Academic journal article The Space Between

Containing the Monster: The Golem in Expressionist Film and Theater

Academic journal article The Space Between

Containing the Monster: The Golem in Expressionist Film and Theater

Article excerpt

The Jewish legend of the Golem - a mythic being created by rabbis and mys- tics versed in Kabbalah and the secrets of creation - has long held an intense fascination for writers and artists in Western culture. Jewish parables relat- ing to the Golem date back to the fourth or fifth centuries; throughout the Middle Ages and into the Romantic era the legend continued to transform in power and scope. It was particularly in the years between the two world wars, however, that the Golem emerged as an especially salient figure, inspir- ing a variety of cultural adaptations by Jewish and non-Jewish artists alike. The popularity of the Golem legend in the interwar years reflects a more general interest in folklore, myth, and the occult in both high modernist and middlebrow cultures. But more importantly, cultural productions of Jew- ish legends highlight the way ideas of Jewishness and Jewish culture were constructed aesthetically, and how these ideas circulated in the discourse of the era. This is why I argue that the Golem's potential service to scholars interested in investigating ideas of Jewish subjectivity and identity in the years leading up to World War II is unparalleled: through the Golem, we can evaluate the essential role experimental film and theater played in support- ing or resisting ambivalent views of "the Jew"-whether he be malevolent outsider, hero, villain, victim, magician, or monster.1

The Golem Legend in the Modern Imagination

As numerous scholars of fairy tales and folk culture observe, fantastic figures like monsters, ghosts, or giants can mirror the anxieties and fears of soci- ety, emerging more vigorously at points in time and history when cultural stresses are keenest. It should not be surprising, then, that the first half of the century saw numerous versions of the Golem legend re-invented and transformed in literature, art, drama, and film as anxieties about migration, persecution, and national belonging became paramount. Novels by Yudl Rosenberg, Chayim Bloch, and Gustav Meyrink, poetry by Hugo Salus, an opera by Eugene d'Albert, Paul Wegener's silent horror film, the Yiddish play by H. Leivick, and Julien Duvivier's Golem film all demonstrate how the mythic Jewish humanoid came to symbolize wider modern European politi- cal and social tensions. For modern Jewish intellectuals, as Cathy Gelbin has argued, folklore like the Golem tale could stand in as a counter-narrative that asserted a so-called authentic European folk culture to "substantiate the national essence [and thus creative potential] of the Jews" (13). The attempt to prove they had a significant and rich folk culture of their own was especially relevant at a time when Jews were accused of being cultural parasites. The Golem legend, however, was not only a reaction or resistance to negative constructions of Jewishness from outside forces. Folk art, for Jewish modernists, was essentially the art of the future, a means of using a subjective "Jewish" experience or traditional symbols to express universal dilemmas. In its various iterations, the Golem became a marker of Jewish identity that was particularity linked to aesthetic modernism. The Golem, to borrow Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's terminology for monsters, was "differ- ence made flesh" (7), symbolic of the overwhelming experience of alterity, dislocation, and upheaval that is key to understanding the social and cultural context of Jewish experience in the interwar years.

Perhaps two of the most influential 1920s adaptations of the folk legend that articulate the Golem's political, cultural, and aesthetic poten- tial are Paul Wegener's notorious German expressionist 1920 horror film Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World) and H. Leivick's renowned Yiddish play Der Goylem, published in 1921 and first performed by Moscow's Habima theater in 1925. Although highly experimental in form and aesthetically innovative, both productions were extremely popular and financially successful as cultural commodities at the time they were produced. …

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