The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Hebrew Horrors

Keith Allison
Posted October 31, 2013

gol-thumbTo enumerate the number of horror films that draw from Christian folklore and mysticism would result in a list long enough to qualify as a tome. To do similarly with Buddhist and Taoist folklore would result in much the same, only with a lot more Lam Ching-ying doing backflips. But if you turn the horrific cinema lens on the rich ocean of Jewish folklore, you come up with almost nothing. Oh sure, every now and then a rabbi totters on-screen to help out a priest with some esoteric passage in the Old Testament, but that is Judaism in the service of Christianity, rather than Judaism on its own tackling its own assortment of ghosts and monsters and legends.

It’s not that big a mystery when you look at the events that have surrounded Jews since the advent of the motion picture. Prior to World War II, Jews were a people without a homeland, often hated and harassed in the countries in which they’d settled throughout Eastern Europe. In the United States, while it was much less of a crime to be Jewish, and the fledgling motion picture industry boasted a number of Jewish luminaries both in front of and behind the camera, it was still taboo to “be” Jewish on screen, except perhaps as a comic side character or dedicated roof fiddler keeping the neighborhood up at all hours of the night. During World War II, of course, Jews across Europe were hunted and exterminated, and it is likely that after years of enduring such hardship, unimaginable misery and real life horror, no one was keen on making horror films after the war ended.

Even after the founding of Israel and the birth of the Israeli film industry, most Israeli filmmakers avoided horror (there was still plenty of violence to go around in the real world), or if they worked in the genre did so in conjunction with American films and in distinctly non-Jewish stories. While there have been a few horror films here and there set within the Jewish experience — The Possession being the most recent — almost all of them are unknown, lost, or rarely seen. Of the few that exist, one is considered a classic of silent era horror film making and a profoundly influential film. The other is largely unseen but based on what was, in its day, an important and well-known stage play. This film was circulated through Jewish communities almost like an oral tale. One film is about Jews; the other is for Jews.


Der Golem

The tale of Rabbi Loew and the golem was an obsession for German filmmaker Paul Wegener. He filmed the story three times, casting himself three times as the titular creature. It is only the third and final version, 1920’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, that is known today. The old tale — most likely written in the early 1800s — spins the story of Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a rabbi in 16th century Prague who, in an effort to defend his people from the tyrannical anti-Semitic Emperor Rudolf II, creates a defender: the golem. It was not the first golem tale — that would be in the Talmud, or the Book of Genesis if you prefer: the story of the creation of Adam. But since that story took on a life of its own far apart from the notion of golems, the tale of Rabbi Loew remains the classic golem legend. Rabbi Loew creates the fearsome guardian out of clay and animates it using magic. Like any good Jewish boy though, the golem has to rest during the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. One Friday, Rabbi Loew neglects to remove the magic Star of David that animates the golem, and from here things get sketchy. Some versions of the story simply have Loew fearful the golem will desecrate the Sabbath. Others, the more popular ones, have the monster falling in love and going on a rampage when it grasps the impossible nature of its feelings. Or it could just be that the golem realizes Loew could have sculpted him any haircut but went with the page boy.

It is this version that makes it into the 1920 movie. Der Golem is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of the German expressionist period, full of sinister shadows and twisted architecture. It is also sometimes regarded as an early example of the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany. It is possible to read the film as pro-Jewish, with a rare cast of sympathetic Jewish characters and the frank depiction of the abuse and oppression they suffer. Others read the golem itself as a representation of the Jew as a dangerous and superstitious “other,” one that even when it means well leaves chaos and destruction in its wake. For me, I think Der Golem is a film too complex to be boiled down to a simple “is it racist or not,” as the widely varying and contradictory readings of it attest. There was something more primal about the story that appealed to Wegener, obsessed him, and I believe that his was not a crusade against Judaism, but a crusade in pursuit of a haunting masterpiece of horror using a story probably even older than the Jewish faith itself: the monster who is created then rejected by society — which plays into a third reading of the film, as an allegory for the persistent inability of Jews to be accepted by the outside world.

Wegener’s film was among the most influential of its time. Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction masterpiece Metropolis contains a golem, albeit a sleeker more futuristic one in the form of the robot Maria. 1931’s Frankenstein is a closer remake of Der Golem than it is an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s book. And in 1940, the revolting Nazi propaganda film Jud Sus would make frequent callbacks to Wegener’s classic film. Even today, the golem legend remains relevant, with film crews and religious historians searching for the fabled golem (Loew eventually deactivates it and stores it in an attic). Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay transports the golem tale into New York of the 1920s and 30s, mixing it into a swirl that includes the birth of the pulp comic and superhero industry, the outbreak of World War II, and the Jewish role in the history of New York City.

The Dybbuk

Much less well known outside of Jewish culture is the legend of the dybbuk, and likewise much less known than Wegener’s film is director Michal Waszynski’s 1937 film The Dybbuk. Just as Christians commonly miscast Chanukah as “Jewish Christmas,” dybbuks are often mistakenly referred to as “Jewish poltergeists.” They aren’t, not really. They are ghosts, yes, but more confused than malevolent, and prone to possessing those who leave themselves open to such things — by feeling despair, by inviting the dybbuk in, or maybe by doubting the story of Moses. Unlike the golem, which was a relatively mainstream legend, dybbuks are the product of a particular sect of ultra-orthodox Judaism, the Hasidim. They do not really appear outside of Hasidic mysticism until 1914, when playwright Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport — better known by his pen name S. Ansky — wrote the play The Dybbuk. It is considered one of the most important plays in Yiddish language theater, and is still performed from time to time. In 1937 Polish director Waszynski adapted it into a film.

It tells the story of a young scholar, Channon, who falls in love with a woman who has been promised to another man. Channon, already coming from a family with a curse on it, is driven by desperation to dabble in Kabbalah — black magic, a little different than the Kabbalah that was peddled in the form of magic water and wizard bracelets to idiotic celebrities a few years ago — in hopes that dark forces will help him his fate and win his love. In a fantastic scene that intercuts Channon’s profane Kabbalistic ritual with the jubilant celebration and rituals of his fellow students, the hapless scholar loses control of the black powers he has summoned and is killed. His ghost becomes a dybbuk, and his love Leah in despair opens herself to possession by Channon’s vengeful spirit.

Despite some wonderfully eerie scenes, the inclusion of a wild-haired wanderer issuing portents of doom, and the overall supernatural theme of the movie, The Dybbuk is more a morality tale and cultural slice of life than it is a horror film. It has more in common with early American horror/morality tales like The Avenging Conscience and The Phantom Carriage than with Der Golem. Also setting it apart from Wegener’s better known “Jewish” horror film is that this is a movie for Jews, made by Jews, starring Jews, filmed entirely in Yiddish. It does not exclude outsiders, but it does not invite them in easily. It does not grapple with the question of the Jewish place in a Christian dominated society. It sticks to its own, insular culture –a subculture, really; even within the greater Jewish community, Hasids are often considered odd ducks.

Waszynski’s film spreads its scenes of supernatural fury (which include the aforementioned ritual and a thoroughly chilling stylistic callback to expressionism during a wedding) through very long scenes of Hasidic religious ritual, daily life, and philosophical. Patience is rewarded, but patience is required. The only existing print of the film in circulation is, predictably if still sadly, fuzzy and plagued by a translator who must have left the room frequently. Only about 70% or so of the film is actually subtitled in English. These many factors have kept The Dybbuk in a state of relative obscurity compared to Wegener’s film, which is widely known, well-preserved, and perhaps more universal in the way it tells its story. I admit even I consider The Dybbuk more of an interesting historical artifact and academic study than I do an entertaining film.

But I think both films, Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam and The Dybbuk are fascinating looks into a vast folkloric and mystical history that remains, to this day, largely untapped. Der Golem’s role in the history of cinema is well-documented and its reputation is well-earned. Whether you see it as the opening salvo in pop cinema’s war against the Jews or as a tragic tale of Jews fighting back desperately against oppression and murder, or simply as a proto-Frankenstein, it is still a visually stunning and narratively compelling classic. And while perhaps not a classic, The Dybbuk is an essential counterpoint, the earliest and still one of the only examples of purely Jewish horror filmmaking.


One Response to “Hebrew Horrors”

  1. Chris Szego
    November 5th, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    “Or it could just be that the golem realizes Loew could have sculpted him any haircut but went with the page boy.”

    Aha ha haha ha!

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  • Of Note Elsewhere

    It’s that time of year again, when the snow get shy and slush falls instead; when the sun seems like a distant memory from when you were a kid; when customers show up at the last minute wanting rare imported titles, like, yesterday. In short, it’s Christmas, the worst best time of the year for shopkeepers. In retail terms, this time of year can be summed up in three words:  busy; harried; frantic. But at least there’s always lots of chocolate around.

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    Honourable Mention

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    Chris Szego is signing off.


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