Printer-friendly version of this article
Narratives of transgression, from Jewish folktales to German cinema
Paul Wegener's Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World, 1920)
In this astute historical and textual analysis of Paul Wegener's German
Expressionist classic, Cathy Gelbin argues that Der Golem "bears out the tension between the ethical particularities of the Jewish Golem tradition and its universalising employment, which now highlights the Jew as a problematic figure."
Between 1913 and 1923, the renowned stage actor Paul Wegener (1874-1948) directed and performed in a number of pioneering films of German art cinema, including Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, 1913), Rübezahls Hochzeit (Rübezahl's Wedding, 1916) and three Golem films.
The first two renditions of the Golem legend, Der Golem (The Golem, 1914) and Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancer, 1917) transferred the story into the present. They are less remembered today. It was Wegener's third version of the material—this time recreating Jewish folk tales in a period setting—that became the highlight of his acting career, and that made its mark on cinema internationally.
With its focus on the magical and uncanny, visually translated into the deeply symbolic sets and expressionistic lighting, Wegener's 1920 Golem picture exemplifies the director's conception of film as a medium of art, as well as the thematic and stylistic features of early German cinema at large.
From Jewish Mysticism to German cinema
The term "Golem" first appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Psalm 139:16 it connotes a shapeless mass, perhaps an embryo, while a derivative of the root in Isaiah 49:21 refers to female infertility. Medieval Jewish mystics adopted the term to describe an artificial man created via Cabbalistic ritual.
A Polish-Jewish folk-tale tradition centered around the creation of a Golem arose around 1600 and made its way into German literary Romanticism two hundred years later. Writing in the age of Jewish emancipation, Christian authors such as Achim von Arnim, ETA Hoffmann and others used the Golem to reflect the common perception of Jews as uncanny and corrupt. A second Jewish folk-tale tradition attributing the making of a Golem to the sixteenth-century Rabbi Löw of Prague developed around 1750. This tradition came to dominate the German literary imagination at the end of the nineteenth century and has informed most Golem renditions since.
Many fictional accounts, including Gustav Meyrink's Der Golem (The Golem; first published in 1915), bore hardly any resemblance to either the Cabbalistic or the Jewish folk-tale traditions. Wegener's film follows the folk tales around Löw more closely, though some critics cite Meyrink's famous novel as inspiration for the film. However, it is much more likely the case that Wegener's Der Student von Prag and his first Golem film, both released before the publication of Meyrink's novel, inspired Meyrink's novel. The latter certainly bears some interesting similarities with Wegener's Student von Prag, with Prague providing the scenery for the uncanny doppelgänger motif in both works.
Wegener was aware of the city's Jewish history, recreating its old Jewish cemetary for some of the scenes in his 1913 film. The grave of Rabbi Yehuda ben Betsalel, the historic Rabbi Löw, bears one of the few legible and well-preserved tombstones in this cemetary, and has remained a magnet for visitors throughout the centuries.
Working with other famous actors from Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater, such as Albert Steinrück as Rabbi Löw and Ernst Deutsch as his Famulus (servant), Wegener's 1920 film portrays Rabbi Löw's creation of a Golem to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution. During an audience with the Emperor (Otto Gebühr), the Rabbi—trying to appease the Christian ruler—projects images from Jewish tradition onto an imaginary screen.
The disrespect shown by the Emperor and members of his court thwart the Rabbi's magic, causing the images and finally the entire palace to collapse in on itself. Only the Golem, played by Wegener himself, is able to save those present by supporting the falling beams with its giant body. Gratefully, the Emperor repeals his order of expulsion. Upon their return to the ghetto, the Rabbi decides to lay the increasingly disobedient and threatening Golem to rest. A love story between the Rabbi's alluring daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) and Florian (Lothar Müthel), the Emperor's messenger, develops alongside the creation and ensuing rebellion of the Golem. Knight Florian bribes his way into the ghetto while the Rabbi is at the palace. Back in the ghetto, the Famulus—who is also in love with Miriam—discovers the presence of the stranger, revives the Golem and tells it to seize the intruder.
An orgy of destruction follows. The Golem kills Florian, drags Miriam away and sets the ghetto aflame. Then its steps outside the dark streets into the sunlight, smiling happily for the first time. A blonde girl playfully offers it an apple. Lifted up by the smiling Golem, the curious girl pulls out the amulet, leaving the Golem defunct at last.
An anti-Semitic film?
Earlier critics focused on the film's universal aspects, such as its aesthetic features, or its socio-historical relevance. Siegfried Kracauer, for example, perceived the resentful Golem as reflecting Germans' grudge against their international ostracism after World War I, and as anticipating the rise of the Nazi dictatorship.
The current critical reception of Wegener's Golem, however, oscillates between praise for the largely empathetic and historically accurate portrayal of medieval Jewish life on the one hand and charges of anti-Semitism on the other. For example, while Dietmar Pertsch discusses the film in its visual context, noting that it largely escapes the anti-Semitic iconography of Jewish figures in concurrent European theater and cinema, Paul Cooke considers the film an example of cinematic anti-Semitism.
It is obvious, however, that Wegener's film largely refrains from the denunciatory visual representation of Jewish difference at the time. Friedrich Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), for instance, highlighted the vampire's profile with its large hooked nose as the unmistakable sign of the racialised Jewish body. Furthermore, money, that powerful signifier of the alleged Jewish dominance over the world, plays practically no role in Wegener's construction of the Jews.
Abstaining from the dominant Shylock tradition of the cruel and money-grubbing Jew, the bribing of the pain-bent and emaciated gatekeeper of the ghetto by the arrogant Knight Florian instead exposes the Christian dominance over Jewish people at the time. In reversing the notion of the Jews' financial hold over the Christian, Der Golem effectively undoes the most dominant anti-Jewish stereotype since the Christian Middle Ages.
While it is true that the Rabbi's wielding of a Pentagramme in the creation scene evokes the negative Christian association of Jews with sorcery, Jewish folktales themselves portray the Golem as a work of magic. Löw's appearance in an embroidered white hat during the animation of the Golem likens the Rabbi to a wonderous magician, indeed a divine creator like the Hebrew deity, rather than the satanic witches present in anti-Semitic discourse. Also tellingly, this is not the pointed infidels' or witches' hat that was historically enforced on medieval Jews and is shown in other scenes together with the discriminatory yellow badge to convey a sense of historical accuracy.
Furthermore, the filmic evocation of Goethe's Faust – that work viewed as the pinnacle of German classical literature – casts Jewish themes as the stuff of high culture. Astaroth, the spirit revealing the secret word that animates the Golem, appears as a Mephistotelian image; and like Faust, Rabbi Löw is assisted by a Famulus. The reversal of the master-servant relationship forged between Faust and Mephisto, and Rabbi Löw and the Golem respectively, further render Löw a Faustian figure.
Wegener's film casts Löw as a symbol of the artist and the unstable implication of his products. The theatrical references of the film, including the performance of accomplished Reinhardt actors and the highly artistic sets, challenged the concurrent dismissal of cinema as a medium of low culture.
The Golem in turn postulates the autonomy of all creation, including the work of art, and warns against its idle uses. Like the Rabbi's moving images, the Golem represents a transgression against the Biblical prohibition to make an image, which necessitates the collapse of both creations in the Jewish Golem tales.
The film bears out the tension between the ethical particularities of the Jewish Golem tradition and its universalising employment, which now highlights the Jew as a problematic figure. According to the anti-Semitic accusation Jews could create only flawed works of art. This charge reverberates in the association of Löw with the challenged medium of film.
In another reversion of traditional anti-Semitic motifs, Löw and his creations signify the positive difference between "authentic" art and its shallow correlatives in the Christian realm. It is the Christian court that epitomises the negatively configured desire for cheap mass entertainment with the jester as its symbol, unable to appreciate the sublimity of Löw's artistic creation.
Crisis of gender
The Golem figure ties together multiple narratives of transgression in the film. The sequential interweaving of the Golem's creation and Miriam's involvement with the Knight suggests a parallelism between the monster and the woman as rebellious children figures of the Rabbi. Itself a transgression against divine decree and of the "natural," the Golem signifies the potential for unlawful "hybrid" creation in Miriam's liason with the Christian.
At the same time, the Golem serves as an ambiguous metaphor for the destructive consequences of untamed male desire and of masculinity as the re-ordering principle. The film's message ultimately is conservative, calling for a reinstatement of the sexual, ethnic-religious and gendered bounds it initially undermines.
Compared to the representation of Löw as an artist, Wegener's gendered images of Jews and Christians fall more along the lines of stereotypical discourses on the Jew. The visual contrasting of gesticulating Jews (appearing as masses of black-clad old men) with young and fair Christians revisits the Christian association of Jews with darkness, and the notion of the Jew as prone to hysteria.
Anti-Jewish stereotypes also mark the portrayal of Miriam as the dark and seductive Jewish woman, while Christian women at the court shy away from the Golem's advances. Even more strongly, the blonde girls at the end of the film signify innocence and virginity, though the apple implies the danger of temptation emanating from all femininity.
Yet the polarity between the images of Jewish and Christian women is blatant. Outside the ghetto walls, the Golem sees a mother and child bringing flowers to a statue of the Virgin Mary and her baby Jesus. Significantly, the name of the Christian Madonna represents the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Miriam.
The Jewish woman thus exemplifies the destructive allure of the female sex unless restrained by Christian chastity, domesticity and maternity. The soulless Golem equally contrasts with the naturalised image of mother and child who are bathed in light and aligned with the Christian world. This construction evokes the claim by Tertullian that "the soul is by nature Christian," an assertion still cited in the Twentieth Century.
Whether intended or not, however, the juxtaposition between the motherless Golem and the Christian Messiah also reopens the question of the latter's unclear paternal origins. The visual association between both figures implicitly parodies the assertion of Christianity as "natural," a term hardly descriptive of the immaculate conception.
As Matthew Biro suggests, the cyborg in Weimar art often represents alternative models of masculinity. Although Biro does not include the Golem in his exploration of figures of technology, the Golem can be classed among the wider theme of the artificial anthropoid that dominated the 1920s German screen.
The Golem's monstrous urge for Miriam echoes both the consummated desire of the Christian Knight and the violent frustration of the Famulus which leads to Florian's destruction. In configuring the disintegration of male desire from restraint to enaction and rape, the android represents the crisis of masculinity brought on by the allure of the Jewish woman as the quintessential "New Woman."
Revisiting Miriam's monstrous transgression on her, the Golem finally turns into a tool to reinstate the patriarchal order and its ethnic-religious confines. It is now that the Famulus assures Miriam that he will forgive her and keep the secret of her misdemeanor. The "New Man" thus inadvertently requires a woman whose potential for transgression titillates, but who ultimately is bounded both sexually and ethnically.
The legacy of Der Golem
The imprint of Wegener's Golem can be found in a number of later films with android and monster figures. Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) appears as a modernist Christian version of the medieval Jewish theme of the Golem. In Lang's film, the engeneer Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), his name bearing Jewish implications, creates a destructive female cyborg as the alluring doppelgänger of the virtuous and Madonna-like Maria (Brigitte Helm).
This narrative construction seems inspired not only by Wegener's contrasting of Jewish and Christian female figures, but also by Achim von Arnim's 1812 story Isabella von Ägypten, the first German literary text to feature a Golem. Other film monsters influenced by Wegener's Golem, namely its physique and racialised love drama, also reappear in James Whale's Frankenstein (1937), and Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's King Kong (1933).
It is less known that Veit Harlan's anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß (Jew Süß, 1940) invoked Wegener's Golem film, which older German audiences still would have remembered. Where Wegener's film closes with an image of a Star of David, Harlan's film opens with this image as if to present itself as a sequel.
Again, Rabbi Löw is seen star-gazing, this time a morally corrupt and physically deformed man in contrast to his aestheticised potrayal in Wegener's Golem. To create the impression of factual accuracy, Harlan shot key scenes portraying the alleged infamy of the Jews in Prague's Old-New Synagogue, where the historical Löw officiated and is said to have preserved the remains of his Golem.
Despite its slippage into stereotypes, it would not be fair to charge Wegener's film for its exploitation to justify a state-sanctioned genocide. Rather, it foretells the failure of the Jewish dream of assimilation when, in leaving the ghetto walls, the Golem figure signifies the search for an autonomous Jewish self within the Christian-Jewish constellation. Its tragic destruction anticipates the deadly ending of this Jewish dream between 1933 and 1945.
However, in the Jewish folktale tradition the Golem is also a figure of return, awaiting revival in the days to come. Wegener's Der Golem similiarly enjoys renewed popularity among today's German audiences, while a number of post-war Jewish artists are drawing on the Golem to declare the re-emergence of Jewish life in Germany. Undoubtedly, Wegener made a significant contribution to the enduring popularity of the Golem, both in German culture and internationally.
Printer-friendly version of this article