The Golem and Me

Article topic: 
Der Golem

I appear to be here as a combination of token film studies expert, token folklorist and token Jew; and that’s not an altogether negative position to be in. I’ve had a close relationship with Wegener’s Das Golem for many years now; it has been a film which seems to follow me around. For example, I wrote the short piece on the film in the book 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die, and when I was curating the St. John’s Jewish Film Society, back in Newfoundland, Canada, it was one of the first films I screened. While only tangentially about Wegener’s Expressionist classic, one of my first published articles was on the Golem legends, particularly its manifestation in an episode of The X-Files (‘”Have I Got a Monster for You!”: Some Thoughts on the Golem, The X-Files and the Jewish Horror Movie’ Folklore 111.2(2000): 217-230). So the mud-man of Jewish folklore has been following me around for some time.

My original proposal for doctoral research was actually on the concept of “the Jewish horror movie”, a good chunk of which would derive explicitly from Jewish folklore. I never wrote that particular thesis, but the idea has never left me, and one of these days hope to actually write that book. So talking about Das Golem is accompanied by a feeling of ‘coming home’.

 

One of the aspects of this story which has always fascinated me was that it is not simply one story; there is a whole cycle of Golem legends, collected and retold by Chaim Bloch in a collection originally published in German in 1917. A few years earlier, Gustav Meyrink’s expressionist novel, Der Golem (1914), was also published – Meyrink was a compatriot of Kafka’s. So, what’s not to like? It is within this context – of German expressionist literature, art, theatre & cinema, of Jewish folklore collection and Kafka-esque angst – which Wegener’s film needs to be seen.

More articles on the same film

The Man of Clay

At almost the same time as the film was being made, another version of the golem myth was being transformed into a modern art-work. Nicolae Bretan composed a one-act opera on the topic in 1923. Bretan was the first composer of Romanian opera, being of Transylvanian origin. Based on a poem by Mihali Eminescu, ‘The Ghosts’, the opera is yet another version of a European Jewish myth that has a long history and exists in many transformations. In the opera and the poem, the focus is much more intimate than the film.

Der Golem and Vitalism

Der Golem appears, at first blush, to be very different from other roughly contemporary films – such as James Whales’ version of Frankenstein - in which “dead” matter is reanimated. For a start, it features kabbalistic magic, not science (or rather perhaps a “spectacle” of science). Nonetheless, there is perhaps more, at a deeper level, that unites the two films than is immediately obvious. Frankenstein, with its humming lab apparatus and its evocation of galvanism, and Der Golem’s depiction of the uncanny power of the Word, both depict their cinematic worlds from a vitalist perspective.