Horror films based on Jewish folklore and Talmudic literature are not that commonplace but one of the early classics of silent cinema was based on a 16th century tale of a rabbi, Judah Low ben Bezulel, who brought a hulking clay figure to life to protect the Jewish community from anti-Semitic forces. German director/actor Paul Wegener was so taken with the legend that he made three films based on it, a 1915 version, which only exists in fragments, a 1917 parody entitled The Golem and the Dancing Girl (now considered a lost film) and the 1920 version, which is the most famous. There were other remakes in later years, including Julien Duvivier’s 1936 sound version, but a new variation on the menacing title creature from the Israeli filmmaking team of Doron Paz and his brother Yoav, takes a decidedly different approach to the famous legend, courtesy of Ariel Cohen’s screenplay.
The Paz Brother’s The Golem (2018) introduces several subplots and thematic concerns – maybe too many – in a film that defies easy categorization as a straightforward horror film. Religious persecution, family tragedy, martial discord, vigilante justice, the threat of a plague and black magic are all entwined in a narrative that also offers a portrait of an isolated rural community of Jewish settlers in 17th century Lithuania (It was filmed in the Ukraine).
At the center of the story is Hanna played by Hani Furstenberg, who looks like an earthy hybrid of Liv Ullman and Jessica Chastain. Hanna is still in mourning for her dead son who died seven years earlier. Despite the attempts of her husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan) to impregnate her with another child, Hanna appears to be barren but it is really a deception. Secretly, Hanna has been using a birth control potion provided by the village herbalist.
The situation has escalated tensions between the couple which is noticed by a seductive neighbor who openly flirts with Benjamin. The couple’s marriage is also threatened by the village’s patriarchal society and religious leadership which prevents women from worshipping in church with the men. Hanna revolts against this by spying on the rabbi and his followers from the church crawlspace and reading the Kaballah in the privacy of her home, none of which are condoned by her husband.
When a group of ruthless plague survivors invade their community and threaten them with annihilation unless someone can save their leader’s infected daughter, Hanna takes action instead of resorting to prayer like the rabbi and his followers. Her dabbling in ancient rituals conjures up a supernatural protector, who at first is an indestructible weapon against their enemies, but then proves to be uncontrollable and deadly to all.
Most of this is a radical departure from earlier versions of The Golem and is what prevents it from being classified as a traditional horror film. The fact that the protagonist is a woman recovering from a personal tragedy is significant. In an interview with writer Danielle Nicole, the filmmakers stated, “We didn’t have a political intention, but more of a storytelling intention. We love dealing with female characters. It’s much more complicated for us and challenging to tell the story through the eyes of a woman and if it’s a woman running away from being a mother – well, that’s drama. We started working on the movie before the #MeToo movement so it wasn’t really in our heads, but we loved the idea of a woman fighting for her right to study Kaballah and to be treated like one of the men.”
Although The Golem opens with a prologue which pays homage to the original 1920 conception of the title creature, the demon which is conjured up by Hanna is a much more unconventional apparition. He first appears as a mute, mud-covered wild child.
After Hanna washes off the grime from his body, the golem is revealed to be a dead ringer for her departed son, which only increases her attachment to him.
The Golem is not completely flawless and horror fans may be disappointed in the Paz brothers’ preference for character development over non-stop action and explicit gore. Some of the supporting characters are little more than caricatures and the final third of the film is predictable and somewhat belabored except for a sequence featuring a failed exorcism attempt. There is even a final coda that sets up a possible sequel which seems like wishful thinking and is completely unnecessary.
Despite these minor complaints, The Golem is a handsomely mounted and atmospheric period piece and a welcome change of pace from the tired, formulaic pattern of torture-porn and found footage horror films a la Saw or The Blair Witch Project. Hani Furstenberg as Hanna is particularly impressive in a challenging role that could easily have become a very unsympathetic character. And the production design, art direction and costumes, especially those eerie bird-like plague masks, lend a convincing authenticity to the folk tale.
The Golem is still playing at film festivals around the country. Atlantans can catch the final screening of it at the Regal Perimeter Pointe cinema on Saturday, February 23 at 8:35 pm as part of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. This is the third feature for The Paz brothers; their first film Phobidilia (2009) was a drama and their second Jeruzalem (2015) was a horror thriller. They are currently at work on Plan A, a thriller about a group of Jewish holocaust survivors circa 1945 who plot to poison the water system in Germany.
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