[Review] The Golem
Outside of the bastardized version I saw while playing Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager, my knowledge of the Jewish folklore of a Golem is practically nil. With research, I discovered that some people look at the myth as a sort of cousin to the Frankenstein story—that of man creating life and it being imperfect. But as I started digging into the stories surrounding it, I don’t think that’s quite a fair assessment of neither the folklore nor The Paz Brother’s new movie, The Golem.
After a brief cold open where a rabbi tries to calm a hulking monster hiding in the shadows that ends in bloody explosions, The Golem opens years later in 1673’s Lithuania. Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) lives in this small Jewish hamlet with her husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan), where she has spent years eavesdropping on meetings of the (male) elder rabbis who have been studying kabbalah. Seven years prior, Hanna and Benjamin lost their son and the death has taken its toll on both of them.
The menfolk in the town blame Hanna for not producing a second child, while she lives with deep pain and grief for her lost child and a desire to never have to go through it again. One day, she sees a man, dressed in black and wearing a plague mask and before you know it, a bunch of Gentiles in the area blame this small Jewish haven for bringing the plague to them. The man wearing the plague mask turns out to be Vladimir (Alex Tritenko), who brings his dying daughter to the city with a proclamation: save her, or the town will perish.
While the majority of the townsfolk want to peacefully solve this, Hanna knows that saving Vladimir’s daughter is an impossible task and the town needs to protect itself. When no one listens, Hanna takes her knowledge of the kabbalah and tries to bring life to a Golem. She succeeds, but instead of a hulking behemoth like we saw in the opening, this Golem is a small boy, about the age of her dead son, Josef. And while this silent kid at first seems like the protector the village needs, its physical and emotional connection to the deeply hurt and angry Hanna might have created a monster, instead of a hero.
The Golem was written by Ariel Cohen and his script is a strong piece of work, buoyed by some fantastic direction from Doron and Yoav Paz. As I started digging into the legends of the Golem, I found some fascinating connections and changes. The most famous story of the Golem comes in the form of The Golem of Prague, where a rabbi created the Golem from clay to defend their section of Prague from anti-Semitic attacks. In this version of the story, The Golem was called Josef/Yossele, just like Hanna’s son.
But putting the emphasis on a woman, struggling under the patriarchy of the hamlet in The Golem was an inspired choice. Hanna’s plight is incredibly sympathetic, particularly viewed through a modern lens. The fact she’s been practically ostracized from the village because she hasn’t given her husband a second child brings pathos and makes her attachment to the Golem, who looks similar to her dead son, completely understandable. It feels grounded and realistic.
I kind of wish that Cohen dug a bit further into the feminist potential of the script. There’s a lot of setup and room for this kind of examination, particularly in a male-dominated religious village of the 17th century. But it largely goes unexplored for a more traditional look at a mother’s unending grief for a lost child. But what is here, is interesting. It has a deliberate pacing that struggles a tiny bit in the second half, but ratchets up the tension as it careens to its denouement. The acting is incredibly strong and the flourishes of gore gave needed jolts.
Regardless, The Golem showcases why we need diversity in the horror genre. It’s a unique twist on familiar tropes and I’d love to see more voices like this in my favorite genre.