The Golem (2018)

The Golem first published by SciFiNow

With their previous film JeruZalem (2015), Israeli brothers Doron and Yoav Paz refreshed found footage with intradiegetic ‘Smart Glasses’, and reinvigorated the tropes of zombie apocalypse by staging them on their conflicted home territory of Jerusalem, and inflecting them with Dark Angels, Nephilim and other monsters from the Old Testament and Talmud. Their latest, The Golem, plays similar games of generic reappropriation: for it relocates the forms of both the oater and the Frankenstein myth to 17th-century Lithuania, while using its shtetl setting as a microcosmic allegory of the Jewish state, both past and present.

It is 1673, and Hanna (Hani Furstenberg, excellent) strives to transgress the normative limits granted to women by Jewish lore. She sneaks under the floorboards of the village shul to hear the lessons that the rabbi, her father-in-law, teaches to the local menfolk including her husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan); having lost her first child Josef seven years earlier, she has ever since taken secret measures to ensure that she does not become pregnant again, even at the risk of her marriage; and at night she studies the Kabbalah, searching for forbidden forms of divine empowerment. She is, in short, a proto-feminist, refusing to conform to the gender rôle assigned her by tradition or to obey the injunctions of the forefathers, while struggling to find agency, and even motherhood, on her own terms within the confined spaces of the village.

When armed gentile horsemen invade the shtetl, irrationally holding its inhabitants responsible for a plague afflicting the region, the townsfolk debate whether they should bow to their persecutors’ violence, or actively resist their besiegement. As unorthodox as ever, Hanna uses her knowledge of the Kaballah to raise a mud-born Golem on her own initiative. Though a surrogate for little Josef, and indeed taking on the boy’s form, the Golem is endowed with extraordinary powers, bringing destruction as much as salvation to the small town in accordance with the conflicted will of its mistress/mother.

Beautifully shot (by Rotem Yaron) in the magic light of Central Europe, The Golem feels all at once classical in its storytelling, and yet unfamiliar in its particulars, as it delves deep into Jewish esoterica for its mythological underpinnings. Encapsulated within Hanna’s beleaguered, divided community is a history of the Jewish people – and if the film ends with a Holocaust, it also looks forward to a renewal of pernicious aggression and factionalism for the next generation, reared in grief and vindictiveness. In other words, this little village by the woods of north-eastern Europe stands in for modern Israel – with the Paz brothers showing the tragedy of a country both born of violence, and doomed to keep resurrecting it, in a continuous cycle of its assailants’ – and in part its own – making. For, faced with hostile aggression, Hanna and her villagers are damned if they do take action, and damned if they don’t, given that, either way, the collateral damage will be horrific, and will haunt the future. 

Strap: The Paz brothers’ mythic oater/monster mash-up The Golem is a parable of Israel’s beleaguered, cursed status.

© Anton Bitel