The Golem: Jewish Horror on Screen
A plague is sweeping through Lithuania in the year 1670. More die by the day, and now the daughter of a village headman, Vladimir, is looking like she will be among the dead soon. However, Vladimir notices that the Jews, who live far away from the Christians in an isolated shtetl, are entirely unaffected. Like so many before him and so many after, he believes that his misfortunes are caused by the Jews, and holds the shtetl hostage until they cure his daughter. If they fail to do so, the Christians will slaughter everyone. A Jewish woman, Hanna, decides that the only way to protect her community is to create a golem, a creature made from mud described in the sacred texts of the Kaballah.
This is the setup to the film The Golem, a horror film released in 2019 by Israeli directors Doron and Yoav Paz, who had previously made JeruZalem. It stars Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg, who plays Hanna. Her husband is played by fellow Israeli actor Isshai Golan. Filming was done on location in the countryside around Kyiv, with a largely Ukrainian film crew. Vladimir is played by local Ukrainian actor Aleksey Tritenko, while the Golem is eerily portrayed by Ukrainian child actor Konstantin Anikienko. It joins The VVitch in what I hope becomes a larger trend of horror period pieces.
For background, golems are human-like creatures made from mud and animated using the sacred name of God. There are many stories about them in the Jewish folk tradition, but the most famous is undoubtedly the Golem of Prague, which is the main influence here. Judah Loew ben Bezalel, also known as the Maharal and a very real Early Modern scholar and philosopher, created the golem in order to protect the Jewish community of Prague from antisemitic violence. When the golem began to rampage and kill the people it was supposed to defend, the Maharal managed to remove the shem, or name, from its mouth, causing it to become inanimate. Its body was stored in the attic of Prague’s Old New Synagogue, where it waits in case it is ever needed again. The Golem of Prague can be a savior, but it is also extremely dangerous. It is also practically the city’s mascot.
While plenty of Jews have made horror movies, the field of Jewish horror is remarkably slim. 2012’s The Possession was centered around a dybbuk, the ghost of a dead person which “clings” to people and things, but there isn’t much else out there. Golems, dybbuks, Lilith, not to mention all of the myriad angels and monsters of the bible, have plenty of appearances in horror. And of course what is Frankenstein if not a sc-fi/horror reimagining of a golem? But, they are almost always stripped of their particularity Jewish character. Horror that focuses on Jewish themes and a Jewish understanding of the world is rare.
The horror genre as a whole as a certain Catholic theology to it, especially supernatural horror. Evil is an external, corrupting, force. Satan was cast out of heaven for rebelling against God and his goal ever since has been to tempt humans into sin so that their souls become his to torture. His war against heaven will continue until the end times of Revelation. In most Western horror, the various demons, ghosts, and monsters represent some form of corruption that is set right by an agent of the divine, acting out this cosmic battle in miniature. An explicit example of this is the pair of priests in the Exorcist, who perform a Catholic exorcism rite, but it goes much further than that. The various weaknesses held by any given monster is usually tied into religious purification: crosses, silver, running water. Going beyond religious horror, the most common theme in the genre is that the monster or villain is there to punish people for their sins. In the old school slasher movies, everyone but the virgin would die horribly. Zombies are a stand-in for one ill of the modern world or another, and the survivors are the ones who learn to live without it.
Jewish theology on this matter is very different. Satan is not a force opposed to God. Such a thing is by definition impossible within the strict and total monotheism of Judaism. For sure, there is a whole host of demons and spirits that exist within the mystical tradition, along with remedies and amulets to ward them off, but they are ultimately just as subordinate to God as humanity. Instead, Satan appears in the Talmud as a representation of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Everyone has a yetzer hara, which is opposed by the yetzer tov, the good inclination. We must choose to act on one or the other, though everyone but the holiest will err and act on the yetzer hara at times. Evil is not an external force that is defeated by another external force. Good exists side by side with evil.
The titular Golem acts in the same way. It is physically and psychologically bonded to Hanna. When one is is hurt, so is the other. When she feels anger or fear, her creation acts on it. Hanna creates the creature in order to defend her shtetl from the Christians and, ultimately, it really was the only thing that stood between the community and its utter destruction. But, like everyone else, Hanna isn’t perfect. Which leads the plot in the direction which makes it into a horror movie. Good exists side by side with evil.
Every character with a speaking role is treated with this idea in mind. The brutal Christian leader Vladimir is threatening to kill everyone in the shtetl, but is doing so because he sincerely believes it is the only way to save his daughter’s life. When the anxieties and fears of parenthood are the axis that the movie revolves around, this has to be taken seriously. The Rabbi, Hanna’s grandfather, treats her cruelly for her inability to give his son a child. But, he is shown to act with the best interests of his community in mind. Their sins and merits do not merely exist side by side, they come from the same place, or at least how they interpret it.
While the exact nature of the golem’s nastiness is tied into the specific pyschology of its protagonist, the opening scene set in Prague shows that there is nothing unique about her flaws. The Maharal, who was described in the opening narration as “our holiest Rabbi,” and presumably someone who would be qualified for the task if anyone is, could not control the creature either. The very act of trying to create a golem treads dangerously close to the divine, something which Judaism warns about time and time again.
When God speaks directly to the Israelites at Mt.Sinai, they turn away from His presence and ask for intermediaries. The study of Kaballah is traditionally reserved for men who are grounded enough in the world through age and family responsibility that they are protected from the dangers of engaging in the transcendent. When Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu improperly perform the priestly rituals, they are swallowed up by the divine fire. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes this not necessarily as a punishment, but more like being burnt from improperly handling a flame:
"The story of Nadav and Avihu reminds us yet again of the warning first spelled out in the days of Cain and Abel. The first act of worship led to the first murder. Like nuclear fission, worship generates power, which can be benign but can also be profoundly dangerous… The message is simple and intensely serious: Religion is not what the European Enlightenment thought it would become: mute, marginal and mild. It is fire – and like fire, it warms but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame.”
(Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: Fire: Holy and Unholy (Shemini 5775))
Hanna’s village Rabbi very straightforwardly warns Hanna that creating a golem is inherently dangerous, something he would never even attempt. But, that isn’t because the golem is an unholy abomination from the depths of hell, as would be the case with a Christian demonological horror story. It is because the kabbalistic ritual involved means going too deep into the Holy. It means trying to stick your hand into the flame. When something akin to an exorcism is attempted, it is no less dangerous.
However, the looming threat that necessitated the creation of the golem is still an outside one. This threat is not a philosophical look into the nature of your own heart. It is the oldest hatred: Antisemitism. The history of Europe is a drumbeat of pogrom after pogrom, blood libel after blood libel. Vladimir did not invent the idea that Jews caused the plague. The Black Death sparked waves of antisemitic attacks across the continent.
The exact setting of the film is left vague. At the time, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania included what is now Belarus, but the Christians are more identifiably Russian. So possibly some anachronisms, but no matter. The Khmelnytskyi Uprising, which included the largest mass pogroms in Europe prior to the Holocaust, had concluded only a little over a decade prior and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was destabilized and in economic ruin. In the chaos that followed, the Jewish institutions that blossomed prior to the uprising broke down and Jews became the scapegoats for many social problems. Antisemitism is not logically consistent, it morphs to fit whatever the threat at the time may be. Vladimir saw his people dying and his beloved daughter’s health quickly failing. So he blamed the Jews. Real-world examples of this, very much including ongoing movements, don’t really need to listed. This might be why Jewish writers rarely make specifically Jewish horror genre films. Who needs The Omen when you have Schindler's List?
The Golem is a unique take on the horror genre, with a worldview that is not often explored. It is held back in some places by its budget. The obviously CGI gore can be jarring and the choreography of the violent scenes was off at times. Some of the deaths could also have been made more of an impact if they were introduced as characters more first, and Vladimir would have made a better villain if his appearance wasn’t so obviously villainous. These flaws might put it behind some of the heavy hitters of the genre that have come out recently, but it still a solid film. It definitely deserves a spot on a Halloween watch list.