The Golem (1920) [German title: Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt kam] is based on the legend of Rabbi Loew of Prague, a 16th century rabbi who is said to have made a man from clay and brought him to life to defend the Jews of Prague during a time of persecution. (The rabbi’s name has many variations. Rabbi Loew is called Rabbi Löw in the film.) The silent film was originally the third of a series, a prequel to the other two, “Der Golem” (1915) and “Der Golem und die Tänzerin” (1917). These films represent the first known sequel and prequel in film history. They were made by the German actor and filmmaker Paul Wegener, who also plays the part of the Golem in the films.
The film offers us an origin story for the “Golem,” a creature from Jewish and European folklore: According to the entry on “Golem” in the Jewish Virtual Library:
…The golem is most widely known as an artificial creature created by magic, often to serve its creator. The word “golem” appears only once in the Bible (Psalms139:16). In Hebrew, “golem” stands for “shapeless mass.” The Talmud uses the word as “unformed” or “imperfect” and according to Talmudic legend, Adam is called “golem,” meaning “body without a soul” (Sanhedrin 38b) for the first 12 hours of his existence. The golem appears in other places in the Talmud as well. One legend says the prophet Jeremiah made a golem However, some mystics believe the creation of a golem has symbolic meaning only, like a spiritual experience following a religious rite.
In this version of the Golem tale, Rabbi Löw of Prague studies the stars and determines that a disaster is about to befall the Jews of the Prague Ghetto. He fashions a man out of clay, and uses magic to force a demon to reveal the magic name that will enliven the creature. He has a terrified and somewhat inept assistant, Famulus, who watches and faints. Famulus is in love with the rabbi’s daughter, Miriam. When the Holy Roman Emperor sends his junker [knight] Florian with a message to Rabbi Löw that the Jews are to be expelled from Prague, Florian and Miriam make eyes (and more) at one another. Thus two colliding plots are set in motion: the rabbi will use the Golem to save the Jews, and Miriam and Florian hatch a plot for their illicit romance.
There is a wonderful sequence in the palace when Rabbi Löw puts on a magic show for the Christian court. He waves an arm and produces what amounts to a movie about the patriarchs, playing on the walls of the throne room. In the early 20th century, on another continent, Jewish movie moguls were doing exactly the same thing: was this in the mind of the filmmaker?
The Golem was seminal for so many films that follow, that the images in it have a haunting deja vu quality. What may seem trite to a modern eye is, in fact, source material. Watch for visual connections to such varied films as Metropolis, King Kong, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia, (in fact, several sections in Fantasia), Frankenstein, The Corpse Bride (and other images in Tim Burton films), and Iron Man. In Iron Man, the imagery is connected through the artwork of the original Marvel Comics books, but the connection is nonetheless quite striking, and the concept of a large fabricated “man” that can either save the day or wreck the world is pure Golem.
Taking off the filmgoer’s hat and putting on the rabbi’s kippah, The Golem is a true horror film: it is fearful, horrifying, and terrifying in its tantalizing ambiguity. The film was made in Germany between the two World Wars, a time when Jewish life thrived in Germany, and Jews believed themselves to be integral and respectable members of German society.
This enormously popular film portrayed medieval Jews in a seemingly accurate and sympathetic light: they were locked in the ghetto, living in poverty, dependent on the good will of the monarch for their very existence. Rabbi Löw feels responsible for his people: he studies the stars as a modern rabbi might watch the local news for signs of trouble, and when he believes disaster is imminent, he takes action. His daughter is a beautiful young girl who falls in love with the wrong man. His assistant is young, handsome, and clumsy. So what’s the trouble?
First, there are troubling details: for instance, the magic word that the rabbi inserts into the Golem’s amulet is written in Latin letters, not in Hebrew. It’s a bad transliteration of “emet” [truth] (which an Ashkenazi Jew would have pronounced “emes,” anyway). Various Jewish symbols are dragged in apparently at random: the shofars look odd and are blown for odd reasons, palm fronds are waved for a celebration at the wrong time of year (and where would they have gotten them?) liturgical details are all wrong, and so on. These are stage Jews, like the “Africans” in old Tarzan movies are stage Africans.
Looking more closely at the film, the Jews are also portrayed as the menacing Other: their scenes are lit darkly, and the Rabbi summons demons to give him powerful magic words. Look closely at a still image from the film, and the Jews other than the principals have stereotypical hooked noses, some of which look fake.
Beautiful Miriam is a lusty woman in contrast to the chaste and innocent Christian women in the film who shrink from the Golem and the rabbi. She bats her eyes at Florian, and when he puts his hands on her, she reciprocates. When he proposes that he visit while her father is out, she welcomes him and the film makes clear that they have sex. She is portrayed as a dangerous, lustful woman whose beauty will lure a man to his death.
Even the stereotype about Jews and money makes a brief appearance, when Lorian bribes the gatekeeper with coins to let him sneak into the ghetto: the camera lingers on the grasping hand of the man, reaching for piece after piece of silver.
Paul Wegener was no Nazi. He was an actor and a pacifist, interested only in telling his stories. He was a great filmmaker, and this film is worth seeing for many reasons. It truly was a seminal piece of film, which any student of film should see. It is also worth studying by the student of anti-Semitism, precisely because Wegener had no axe to grind: he was simply telling a good story, using images that he thought would captivate. What those images reveal about the hearts of his audience, however, may be truly chilling.
Questions for Discussion
- What do you think of the portrayal of Rabbi Löw? Was he a good man, or a scary one, or both?
- What do you think of the depiction of the Christians in this film? Good guys, bad guys, both?
- Which figures in the film are truly innocent?
- Are there any “bad guys” in this film?
- What do you think of the Golem figure? What does the scene with the rose in the throne room convey about the character? Is he a character, or is he simply a machine?
- Do you think that The Golem is an anti-Semitic film or not? Why?
The Dybbuk was also made in Europe, just 17 years later, and it also deals with a tale from Jewish folklore. However, it is a Yiddish film made by Jews. Compare it to The Golem, a film based in Jewish folklore, but with Jews as the exotic Other.
Links for Further Reading:
- NY Times Article: The Golem in Prague Today
- Paul Wegener: Man or Monster?
- Kinoeye article on Der Golem
- Gelbin: Narratives of Transgression (An academic argues that The Golem is not an anti-Semitic film.)