Monsters! The Golem

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? That’s the easy part — to save the Jewish community of Prague.

WHAT IS THE MONSTER? The Golem is a creature made out of clay and brought to life through the power of "the dark arts."free stats

WHAT IS THE WARNING? On the surface, the warning is no more complicated than "There is no easy solution when it comes to self-protection," but underneath there are a whole bunch more interesting, and disturbing, things going on.

Rabbi Loew, who is a kind of a sorcerer as well as being a community leader in the Jewish ghetto in 16th-century Prague, sees in the stars one night a terrible portent of doom for the Jews of Prague. He doesn’t know what form this threat will take (or at least he doesn’t say so), but he quickly sets about creating a Golem, a kind of extra-large Gingerbread Man made out of clay.

Meanwhile, the local Emperor issues a decree to have the Jews expelled from their ghetto. For all the typical reasons — you know, klling Christ, failure to observe Christian holidays, general failure to be Christians — in short, being Jews. The Emperor dispatches a knight named Florian to deliver this edict, and Florian does so, while stopping off at Loew’s house to pitch woo to Loew’s comely daughter Miriam. In spite of Florian being a skinny, goofy-looking, sissified dandy (he literally sashays about the screen wielding a giant flower and looking bored and petulant as part of his duties as an envoy to the Emperor) Miriam is unaccountably attracted to him.

And that’s not much plot yet, but I find I must now step aside and ask where this story is going. It’s a movie made in Weimar Germany, and its protagonist is a Jew, and it seems to go out of its way to present a sympathetic portrayal of 16th-century ghetto life, and yet the first thing the filmmakers do is maketheir "soul of the Jewish community" a sorcerer and part-time necromancer, perfectly at home with employing "the dark arts" and summoning hellish demons to do his dirty work, and then they create a subplot involving his beautiful daughter with a wayward eye for a gentile aristocrat.

If the "beautiful Jewish daughter falls in love with the vain gentile aristocrat" subplot sounds familiar to you, you’re right — it’s lifted from The Merchant of Venice (the character is even named "Jessica" in an earlier, 1917 version of the movie, now lost, directed by the same director). While "The Golem" is a Jewish folktale and The Golem definitely tells the story from the Jews "point of view," it, like Merchant, nevertheless slips in a number of blatantly "Christian" lessons between the lines. What the "intention" of the movie, made when it was and where it was, I have no idea.

So Loew makes his Golem, with the help of his servant and his Big Book of Necromancy. To bring the Golem to life, Loew must first conjure a demon, who will provide Loew with the secret word that will work its magic on the clay. This demon is, weirdly, a dead ringer for Nosferatu (which wouldn’t be made for a few years yet) (a not-very-representative image of the demon can be found here).

Coincidentally, the Emperor decides to invite Rabbi Loew to his Rose Festival as an entertainment act. That’s right — no sooner does the Emperor decree that the Prague ghetto be wiped from the map than he also decides to invite that nice sorcerer Loew to his court for an evening of magic tricks. Jews, it seems, are evil, un-Christian scum — and delightful entertainers.

The Golem now lives, but apparently there is no fixed date for the pogrom, which leaves Loew with a little time to kill. He puts the Golem to work chopping wood and fetching groceries, and comedy is had with the image of a seven-foot clay man stomping, Frankenstein-like, through the streets of the ghetto with a tiny basket under one arm.

What does the Golem want? Well, on this the movie raises some interesting questions. The Golem should, by all rights, be a literal blank slate, with no opinion whatsoever regarding its own desires. It’s operated by inserting a clay star (with the magic word inside) into a receptacle in its chest — absent its star, the Golem goes stiff and keels over, useless clay. Its general demeanor is menacing, but it’s hard to say if menace is in its heart or in the minds of the people who see it. It responds positively when presented with a flower, and it seems to make basic rational decisions about how to perform automatic functions — it doesn’t walk into walls or fall down stairs. Tell it to "rescue the girl" and it sets about doing that, even though it has no real understanding of the value of "girl" or "rescue." Is there some message here about the basic principles of life, that all creatures, even if made of clay, eventually pursue an awakening of values and an ordering of stimuli?

The Rose Festival rolls around, and Loew takes his Golem to show off to the Emperor. Asked to perform a magic trick, Loew conjures a magical vision of his "patriarchs," and we see a scene seemingly out of Exodus, with scores of Jews wandering in the desert. This does not particularly impress the Emperor, and soon the whole court is sniggering and guffawing at the vision. This apparently angers Jehovah, the roof of the Imperial palace begins to steadily lower, threatening to squash everyone inside. The Emperor begs Loew to save his life, and Loew commands the Golem to hold the ceiling up, preventing its total collapse.

So this, apparently, was Loew’s plan all along — to use his sorcery as an entertainment, entertainment that eventually carries a lethal message, and then save everyone’s life with his magic clay man, thus gaining the Emperor’s gratitude and saving the ghetto.

It works like a charm, but you can see the problem here. There’s no justice in Loew’s plan, only subterfuge, "wiliness" even. We may applaud his ability to dupe the gentiles, but what about the thinking behind his original decree? Why is that left unanswered?

Worse, the Golem starts to show signs of self-preservation. It begins to protect its chest-star when Loew goes to remove it, and shows signs of inner direction. Loew reads the fine print in his book of spells and learns that the demon Astaroth will eventually take possession of whatever creation bears its magic word. Now they tell me, says Loew, and prepares to disarm his Golem.

Now then: while Loew was at the palace working his deception, Florian has come to town to pitch woo to Miriam. I’m not sure if they "do it" or not, Florian is shown sleeping on the floor next to her bed in the morning, but the intent is clear — Miriam has made merry with a gentile while her pillar-of-the-community father is out of town. Loew returns home with his Golem, now the town hero. A big celebration is thrown together at the local temple, and Loew’s disarming of the Golem is put on hold as he goes to be feted.

Loew’s servant, meanwhile, has had his eyes on Miriam for a while, and goes to rap on her door. Miriam, still with Florian, does a bad job of convincing him she’s alone, and the servant, filled with jealousy, activates the Golem and orders it to kill Florian. The Golem accomplishes this task smoothly and efficiently, but then starts to go a little haywire, as though, once murder has been introduced into its repetoire, rapine and piracy cannot be far behind. Soon the Golem has set fire to Loew’s house and dragged Miriam out to a secluded alley by her braids.

The celebration at the temple is cut short as Loew hurries home to stop the Golem-set fire from destroying the Ghetto. He intones a "fire-spell" to quench the flames, then hurries off to look for his daughter. We see the Golem gaze lustily at the unconscious maiden, but, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Golem doesn’t seem to know what comes after you’ve carried the girl to a secluded spot and laid her down on a rock. He staggers off, confused, as Loew comes to his daughter’s aid.

The Golem staggers, confused and curious, out of the ghetto gateway, where he happens upon a group of young gentile girls playing in the flowers. Most run away screaming from the hulking brute, but one tiny girl offers him — of all things — an apple. The Golem refuses the apple with a sly grin, but picks up the girl affectionately. We have no idea what his intentions are toward her, but the girl’s innocence is enough to catch the Golem off guard while she sweetly unscrews his chest star, immediately neutralizing him. Thus, the Jewish ghetto is saved from the wrath of the Golem, not by Rabbi Loew but by Anonymous Sweet Gentile Girl. The final images of the movie show Loew, "seeing the light" as it were, celebrating the Lord’s grace in delivering the ghetto from its curse, and the gentile girls playing on the corpse of the now-harmless Golem.

As you can see, this all gets a little problematic. While it’s a Jewish story, about Jews (made by and starring Germans), its intentions, how it was meant to play to its intended audience, remain mysterious to me.  A number of significant details from the original folktale have been altered, primarily Loew’s responsibility for the destruction of the Golem. In addition, the gentiles are never held to account for their anti-Semitism while the Jews are almost destroyed for the audacity of wishing to defend themselves from warantless annihilation, saved ultimately by Christian grace. There is no epilogue in The Golem showing the Jews coloring Easter eggs or Rabbi Loew coming to the palace on Christmas dressed as Santa Claus, but the message seems inescapable — if you want to avoid extinction, know your place — as entertainers.


21 Responses to “Monsters! The Golem”
  1. curt_holman says:

    1. In my favorite version of the Golem story, the Golem has the word of life written across his forehead. After it’s run amok, the rabbi reaches up and erases one letter of the word so it means “death,” and the Golem collapses, costing the rabbi his life. (You or one of your learned readers probably knows the two versions of the word.)

    2. I wonder if the “golem” inspired Tolkein to pick the name “Gollum?” I’m not sure what to think of the implications of that.

    3. Sometimes I think of self-aware/rebellious robot or computer stories as variations on the Golem legend, like, for example, the HAL 9000 from 2001.

    • Anonymous says:

      Emet (אמת) = ‘truth.’ After erasing the Aleph (which also stands for ‘1’ and is the first letter of each of God’s three names in Hebrew) you get Met (מת) or “dead.” After you create a Golem, he grows a little taller every day and the day he’s too tall for his creator to reach up and erase that letter is generally said to be the day he goes haywire.

      Borges uses the concept of “Aleph” in Kabbalah (the infinite, or sum of all points) in his short story of the same name. Warren Ellis uses it as the name of one of his few reoccuring characters in the comix series GLOBAL FREQUENCY, where it refers to a woman who is connected to countless monitoring systems and computers across the globe (there’s your HAL 9000 connection, I ‘spose).

      V’shannah Tovah, y’all!

      -Le Ted

  2. johnnycrulez says:

    Interesting sidenote: No copies of The Golem actually exist anymore. The movie everyone thinks of and sees when they think of Der Golem is actually the prequel made five years later, The Golem: How He Came To Be.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    I believe we were promised some Steve McQueen?

    Anyways, I have not seen this particular film, but I am familiar with the golem legend through a couple of books and at least two TV shows. You seem to already know this, but for any readers who aren’t familiar with the story, there are significant changes which do call into question the filmmaker’s motives. Rabbi Loew is usually portrayed as nothing more than a morally upright, particularly learned rabbi. He doesn’t dabble in any kind of “dark arts;” the process he uses to create the golem is just from a more mystical part of Judaism. There is no demon involved either. The word of power which brings the golem to life is actually the Hebrew word for “truth” written across the golem’s forehead. As you mention, Loew himself destroys the golem, but the varying versions have made the reasoning for his choice to do so a little unclear in my head. In a children’s book version of the story which I particularly like, the golem ham actually acquired a degree of sentience and self awareness which make Rabbi Loew’s decision seem rather disturbing. But I think the idea is that the golem has no soul and occupies that same awkward middle ground that zombies and Frankenstein’s monster do: not quite a live, yet not dead either. When Rabbi Loew watches the golem battle the soldiers who are coming to expel the Jews of Prague, he realizes that what he has created is a living weapon of enormous power. The golem slaughters the invading soldiers without pity or mercy. Perhaps the rabbi recognizes that it would be far too tempting to use the golem not for mere protection and self-preservation, but for vengeance and personal power. Once his community is safe, the rabbit destroys the golem by removing the first letter of the word of power from his forehead, changing “truth” to “death” and returning the golem to the clay it was made of.

    The film seems like it suffers from a heaping helping of moral uncertainty. The question may be less “what does the protagonist want?” than “who really is the protagonist?” Who exactly are we supposed to sympathize with and roots for? What meesage is this film trying to convey? It doesn’t even seem to work as an existing story with an anti-Semitic message tacked on. If that’s the case, why keep the audience and their sympathies so frequently with Rabbi Loew and the plight of his community? Why introduce Florian, who might have actually seemed charming at the time the film was made, but seem to be getting awfully familiar with a woman he is not married to? Perhaps the idea is that no one in the movie (save the Anonymous Gentile Girl) is completely innocent or good and the Golem is actually punishing them all for their wickedness in a way. But if that’s the case, the Golem’s brand of retribution seems very uneven. And the demon subplot doesn’t help either, though I do think it might explain why the Golem goes out of control after killing Fopian. If the creature is going to be possessed by a demon eventually, ordering it to do evil things may just speed up the process.

    • Todd says:

      I’m no expert on Weimar Germany, but The Golem feels to me like a well-intentioned “progressive” work of its time, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a piece of liberal art that unintentionally reveals the latent racism of its creators.

      And yeah, from the moment I put the DVD in the player I was waiting for the Golem to fight the Emperor’s soldiers, not to play an impish party trick on him.

      Sorry about The Blob, it was out at my local video store. I will not cease in my endeavors to obtain it for viewing.

      • stormwyvern says:

        Quite all right. I’m not really upset by The Blob getting pushed back (though I think it’s a better film than this one sounds like). I just thought it would be amusing to start out by mentioning it.

    • sheherazahde says:

      I see you covered all the historical referrences I would have mentioned.

      The only thing I have to add is “He, She, and It” by Marge Piercy is an interesting retelling of the Golem story. And there was an episode of The X Files that involved a Golem, s4e12 “Kaddish”

      The story of The Golem fits wonderfully into Science Fiction because it is about creating pseudo human life. The Golem was the first android.

      • stormwyvern says:

        “Kaddish” was one of the two TV episodes I was referring to, though I couldn’t recall the specific episodes title. The other is an episode of Gargoyles simply entitled “Golem.”

        I’ve also come across occasional stories of other golems from European Jewish folklore, but Rabbi Loew’s seems to be the most famous. Rabbi Loew was actually a real historical figure, which probably makes this movie all the more ridiculous,if not outright insulting.

  4. robjmiller says:

    Three cheers for moral relativism

    Perhaps this film needs to be looked at from the point of view of an anti-semetic German. If, at the beginning of the film, you already hate the rabbi and relate to the people of Prague then this film might make more sense. There are no mixed messages.

    (Assuming “we” are the people of Prague)In the film the Jews work with demons, try to trick us, seduce our nobles, screw us all over, unleash monsters upon us that kill our nobles, and the only thing that can save us is the innocence of a (presumably baptised) Christian child. Jews are bad, Christians are good, roll credits.

    • stormwyvern says:

      Re: Three cheers for moral relativism

      Hip hip hoor-never mind. I don’t feel so good.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Three cheers for moral relativism

      Except that, for its time anyway, the portrayal of Jews in The Golem, even the demon-conjuring ones, seems remarkably straight-faced and even sympathetic. If I was making a strict, anti-Semitic Golem movie, I’d make all the Jews grotesque, hook-nosed monsters, consumed with greed and bloodlust and resentful of their place. If you compare the portrayal of blacks in, say, Birth of a Nation with the portrayal of Jews in The Golem, the latter seems positively enlightened.

  5. woodandiron says:

    I’ve never seen this movie but a really awesome retelling of it is in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (which is currently my favorite novel). That book has everything from comic book heroes, Antarctic radio stations, and a golem.

  6. noskilz says:

    What I latched onto about The Golem was that misusing powerful tools tends to end badly. It also put me in mind of Robert’s Bloch’s “Almost Human” adapted for X-1 (well-meaning scientist creates a sentient robot that is stolen by gangsters who don’t understand it’s a quick study and they’re not very good role-models.)

  7. notthebuddha says:

    if you want to avoid extinction, know your place — as entertainers.

    Of course the people making the movie are entertainers – could this have been a comment on their frustrated aspirations?

    • Todd says:

      I can’t speak to that, although the movie’s director did cast himself as the monster, so there must have been some strong identification there. Although his problems in the German film industry didn’t begin for another 23 years, when Nazism kinda screwed up everything for everyone.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Der Golem

    One of the most drastic changes concerns the creation of the Golem. In the original story, it was a collaboration between three of the wisest men in the community and was undertaking requiring three days of precise recitation and construction. Here it was created by a lone eccentric and his assistant.

    My thoughts after seeing the film a few months ago were along a different line than the warning to entertainers. It was more like “Beware the Superweapons of the Desperate”

    FW Murnau lifted the Demon summoning in Faust almost entirely from Der Golem. right about 18:00.


    • Todd says:

      Re: Der Golem

      It also occurs to me that the demon-summoning Jewish mystic was probably lifted from that other Elizabethan anti-semitic classic, The Jew of Malta.