Movie. The Golem, 1920.

Posted by T on January 03, 2008
By Title, Judaica, Movies

Original German: Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (“Golem: How He Came Into the World”). This is an early silent masterpiece. It is a telling of the most famous golem-legend, which takes place in Prague during the Elizabethan period. Using astrology, kabala, and invocation of an evil spirit, Rabbi Judah Löw (Albert Steinrück) succeeds in animating a clay model of a man. With this Golem, Löw is able to defend the jews from persecution by the Empire; in addition, the Golem (played by Paul Wegener who also directs) is marshaled to kill the Gentile lover of the rabbi’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova).

This is an early expressionist silent, magnificently done and relatively easy to watch. It is less than an hour and a half long. A new sound track is appropriate and clear. In keeping with the expressionist movement, the sets are virtual works of art. The ghetto especially is an astonishing interlocking of houses, arches, fountains, and walkways that lends an organic cohesion to its visual projection. Handling the camera was Karl Freund, the prolific virtuoso who much later did Key Largo and capped his career with the I Love Lucy series.

There is another reason to both enjoy and study this film, however. Understanding the Golem story, along with its presuppositions and ramifications, is essential for understanding what the Judaica is all about, at two levels:

1. The Golem is brought to life by linguistic manipulation of the magic of the universe. The method is consistent with a major common theme of many anti-biblical religions, namely, finding the inner principle of the universe and unlocking it for one’s personal advantage. golemThe kabalistic school emphasizes the verbal key: power resides in the very use of words, if one could only discover them. Like all judaic doctrine, the kabala couples to the Bible, but only as an occult perversion. Here, when God said “let there be light,” it was not so much his inner and unique creative power commanding light into existence, so much as his use of the right words: if we could repeat the verbal performance, we could create light equally well. Second, Adam was created from the dust of the ground, and Jehovah breathed life into him. Thus, the jewish master figures that he can create life by use of words informed by insight into the deep coupling meanings. (This magical and creative use of deep insight expressed in words that give divine power is closely related to the strange phenomenon that we see repeated again and again: the jewish atheist that worships and reveres his own tribe. The jew is an atheist in respect to the sovereign God of the Bible, but strictly speaking he is not an atheist. The jewish people itself is god; ultimately, “I the Jew” am God.)

2. The Golem symbolizes a standing warning to all goyim that deadly force will be exercised against anyone that crosses the jews. The genius of this deadly force is that it would be very difficult if not impossible to trace liability to any particular jew.

This film can hardly be taken as neutral in respect to the relation of jews and goyim. The question, however, is whether it is “anti-semitic” or anti-gentilic. I wish to summarize the textual evidence for each of these views, without delving into the historical background of the film. Backgrounds are often ambiguous in any case. The question cannot be resolved simply by identifying the tribal ancestry of the writer, producer, or director: any of these could have loyalties or be manipulated contrary to their ancestral heritage. To the text itself, then.

To sustain the anti-semitism charge, one would have to point to the sorcery that is rampant throughout, climaxing in the literal invocation of the pagan evil spirit Astaroth. However, if sorcery is what makes the depiction negative toward jews, it should be noted that it is only negative on the Christian ethical presupposition. Christians follow the Bible’s prohibition of magic arts, astrology, necromancy, and invocations; but by the presuppositions of the jewish kabala, these are not necessarily bad things. The message of the film would thus be:

if Christianity true, then judaism bad

and only by each viewer adding the minor premise, “Christianity is true” would the anti-jewish thesis follow.

The only problem is, if Christianity is true, and the consequence follows, then the consequence is a true one as well, and cannot be written off by some label like “anti-semitic.”

On the other hand, if the film is anti-gentilic, it is not so much to demonize the goyim as (1) to mock them as prejudiced, petulant, self-indulgent, and hypocritical, and (2) to fire a warning shot across the bow: don’t mess with us. The qualities of (1) are revealed especially in the royal court sequence in Act 3. The edict of expulsion presents serious charges, but all is quickly forgiven to save the court’s own sorry skin. And it is easy to miss the significance of the fact that the jew-Golem pair saves them from a disaster that was brought on by the Moses-projection lunging from the conjured screen in retaliation for the goyim laughing at him and calling him “Ahasuerus the Wandering Jew.”

Theme (2) is developed in a variety of ways.

In Act 4, Löw is informed by astrology and secret texts that the Golem will turn against its master if held too long. But he is distracted by news of a temple meeting before being able to smash the Golem back to dirt. His Assistant exploits this opportunity to sic the monster on his rival, the knight (Lothar Müthel) who, when he delivered the emperor’s decree, had the misfortune to fall for the rabbi’s daughter. The Golem kills the knight, but then takes a shine to the girl. (No fewer than three times [Acts 3, 4 and 5], girls seem to have the ability to inspire a glimmering of true humanity in the Golem.) Note that a complex meme is planted thereby: the Golem becomes charming and a bit cute at the very moment that he has ruthlessly killed the goy that dared to mingle with the jewish princess.

Of course, the Golem also inadvertently sets the house on fire, and this might seem to render his place ambiguous vis-à-vis the jews. However, this is not so. The fire gives the rabbi yet another opportunity to make an invocation that quells the fire, garnering yet more praise for saving his people. Moreover, the instrumentality of the Golem in wreaking vengeance produces plausible deniability – “see, even we have suffered from this monster!”

The complex meme is reinforced in the climactic scene of Act 5. golemWhile running away from his master and the burning house, the Golem peeks through the jewish gate and observes a group of beautiful Aryan children at play. He goes out to see them; all the children scatter in fright except for one tiny girl. He picks her up fondly, and she innocently plucks the amulet from his chest, killing him. Then the jews catch up with him and proclaim they have been saved by Jehovah for the third time in one day, and carry the Golem back through the gate, which shuts, ending the movie.

This final act is rich with ambiguities, which however are consistent with the anti-gentilic theme. It would seem, for example, that the Golem has turned against his jewish master and joined the Aryans, who imbue him with life (and, unfortunately, death). This is not the case, however. The jews rejoice that they have been saved a third time (by the Golem being disabled); but they carry it triumphantly back into the ghetto. Their lethal projection of force into the Aryan community is thus always in the form of a deus ex machina in their favor, yet for which they are not responsible. As if to say, “we’re watching your children; and don’t mess with us, or else!”



5 Comments to Movie. The Golem, 1920.

  • Moreover, the instrumentality of the Golem in wreaking vengeance produces plausible deniability – “see, even we have suffered from this monster!”

    Perhaps the Golem stands for jew created, monstrous ideologies like Marxism, liberalism, anti-racism, et cetera.

  • My understanding is that Kabbalah (the real thing, not the trendy business that fleeces Madonna and others) is practised only by a tiny fraction of the Jewish population, and is held in deep suspicion even by portions of the Orthodox community.

  • Adam — But if their fellows pulled off a golem, they would not turn them in (unless the golem harmed them). “Deep suspicion” is one thing; I’ll pay attention when a public renunciation takes place.

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