Tag Archives: Mysticism

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:

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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.

Ushpizin

200px-UshpizinUshpizin (2004) is a holiday story of faith and human foibles.  The production of the film involved an unusual partnership of ultra-Orthodox and secular filmmakers, making it an Israeli cinematic milestone.  It is a story about an impoverished couple in the Breslov Haredi community  in Jerusalem, who do not have even the money to celebrate Sukkot:  no sukkah, no money for food, no money even to pay their rent.  They take to heart Rabbi Nachman‘s saying that difficulties are a test of faith, so when things become difficult, they pray.

Abruptly, their fortunes change:  an abandoned sukkah becomes available, money arrives unexpectedly in an envelope under the door, and the husband spends a large amount of the money on a beautiful etrog (citron) which is a requirement for the holiday.  The more beautiful etrogim, he believes, make the conception of a child more likely.  Then, when all seems perfect, the ushpizin, the visitors, arrive.

Commentary

This film offers a rare visit inside the ultra-Orthodox world of the Breslov Haredim.  Critics point out that it is also a very uncritical look at that community, but there is something to be said for seeing people first on their own terms.  The story is worthy of Rabbi Nachman himself, revolving around the Jewish value of hospitality and the power of prayer.

The main character in the film, Moshe, (played by Shuli Rand) is a ba’al teshuva, a former secular Jew who has made a commitment to strict observance.  When his old life comes to visit, he is both tempted by the memories and horrified by the reality. His wife, Mali, (played by Michal Bat Sheva Rand) is determined to pass the test of heaven.  One of the more subtle aspects of the film is its examination of the delicate balances in a marriage:  how the couple support one another, and how they can also be thrown off balance by one another.

Questions

How far need one go to observe the mitzvah of hospitality?

Moshe learns that he should have asked more questions about the sukkah, yet the source of the money under the door is never questioned.  How are the two different, or are they different?

Mali is furious when she finds out where the visitors are from, and that Moshe accepted them anyway, trusting them to be alone with her.  Were you worried for Mali?  Do you think the visitors were truly dangerous?

Does God send tests?  Why?

Pi

PiPi (1998) is a daring low-budget psychological thriller written and directed by Darren Aronofsky .  Max Cohen, a mathematical genius plagued with monumental headaches, lives locked in a small apartment in New York.  The apartment is filled with a supercomputer (“Euclid”) he has built himself.  Max (played by Sean Gullette) believes that the universe can be described with a single mathematical formula, if only he is clever and persistent enough to discern the formula.

Initially, Max examines the patterns in the stock market, and has enough success using his program to predict fluctuations there that he comes to the attention of a group of sinister, well-heeled Wall Street denizens.  Later, a group of Hasidic Jews in search of the Name of God convince him to look at Torah as a “string of numbers.”  Both groups view Max as a means to an end.

Meanwhile, Max’s headaches and his internal demons rage. Aronofsky uses an arsenal of electronic music, oddball film techniques, and high-contrast black and white photography to convey the wonder and misery of Max’s world.

As the British Channel 4 reviewer writes, the film is “disturbing, exhilarating, and sure to send anyone of conservative temperament scuttling from the room.”  Definitely NOT a film for children.

Commentary  (contains Spoilers)

The search for God has been a subject of art since the beginning of art.  This is a film about a man who uses his sacred language (mathematics) to try to approach the Divine Meaning behind Creation.  It is a Jewish film for our purposes here for three reasons:  (1) Max Cohen is an explicitly Jewish main character (2)  Max is both protected and threatened by a group of Hasidic Jews seeking to identify the Name of the Jewish God with gematria, and (3) the conclusion of the film is actually quite Jewish (although I’m interested in knowing if you think so, too.)

Max is a seeker after truth who has a teacher but no real friends.  The struggle with his teacher is interrupted in the middle of the film; Max is left to find his own way alone, pursued by people who want what he might find.  Max seeks what Paul Tillich, a Christian theologian, called the Ultimate Ground of Being:  a mathematical or numerical key to Everything.  The two groups who pursue him are also seeking access to their gods:  an unspecified Wall Street firm seeks Money (and Power) and a group of Hasidic Jews seek the Power of the Name of God. Max’s pursuit seems to be purer:  he is driven to seek the key, but we never have any sense of what he will do with it.  He is frantically attracted to it, and all of his life has been subsumed to that pursuit.

In the end, Max fails to capture the knowledge he seeks, and the end of the film was described as “disappointing” by many critics.  (What did they think, that the filmmaker had the Name of God and was going to give it to us?)  I was initially let down, too, but later began to wonder about it.

Max finally is overwhelmed by the pain and his madness, and takes a power drill to his own skull.  After that scene, the next we see is Max in the park, looking at the patterns in the trees, looking relaxed and happy.  A little girl comes by and asks him to solve a bit of arithmetic:  he declines, and smiles.

I am reminded of the tale of the four rabbis in Chagigah 14b (Babylonian Talmud.)

It is the cryptic story of four Sages who “entered pardes”. The Four sages were: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha Ben Abuyah, and Akiba ben Joseph. Exactly what “entering pardes” means is a mystery. Theories include that it is: mystical ascent, or esoteric interpretations of the Torah, or Paradise.  Whatever the reality behind the event, it was catastrophic for three of the rabbis. Ben Azzai “looked and died.” Ben Zoma “looked and lost his senses.” Ben Abuyah “cut the root,” and became known only as Acher, while Akiba alone emerged whole.

One interpretation of the story is that Ben Azzai was so captivated by what he saw he could not give it up and refused to return to his body. Ben Zoma became so immersed in the mysteries he had seen that he ceased to be able to function in life. Ben Abuyah saw Metatron, an angel.  Thinking he had seen another deity besides God, he declared “there are two powers in heaven” (he became a Gnostic) and turned against the Torah.  Only Akiba, the superb scholar, was able to peek into this reality and remain unscathed.

Questions

1.  What does seeking after the True Name of God have to do with Judaism?  Is it the same as, or different from, seeking the Truth?

2.  What did you think of the depiction of the Hasids in this film?

3.  Did Max fail, or did he succeed? How did you feel about the ending?  What does it say about efforts to understand the Truth behind the Universe?