Tag Archives: Ashkenaz

The Golem

der-golemThe 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.

Commentary

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?

Double Feature

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:

The Dybbuk

DybbukThe Dybbuk (1937) is perhaps the best-known Yiddish movie.  Filmed in Warsaw and in rural Poland before World War II, it is based on a play by Sholom Ansky.  It is a ghost story on two levels:  a classic folktale about love that extends beyond the grave, and a film made in and of a world that was about to be obliterated by the Nazi invaders.

Two men, dear friends, make an agreement on Hoshana Rabbah that their unborn children will marry, if one is a boy and the other a girl.  One man is lost at sea before his son is born.  The other is stricken with grief upon hearing that his wife has died giving birth to a girl.  The pledge is forgotten, but 18 years later, the young man and woman find that they are inexplicably drawn to one another.  The father has other plans for his daughter by now: he wants her to marry a rich man.  The tragedy proceeds on not entirely predictable lines.

The Dybbuk is striking in its cinematography and its (for its time) unusual film techniques. Set in the 19th century, it has an otherworldly feel.  While its “special effects” were simple, the filmmakers managed to produce a film that is both enchanting and spooky.

Some viewers may find it distracting that the film is in Yiddish and only some lines have subtitles.  The subtitles are artfully done, giving us just enough to follow what’s going on while allowing the music of Yiddish and the vivid body language of the actors to tell the story.  At first I found this kind of captioning frustrating (“what are they saying?”)  but eventually I came to appreciate the fact that I was watching the movie, not the titles at the bottom of the screen.

The Dybbuk records a place and a culture that were about to disappear.  Within seven years, most of the actors would find their way to the United States as refugees.  One of the actors, Ajzyk Samberg, would die in the Poniatowa concentration camp in 1943.  The cantor whose voice gives the synagogue services great power and veracity, Chazzan  Gershon Sirota, would die with his entire family in the Warsaw Ghetto in the same year.  Kazimierz, the little village in eastern Poland where much of the movie was made was declared officially “free of Jews” by the Nazis in 1942.  The villagers who served as extras in the film disappeared into the maw of the Holocaust.

On a happier note, the two romantic leads, Leon Liebgold and Lili Liliana, married in real life and moved to the U.S.  Liebgold was interviewed shortly before his death for a NY Times article about the restoration and re-issue of the film in 1989.

Commentary

This is a film about that great Jewish topic, the power of words.  Two friends make a foolish pact in violation of Jewish law.  The rest of the film follows the unhappy results of those careless words.  Words are key, again and again:  it is by means of words that the young yeshiva student comes to ruin, discovering the secret codes (gematria) hidden in the names of his beloved, his father, and his own name.  The words of the wedding ceremony hold a power that is almost electric in the film.  The power of words is used for exorcism, for karet [excommunication], and for teaching via storytelling are all on display.

The film also gives a priceless opportunity to witness an authentic Hoshana Rabba service and to hear chazzanut by Cantor Sirota.  Whatever your feelings about ghost stories, this is a rare chance to visit a Hasidic rabbi’s court in the vanished world of prewar Polish Jewry.

Everything is Illuminated

EisIEverything is Illuminated (2005) is a superb film that “begins in goofiness and ends in silence and memory”  (Roger Ebert).  It begins with broad comedy, but zigzags steadily towards a wrenching drama about the connectedness of all humanity and the inescapability of the past.  It’s the tale of a man (Elijah Wood) who goes in search of his grandfather’s escape from the Holocaust, and the story of the people who help him find the story, who are mysteriously entangled in the same story.  All of these people are odd, and they regard each other with astonishment.

Everything is Illuminated is based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer (who has a cameo in the film — watch for the man with the leaf blower) and adapted for the screen by Liev Schreiber.  Schreiber also directed the film.   It won awards at a number of film festivals in Europe and South America, but some reviewers felt it did not have the scope of the novel.

The film includes some wonderful performances, particularly that of Eugene Hutz, a Romani (gypsy) musician and actor.  His band, Gogol Bordello, performs several pieces on the soundtrack of the film.  Elijah Wood, a name much more familiar to filmgoers, performs a remarkable act of tzimtzum [contraction]  in taking both a literal and a figurative backseat to the colorful character played by Hutz.

Besides the obvious Holocaust theme, the movie also takes a sharp look at Jewish identity:  what does it meant to be a Jew?

Commentary

Most Holocaust films focus on the tragedy in the 1940’s, without looking at the many tragedies that stem from those initial events.  This is a film that takes a hard look at the way that every person touched by the Holocaust is effected by it, even if he or she is born years later.  It asks questions about survival:  what does it mean, “to survive”?  Can a person live through something and not survive it?  Can a person die but somehow remain?

Two figures in the film are “collectors.”  The film does not explain why they collect things:  that is left for the viewer to consider.  What do each of them collect?  Why do you think they collect them?  Do you think they will continue to collect things, after the events in the film?

I was struck by the subtle reference to the Wizard of Oz at the end of the film.  Jonathan returns to the states, but as he moves through the modern airport, he recognizes faces that he saw in the Ukraine.  What does this mean?  Unlike Dorothy, he was not dreaming.  How are these people connected to the people he saw overseas?  How is he connected to each of them?

Jewish culture puts a high value on Zikkaron, Remembrance.  Who is remembering what in this film?  What is the value of remembrance?

Double Feature

The screenwriter and director of this film, Liev Schreiber, is an actor in another film on this list, Defiance.  Both are films about events connected with the Holocaust, but they deal with it quite differently.

Other Reviews

For a slightly different take on the film, check out this blog post.

Yentl

1yentlYentl (1983) is the film adaptation of the short story, “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” by Isaac Bashevis Singer.  It is set in a Polish shtetl in 1907, where Rabbi Mendel, a widower, is secretly giving his daughter Yentl the sort of Talmudic education that only boys were allowed to have.  Yentl has a passion for Torah, and when her father dies, she disguises herself as a boy and travels to the yeshiva in the nearest town to study.  Barbra Streisand co-wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in Yentl; work on the film re-energized her own interest in Jewish study.

It is thus far the only major motion picture that focuses on a Jewish woman living a specifically Jewish life, and raises questions about the limitations of gender roles in traditional Jewish communal life.  Yentl is contrasted in the film with Hadass, (played by Amy Irving) who conforms to the social ideal for young women, and with the men who take their life in the yeshiva for granted.   Streisand made no secret of her own personal identification with Yentl.  Just as Yentl strove to succeed in the “man’s world” of the yeshiva, Streisand saw herself striving for success in the “man’s world” of the Hollywood film industry.

Commentary

Singer hated Streisand’s treatment of his short story.   He felt that it had been over-expanded into a star vehicle, with unsuitable music and a ridiculous ending.  Certainly that is one valid point of view on the film.

However, Streisand has perfectly conveyed the passion for Torah that is at the center of the scholar’s life, that fueled so much of the development of Jewish tradition and sacred literature.  She conveys the frustration that women have felt and still feel when they are excluded from access to the highest levels of study.  While many of Singer’s complaints are valid,  her command of the Jewish details of Yentl’s life is impressive.

Double Feature

Yentl makes an interesting companion to the other big Jewish musical, Fiddler on the Roof.  They are set in the same period, they begin in the same sort of place (a tiny shtetl in the Pale of Settlement) but they depict different classes in Jewish society.  Where Tevya and his daughters are peasants, Yentl is the rabbi’s daughter and Hadass is a city girl, daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant.  How are the women’s lives similar?  How are they different?  Do you notice any other interesting similarities or contrasts between the two films?

Fiddler on the Roof

fiddlerFiddler on the Roof (1971) is the screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by the same name.  It is based on the story “Tevye the Milkman” by Sholom Aleichem, the most prolific Yiddish writer of his time.  The story is set in Anatevka,  a shtetl [village] in the Pale of Settlement of pre-revolutionary Russia, about 1910, with WWI on the horizon, although there are also details that seem to point to a time about 1883.   Topol stars as Tevye, the milkman who faces the problems of shtetl life:  finding husbands for his daughters, food for his family, and survival in the face of the crushing regime of the Czar.  One casting item of note:  the matchmaker is played by Molly Picon, one of the great actors of American Yiddish stage and cinema.

The film won three Oscars (Cinematography, Music, and Sound) out of eight nominations.

Commentary

Fiddler offers a somewhat fantasized version of the brutal life of the shtetl.  It is a touchstone for the American Jewish psyche and a prime example of laughing through tears, the hallmark of much Jewish humor.  It is also the most easily accessible introduction to the Yiddish world of Sholom Aleichem.

Most importantly, Tevye is a Jewish Everyman:  he suffers, but he endures.  His world  is crumbling:  even in the muddy shtetls of the Ukraine, modernity is changing things, changing attitudes, making history.  The old traditions are under pressure; the young people have new ideas.  Tevye is devoted to tradition, but he recognizes that some forces cannot be resisted.  In every age, the conflict between tradition and change has challenged Jews:  “what now?  How shall we maintain our traditions in this new place?” has been the cry in every age, beginning perhaps on the banks of the Nile, in Egypt.

Not to be missed!

Double Feature

There is another big American movie musical about the same period, Yentl.  It tells a story set in Eastern European shtetl and town life from a woman’s point of view.  If you choose to watch both, it’s fun to compare them.