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

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