Monday, May 14, 2007

The Golem (3)

Is Der Golem (1920) anti-Semitic? In a way it's surprising this is even a question. An early 20th-century German director deciding to film a Jewish legend already sets warning bells ringing; that Wegener later earned an "Actor of the State" designation from the Nazis would seem to settle any doubts.

Cathy Gelbin, a film scholar at the University of Manchester, sums up the case for the complexity in Wegener's depiction of the Jewish community of Prague in the film, and especially of its protagonist, the Golem's creator, Rabbi Loew. As a master of dark powers and victim of an exotic, Orientalized wardrobe adorned with arcane symbols and inscrutible magical scrawl, Wegener's Rabbi perpepuates the hoary Christian association of Jews with sorcery. The Golem's failure to obey Loew's commands, resulting in the accidental burning of the Prague ghetto, conforms to an anti-Semitic notion of Jews as capable of creating only flawed works of art. The Rabbi's stern strictures on his daughter's sexuality, which she evades in a tryst with one of the Emperor's courtiers, can be read as a mocking evocation of the 'separatist' notion of Jewish identity common to European anti-Semitic literature. And the scenes in the Prague synagogue play up the 'otherness' of Jewish worship, replete with prostrations, rhythmic wailing, and melodramatic chest-beating.

Gelbin points out several other features of the film that defy common Jewish stereotypes of its time. She notes that tropes of greed and moneylending are attributed to the Emperor's court, not to the Prague ghetto. She cites Wegener's eschewal of "the denunciatory visual representation of Jewish difference at the time," comparing his dignified Rabbi Loew (played by the acclaimed Deutsches Theater actor, Albert Steinrück) to Murnau's more aggressively 'Jewish' Nosferatu. She sees Loew's magical appurtanances as designed to evoke a "wondrous creator" rather than a dark sorcerer, and suggests the Rabbi's ambiguous ethical role in the film is closer to that of Goethe's Faust—"a symbol of the artist and the the unstable implication of his products"—than it is to familiar anti-Semitic stereotypes. That the film's plot depends upon empathy for the Jews of Prague as they defend themselves from the Emperor's unjust demands doesn't necessarily conflict with a reading of "The Golem" as anti-Semitic, but it does complicate an easy association of Wegener's film with more straightforward denunciations of Jewish life and culture that would have been familiar to his audience.

Gelbin concludes that "despite its slippage into stereotypes," the film is finally less concerned with pronouncing on Prague's Jews than it is with detaching the Golem legend from its Jewish roots altogether and making it available to the "universalizing" conventions of film. In this reading, Wegener co-opts the story to explore themes of the doppelgänger, the Faustian creator, the renegade android, the sympathetic monster, and the legitimacy of film itself as an artistic medium that have little to do with its origins as a 16th-century Polish-Jewish folktale. In the process, the film "highlights the Jew as a problematic figure" by creating a "tension between the ethical particularities of the Jewish Golem tradition and its universalising employment" in the nascent medium of film.

In the famous final scene, where the Golem breaks the heavy medieval gates of the Prague ghetto and walks into a crowd of children, Wegener may be exploring the consequences of film as a young medium that wrenches legend from the particularities of place and 'assimilates' folktale to the international language of the movies. What's lost in translation—and the Golem's fall suggests that Wegener was alive to this—is the bond between story and the particular "folk" for which its creation and re-telling was a vital form of identity. The image of the Golem walking out of the Prague ghetto is also an image of narrative abandoning its former relationship to the group in order to enter the new medium of film, where community gets refigured as audience, the storyteller gives way to the auteur, and the people to which the story originally belonged are reduced to either local color or a narrative problem, an eth(n)ical "particularity" that resists the medium's "universalizing" tendencies.

"The Golem" is unsettling because it confronts us in an especially self-aware way with this resistance. It's a movie about the problem of art in a world where the folktale's gone global but the folk have dropped away. The problem of the Golem is the problem of the lyric: he may be you or me, but never us.


Kasey Mohammad said...

Rodney, have you considered proposing a book on the golem to the BFI Film Classics series?

rodney k said...

Thanks, Kasey! For now at least, I'll be happy to just finish this neo-benshi piece.

Nicholas Manning said...

re: closing sentence, i've never seen such a succinct and eloquent summation of the lyrical dilemma Rodney. can I quote you on that?!

rodney k said...

from the desk of KONRAD STEINER:

Nice analysis.

I stumbled a bit over just what this "universalizing" tendency of cinema is—i mean you see this trailer sometimes that says the Language of Cinema is universal (in umpteen languages). What's that supposed to mean?

The same way music or math is a universal language? Well i guess you pay for universality with a limitation on what you can say, or with forced ambiguity, or with assimilation.

Peter Sellars gave a good "state of cinema" address at SFIFF recently. Here's the whole thing, a great read:

In one paragraph he contrasts the cinema as a PARTICULARLIZING force, in contrast to the video and print media. It's a little overstated/utopic, but i think its ideal is the antidote to the tendency you're describing in your post here.

"One of the most maddening things about our information system is that it's the Western correspondent standing in Tiananmen Square telling you something. But you're still not a Chinese person. You're still not placed deeply and seeing the world through Chinese eyes. And the way our correspondent system works, is you're always seeing the world through Western eyes—wherever that person is standing—and so you're not actually getting a different view of the world. The power of new aboriginal cinema is that you're actually seeing the world through the eyes of a young aboriginal woman. For the first time in human history. And you know what? The world looks different."