17th Century Lithuania
The golem of the new Israeli horror film “The Golem” looks nothing like the way he has traditionally been depicted; instead he resembles the young son who is still mourned by the woman (now presumed barren) who created him. This makes him especially dangerous when he turns against those he is supposed to protect. This is Doron and Yoav Paz’s first English language film.
In the isolated 17th Century Lithuanian Jewish village where the film is set, there are not a lot of educational opportunities for women and the study of Kabballah and mystical texts is strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, Hanna eavesdrops on the Rabbi’s lectures and pours over the books her husband Benjamin reluctantly smuggles home for her. She is not nearly as intimidated by the subject matter as are the Rabbi’s properly male students. This means that only she will have the guts to create a golem to protect the village from a rampaging feudal lord, but she might not have the strength to destroy the creature when it brings out all her maternal instincts.
“Golem” taps into some deep Jewish folkloric themes and tropes. It is as much a dark fable as it is a horror film based on the Golem legend. Fate is a killer in this film, just like the Golem. Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) is impressive as Hanna, fully connecting with both the maternal and feminist elements of her character. Daniel Cohen makes quite a creepy kid playing “Hanna’s Son.” Frankly, none of the other male characters is as well-developed as Hanna, but they look and act era appropriate amid all the chaos and carnage.
The film shows the harsh realities of shtetl life in Old Europe. At a time when anti-Semitic narratives are once again gaining strength in Europe and academic debate is too often obscuring the brutal reality of how they affect people’s lives, the Paz brothers’ Faustian tale of power is timely. Steeped in ancient Jewish mysticism, it also provides an outlet for a cultural voice encountered in cinema all too rarely. The story itself is simple but the presentation makes this an unusual and intriguing piece of work.
Hanna a woman at odds with the role she has been given in life. She and husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan) have lost a child. She loves Benjamin intensely and is thrilled that he refuses to divorce her as his father suggests, but she is concealing from him her use of contraceptive vapors – she just can’t bear the thought of being at risk of such a loss again. Because of the fragile nature of her community, her nervousness is perhaps more understandable— the plague is sweeping across Europe. Being isolated and following traditional practices to preserve hygiene, the Jewish village is not affected, which convinces the local gentiles that they must be the architects of their misfortune. When gentile leader Vladimir (Alex Tritenko) discovers that his daughter is ill, he tells the villagers in no uncertain terms that he will have them all killed if they don’t use their magic to save her.
The story centers on men discovering some mysterious inner strength and resolving things with violence. This film shows that untrained men can achieve much. Against so many skilled foes, the villagers’ best hope is intelligence and knowledge. Hannah has always resented presumed male authority over spiritual and intellectual matters and she has immersed herself in ancient law. She is certain that she knows how to create a golem and that such a creature could protect them. But she does not know if she can she control it (even when it manifests in the guise of her lost little boy).
One older villager, who has seen a golem before, tries to warn Hanna. But the relationship between creator and monster is unexpectedly nuanced. There’s a sense that her awareness that she’s the only one who can kill it means she finally has the power to release her love.
The film explores Talmudic ideas around violence, contagion and contamination, but with a modern sensibility. In a curious way this might be seen as a science fiction film in that a problem caused or brought about by (medical) science is resolved by what was understood as science at the time. It’s a film that shifts genres as easily as its secondary antagonist shifts between dirt and flesh. Because of a tight budget, scope is limited, and the final conflict feels rather rushed, but there is something interesting here and the Paz brothers have clearly worked hard to bring their film to life.