their roles, often resorting to the stock clichés of the silent era. And (although it may be shallow of me to point this out) the leads don’t even compensate for their lack of acting skills by being attractive. Sorry, but Florian and Miriam in The Golem are a singularly unattractive couple (although I’ll grant Miriam that Florian may start to look attractive when his only competition is Famulus!). Similarly, when watching Nosferatu, I’ve never located the supposed charms that compel Orlok to stay with Ellen Hutter till the cock crows.

But the monsters… they are to die for.

Max Shreck as the vampire realizes his time is up in Nosferatu.
Paul Wegener’s performance as the Golem is inspired. There truly is something otherworldly about him—that makes him seem more animate clay than living man. When he first awakens, and the camera gazes at him in closeup as he slowly looks around the room, he appears to be a genuinely newborn being, seeing the world for the very first time.

Wegener’s swaying walk emphasizes his sheer bulk, making him appear both monstrous (in size) and childlike (in clumsy gait) at the same time. When Famulus takes the Golem out on a shopping trip, Wegener has the Golem pause for a moment when he first steps out onto the city street. A faint smile plays across his face, suggesting a dawning emotion of delight at the sunny world. Boris Karloff would take this further in Frankenstein, particularly when he reaches to catch the rays of light, but the basic idea is already present here in 1920, and it’s handled very subtly.

Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of
Dr. Caligari
Conrad Veidt set a new standard for monster performance in Caligari. Wegener retained the other-worldliness with his Golem but added an unexpected layer of humanity. And two years later, Max Schreck would strip the monster/vampire of all humanity—making him into a contagion of evil—in Nosferatu.  Together, these three make a grand triumvirate of German expressionist horror at its greatest.

Wegener's Golem demonstrates his monstrous strength.

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

© 2011 Lee Price

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):
Purchase through Kino International
or at Amazon,
rent through Netflix,
or sneak a peek at YouTube.

© 2011 Lee Price

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Golem: The Cocteau Connection

Golem-blogging, essay 16 of 21 

Jean Marais as Orpheus in Jean Cocteau's Orpheus (1950) will descend into
the underworld through a mirror.
The Cocteau Connection

Paul Wegener in The Student of
(1913) signs his mirror
reflection away to a devil-like figure.
Truthfully, I’ve found no Cocteau connection. At least, not yet. I’ve skimmed through the Jean Steegmuller biography of Cocteau and come up emptyhanded. I’ve done Google searches of +Cocteau and +Golem or +Cocteau and +Wegener. But nothing interesting googles up.

Yet there must be a connection. Surely, Cocteau was a Wegener fan when he was a young man. When Cocteau was 24 in 1913 and The Student of Prague was an international hit, Cocteau must have seen it. After all, he loved movies and fantasy. How could he have missed it? A hit movie about doppelgangers and mirrors? Perhaps these images went deep, only to re-emerge years later in fascinating variations in The Blood of a Poet (1930), Beauty and the Beast (1946), and Orpheus (1950). Could Cocteau’s art have its roots in Wegener’s fantasies?

Well trained by the monster movie books I’ve devoured, I’ve always only associated The Golem (1920) with Frankenstein (1931). Even though Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast has been one of my favorite films for nearly 40 years—just about as long as I’ve loved The Golem—I never thought about the two in conjunction before.

Astaroth in The Golem.
 But watching the creation scene in The Golem, with the smoke streaming from the mouth of the demon, I was suddenly struck by the similarities between Astaroth and the mysterious faces on the columns in the Beast’s castle—the faces that exhale smoke. The lighting is so similar, with the faces and the smoke juxtaposed against a plain black background.

In fact, the feel of both movies, the way that both celebrate primordial images that seem wrenched from the subconscious (the world of the fairy tale), is startlingly similar.

Weird characters exhaling smoke
in Cocteau's Beauty and the
I have a strong feeling that Cocteau loved the movies of Wegener when he was a young man. Sometime I’ll find the reference that will nail it, some diary reference where Cocteau confesses that watching a Wegener movie changed his life, suggesting some of the most potent imagery of his great films and convincing him that film was a medium that could capture deeply personal visions of mysterious other worlds.

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

© 2011 Lee Price

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Golem: Seeing Stars

Golem-blogging, essay 15 of 21 

A Star of David before it becomes superimposed over an image of
the Golem's face in The Golem (1920).
Seeing Stars

The Golem's and his
five-pointed star.
The Golem (1920) opens with stars, as Rabbi Loew surveys the sky to foretell the future. Miriam’s dress has a star pattern when she is first introduced. At the opening of the second chapter of the movie, we see the night stars first, dissolving to the Star of David, and then dissolving to the Golem’s face. And stars figure prominently in the Golem creation scene, with Rabbi Loew first waving a star within the magic circle to summon the demon Astaroth and then placing the magic word in the star amulet that is mounted on the Golem’s chest.

But I’ve always been confused watching the movie because the stars switch around. With our first view of the Golem, we see the entire screen filled with a Star of David which then dissolves to a closeup of the Golem’s face. I always assumed that this six-pointed Star of David is the same as the one on the amulet that brings him to life. But it’s not.

The amulet is a pentagram, a five-pointed star.

There are some historic links to five-pointed stars and Jews. Traditionally, the five-pointed star is usually shown with its point upwards. This point-upwards pentagram has some historical associations with Kabbalah and alchemy and was sometimes used as a symbol of nature or wisdom in medieval synagogues.

The hand of a future victim
shows the sign of the pentagram
in The Wolf Man (1941).
When inverted (two points up) and sometimes placed within a circle or double circle, the pentagram becomes an occult symbol popularized in the 19th century by Eliphas Levi, a French author and magician. Levi connected it with an image of a goat’s head, the two ears of the goat forming the two upper points of the star. Much later, in the 1960’s, Anton LaVey and his Church of Satan would adopt this inverted pentagram goat’s head, or Baphomet, as a central symbol. But the pentagram had gained a reputation as a symbol of evil well before LaVey. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak was well aware of its reputation when he scattered references to pentagrams all through The Wolf Man in 1941.

So… at last, we have an opportunity to gain some clear insight into the intent of the filmmakers, right? Inverted pentagram – a symbol of evil. Traditional star – historically appropriate symbol. This should be easy.

Roll the film… The Rabbi places the amulet on the Golem’s chest, point upwards, and then he gives it a twist. This leaves the star midway between point up and inverted. It’s completely ambiguous. Read it whichever way you choose.

Removing the Golem's star.

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

© 2011 Lee Price

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Golem: Karl Freund

Golem-blogging, essay 14 of 21 

Atmospheric Karl Freund composition from
The Golem (1920).
Karl Freund

Karl Freund
directing in 1932.
By the time he was hired by Paul Wegener to work on The Golem (1920), cinematographer Karl Freund was a thorough-going film professional. Born in 1890, Freund grew up with the film industry, starting as a projectionist at the age of 15, shooting news reel footage at 17, and moving on to narrative films by 1912. When assigned to The Golem, he was the most respected cinematographer working at Germany’s UFA Studios, the largest of the German studios.

A few years later, Freund would receive acclaim for his innovative elaborate camera movements in The Last Laugh. But despite the bravura work on The Last Laugh, Freund rarely allowed his camera work to take center stage in his movies. He could do nearly anything if requested by a director, but he seems to have tended toward a much more self-effacing style that established mood economically and told a story clearly.

The camera moves several times in The Golem, but not often. The images are beautifully composed but static. Perhaps this was intentional—to reinforce the storybook feel of the material.

In The Golem, I love the deep black backdrops that often exist behind the characters in the foreground. This is especially evident in the creation scene. When the Rabbi creates his magical circle, all the background details of the room vanish and we are suddenly in a world of darkness, broken only by the Rabbi and his servant, the magical smoldering circle, and the appearance of the demon Astaroth. The deep black background that silhouettes the mask-like demon Astaroth very effectively reinforces the magical, other-worldly quality of the scene.

There are many other beautiful compositions: the cat running along the rooftop almost in silhouette, Miriam leaning out of her window to catch a glimpse of the approaching knight, and the Golem in tight closeup as he looks around his new home for the first time. Even without a moving camera, Freund is already a master at his work.

Cat on the rooftop.

Golem with glowing eyes.
There is one fun little trick that showed up memorably later in Freund’s career. When the Golem first awakens, his eyes seem to glow. Just like… the infamous wandering light that was supposed to reflect off Bela Lugosi’s eyes when Freund filmed Dracula in 1931. Truthfully, it worked better the first time around. 

Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931).

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

© 2011 Lee Price

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

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Golem: Shapeless Clay

Golem-blogging, essay 12 of 21 

Rabbi Loew shapes the clay in The Golem (1920).
Shapeless Clay 

“Golem is the Hebrew word for ‘shapeless mass.’ In the Bible (Psalms 139:16), a form of the word describes mankind before creation: ‘Thine eyes did see my substance (galmi), yet being unperfect.’ In the Talmud, the revered collection of Jewish civil and sacred law, the word denotes anything imperfect or incomplete. Unconscious Adam, initially a body without a soul (neshamah), is referred to as a Golem. From this usage comes the Golem of medieval legend.”

-- from the “Note” at the end of the children’s 
   book Golem by David Wisniewski 

Like the Golem, Adam in the Book of Genesis is born of clay. Before God breathes a soul into the clay, the shape is Golem (“shapeless mass”).

In The Golem (1920), our first view of the Golem is of a large shapeless mass of clay, stored in a corner of Rabbi’s Loew’s secret chamber. His face grim, the rabbi presses his fingers deep into the wet clay and begins forming the face. He works hard at the task, his fingers digging into the clay.

Shortly after this, we fade in to see the Golem’s fully formed face. And at the opening of the official second chapter of the movie (not the DVD’s chapters, but the second of the movie’s real five chapters), we see the starry night sky, dissolving to the Star of David, dissolving to the broad face of Paul Wegener as the Golem.

The Golem with a Star of David superimposed.

He’s not presented as a monster. The scene is not intended to be scary. But it is a wonderfully mystical scene that links the Golem first to nature and astrology and then to a central symbol of religion, as a prelude to the viewer’s full closeup confrontation with the rabbi’s art.

In Wegener’s portrayal, the Golem starts as soul-less and eventually moves toward the demonic. He never receives a proper soul.

Wegener's happiest moment as the Golem:
watching the children play.
In many tellings of Golem legends, this is not the case. Often, the Golem seems on the verge of having a soul or in fleeting possession of a precarious soul. David Wisniewski’s Caldecott-winning children’s book Golem (1996) doesn’t follow the Wegener monster story, but instead uses the legend to explore the meaning of what it is to have a soul.

In Wisniewski’s book, Rabbi Loew creates the Golem and his first words are: “Father… was this wise to do?” The rabbi responds by treating him as a soul-less servant, whose only purpose in life is to protect the Jewish community. The Golem does his job but he discovers more to life. “The sun is rising,” he says. “The sky changes from black to blue. It is very beautiful.” Then, after the Golem has completed all his tasks and the rabbi is ready to change him back to inanimate clay, the Golem looks at the setting sun, and says, “Father, will I remember this?” It is very clear that this Golem now has a soul, even as the rabbi sends him back to “a dreamless sleep of clay.”

Great legends are like that, offering a prism of enchanting interpretations. I love the 1920 movie version very much, but there’s much life in this legend yet and themes to be explored that the movie barely touches.

Postscript:  After writing my 2007 draft of this essay, my friend Dan Kocher gave me the book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Dan thought I’d enjoy the book’s fascinating insertion of the Golem legend into the world of 1940s comic books with their superheroes and Nazi villains. Dan was right.  I loved the book, and it definitely serves as another illustration of my claim that there’s life in the old legend yet.

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

© 2011 Lee Price