What Exactly Is a Golem? Beast of Jewish Folklore Getting Feature Film Reboot After 100 Years
Since we recently announced that Dread Central Presents acquired our first original feature film, The Golem, directed by Doron and Yoav Paz (JeruZalem), it seemed like the perfect opportunity to delve into this obscure and complicated manifestation.
No, a Golem isn’t a relative of Gollum, aka Sméagol, the pitiable villain from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit; a Golem is a protective avenger from Jewish Folklore discussed in The Talmud and other mystic texts, a beast molded from clay and animated through a complex series of rituals.
Stories of Golems being created and controlled were popular in the 16th and 17th Centuries when rabbis would summon them to protect ghettos from anti-Semitic intruders. An article in Moment Magazine states: “The Golem is a highly mutable metaphor with seemingly limitless symbolism. It can be victim or villain, Jew or non-Jew, man or woman—or sometimes both. Over the centuries it has been used to connote war, community, isolation, hope, and despair.”
Though the exact methods for bringing a Golem to life are still shrouded in secrecy (and differ according to which text you examine), an enduring component of the legend has to do with the final step necessary to bring an inanimate hulk to life. The Jewish Virtual Library explains: “[Most] sources say once the Golem had been physically made one needed to write the letters aleph, mem, tav, which is ’emet’ and means ‘truth,’ on the Golem’s forehead and the Golem would come alive. Erase the aleph and you are left with mem and tav, which is ‘met’, meaning ‘death’.”
Bringing a Golem isn’t the only difficult part of the process; controlling a Golem could be extremely challenging, to say the least! Some sources say the creature was manipulated by a rabbi and his congregants dancing around the beast while chanting mystical incantations. Others say the rabbi needed to perform a complex numerological ritual that included invoking the “secret” name of God while walking backward. With all of these minute yet integral details, it’s easy to understand why creating a Golem wasn’t something taken into lightly. Failure to complete even the smallest aspect of the ritual could have devastating consequences.
The most famous Golem in popular culture is The Golem of Prague; supposedly created by Rabbi Judah Loew in the late 16th Century, the avenger beast was summoned to protect his congregants from accusations of “blood libel”, a popular anti-Semitic belief that Jews used the blood of Christian Babies to make unleavened bread. In this particular case, The Golem was also somewhat enslaved, forced to perform acts of intense physical labor.
Of course, things went sour, with The Golem running amok and turning on those he was summoned to protect. Some say Rabbi Loew incapacitated he beast by changing the word on its forehead from “truth” to “death”; other accounts say The Golem escaped into the wooded outlands–where he still lurks in the shadows to this day.
The story of The Golem of Prague was (somewhat) immortalized in a couple of silent films, released in 1915 and 1920. First came the film Der Golem written, directed by, and starring Paul Wegener. It tells the story of a 20th Century antique dealer who finds Rabbi Lowes’s Golem in the ruins of a decimated synagogue. In this reimagining, The Golem is brought to life for the purpose of menial service before falling in love with the dealer’s daughter. When his amorous advances are spurned, The Golem goes on a murderous rampage.
In 1920, Wegener created what may well be the first example of a horror movie prequel. This time, Der Golem was subtitled Wie er in die Welt kam which translates to How He Came into the World. This one took moviegoers back to 16th-century Prague, recounting and popularizing the tale of Rabbi Loew’s misadventures with sorcery. In the film, Loew controls The Golem by writing his bidding on a piece of paper and placing it in the monster’s mouth. Though it added cinematic elements to the story that weren’t cultivated from Jewish Folklore, Wegener’s Golem movies gave us an enduring and iconic character still recognized today.
Even people who have never heard of the films would likely recognize the titular anti-hero, as he featured prominently in The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror XVII chapter You Gotta Know When to Golem. When Bart finds the original Golem of Prague in Krusty’s basement, he uses its powers to exact vengeance on Springfield’s infamous band of bullies.
For an incredible, in-depth examination of Golems and their impact on art, I highly recommend viewing the video below produced by DW Documentaries. It’s extremely enlightening; even most of us who were raised Jewish never learned about Golems in Sunday School (believe me, I would have remembered). And I had no idea Golems continues to be a recurring motif, appeared in Hebrew folklore for centuries while continuing to captivate modern thinkers. For example, the documentary takes a look at California artist Joshua Abarbanel who regularly creates Golem replicas out of wood. A point that continues to resonate with me is the assertion that “Golems know more about humans than we know about ourselves.”
“With fascinating images from the Israeli desert, Prague and Silicon Valley, this film takes an exciting journey through 2,000 years of cultural history that the age of artificial intelligence and robots has done nothing to diminish. Filmmakers Torsten Striegnitz and Simone Dobmeier meet artists and scholars who have a very special relationship with this most prominent of Jewish legends.”
Indeed, the idea of creating something from nothing taps into many primal fears that propel everything from sci-fi stories of A.I. to Gothic tales of interloping into God’s territory (like Frankenstein). It’s a one-way ticket to “The Uncanny Valley”, a state of mind that keeps us looking over our shoulders at dolls and mannequins—fearing they could spring to life at any moment.
When Epic Pictures co-founder Shaked Berenson spoke to Deadline about The Golem, he noted the underserved market that films cultivated from Jewish folklore can tap into—not to mention grabbing the attention of American audiences craving something they haven’t already seen a million times before.