Two Cinematic Golems: a comparative analysis
Gerald Saul
Film 5320.03M - Jewish Film II
February 7, 1995

In this paper, I wish to compare and contrast two screen stories about Golems. First, Der Golem, a 1920 German Expressionist film by Paul Wegener , which depicts the plight of a 16th century Jewish community (in a ghetto) against the emperor and his anti-semitic decree. Second, The Golem of Socks, a 1994 student video by Gerald Saul, which depicts a present day community against an enemy from within. I will also make some comparison to the "Golem of Prague" of legend and literature. In both of the films (for convenience sake, I will use the term "film" for both, even though the more recent piece is entirely video) the solution to the dilemma takes the form of a golem, a man magically created by the wizened patriarch of the community.

I will begin with the essential similarities. Both films begin with an elderly male coming to know that there is a threat against their community. His solution is to use his wits to create a golem which could use force to protect the community. In both, the golem is brought to life by a powerful symbol which represented the ideology of the people of the community. Upon completing the mission set out for it, neither golem was still desired, but each proved difficult to dispose of. Each golem will break free but the story is concluded happily.

Der Golem features Rabbi Loew who calls upon the malicious spirit Asteroth to give him the magic word AEMAE to bring life the clay golem. This word was written on a piece of paper within a Star of David and hung around the golem's neck. In some of the folk tale versions , the Jewish golem is animated by the name of God being written on its forehead. In either case, the golem clearly must be treated and commanded wisely and responsibly. In being created by the communities spiritual leader (Rabbi Loew is said to be the eldest and wisest Rabbi), the golem represents the needs and desires of that community. It is a distillation of all its strengths (hard working, dedicated, mighty) but also contains many of its weaknesses (proud, lustful, angry).

The Golem of Socks features Frederick who fills his sock golem with lint, the most meaningless material which the community casts away daily . To bring it to life, he inserts a (Canadian) flag which is a representation of the entire nation. Through this, the ethical values "inherent" in that flag are put into question. What are the needs and desires of the nation? It may be accepting of others and having a good standard of living. There is no certain answer. The Sock Golem is thus filled with uncertain nationalism and forgotten and fragmented pieces of individuality. There is immediately seen an inconsistency between the word and the action. As the narrator describes the golem faithfully following orders and hopping down the street, what we really see is the golem continuing to hop around the garret, doing what he wants to do. The story told by the voice is in third person, past tense, chronicling the story historically. We have been told that history teaches us; history is the authoritative voice. This juxtaposition between the "authoritative history" and the image on the screen (don't believe it unless you see it) informs us that our faith in history (or in video?) may be misplaced.

The threat to the community in Der Golem comes in the form of an anti-semitic edict from the emperor (enemy from outside). This threat is definitely a real one which has few viable solutions. Outside of the Golem of Socks community also reigns an aristocratic leader, the Baron of Shivers. However, in this latter case, the leader poses no threat. On the contrary, he would be more rightly accused of apathy towards the small community. It is this sort of apathetic and dismissive governing which I have come to expect, living in Saskatchewan. The 16th century Jews also had trouble with getting government attention. The real Rabbi Loew had successfully argued to stop the blood libel but much time passed before a law was passed.

Instead, The Golem of Socks community faces a [perceived] threat from the inside; anarchy and social unrest via Nick and his gang. Again, the vocalized "historical" account tells us about how Nick and his gang rode their motorcycles (which we never see so must also question) and kept the Hopstein twins awake, implying that the twins were bothered that they wouldn't be rested for their test. Visually, the twins gaze out the window, envying the gang's frivolity. The threat then is not to the education but to the moral values of the children. Of course, the threat to property values, an attack on capitalism, is the real and un-ignorable issue.

To solve the communities' problems, neither golem uses any form of strategy. If fact, each has a simple emotional outburst which by chance leads to the beneficial resolution. In Der Golem, the creature becomes angry and begins destroying the Emperor's palace. It only stops when the Rabbi commands it to, which was after the Rabbi had negotiated peace with the Emperor. Der Golem's actions were not premeditated with this goal in mind. Similarly, the Sock Golem merely approaches his "enemies" and, through a conflict of personalities, he unwittingly leads the gang to surrender to the conformity of the community. In contrast to both of these, the traditional stories have the golem acting much more on his own will, finding evil-doers before they act and watching over the entire community like a protective spirit.

Even though the solution was successful in both films, the relationships of the solutions to the initial threats are problematic. In Der Golem, the accusation from the emperor was of "black magic". Such claims were often made against Jews at that time to release Gentiles from debts and to enable them to take over Jewish businesses. However, the summoning of the admittedly evil spirit Asteroth and using it to animate a magical monster is a questionable defence against witchcraft allegations. According to Winkler's book, the animating of the golem was done through prayer and was authorized by God, thus removing it from the category of "black magic". However, this difference was not perceived as such by the outsiders, nor by the filmmakers.

In The Golem of Socks, even though the threat to the community was less real, similar force was used, and equally blindly. The established community leaders, with the exception of Frederick, all appear to be aged hippies. Having long since embraced the establishment, the hippies did not appear to consider handling the "problem" themselves. In their leap towards a violent removal of the gang, the community is systematically disavowing its own future. The decline of the community is further demonstrated by the description of the library. The books that Frederick (science) needs are forgotten and buried. Some had "loose spines" (the spineless cowardice of the community is hidden from sight) while others of "questionable moral fibre" show that censorship is in full swing (perhaps by the [nigh-illiterate] Mrs. Stoattoadlich).

The Jews in the ghetto are depicted as innocent victims rather than the foolish/amoral aggressors of the community above. However, the generation gap also is the source of tension in Der Golem. We see this between the Rabbi's daughter and the Rabbi and his assistant. The daughter has become romantically involved with one of the emperor's young knights. In the eyes of the Jewish community, she is a treasure to be protected. When the Rabbi's assistant discovers that she has been unfaithful (to her family and her people), he reactivates and unleashes the golem on the knight. It is this rash act of trying to control the youth of the community which ends up bringing more hardship than it saves, costing many Jewish lives (as well as the knight's). Even though some versions of the legend have the golem live over a hundred years, commanded wisely and eventually returned to dust when it was no longer needed, film traditionally demands that "monsters" be monstrous and be destroyed.

Golem of Socks was not deactivated by its creator, as was Der Golem, but was disposed of logical way. Frederick perceives himself as a man of science, so he locked the Golem of Socks up in the tallest tower (paternal/phallic, pillar of the community, pillar of knowledge). However, by using the fibre of the community (their [disposable] lint and nationalism) in combination with his own scientific skills, he had created a golem which was essentially illogical. The Golem of Socks proves this with a demonstration of illogic. By taking on the attribute of one of his parts (flag in head) to be an attribute of his whole (to fly), he escapes through the window. Logic is unable to contain illogic, just as Einstein's theories do not all hold up against Stephen Halking and the chaos theories. Old ways of thinking (books, history, tradition) are destined to give way to the new.

Each of the films end optimistically. In Der Golem, the creation is destroyed by an innocent Gentile child who has no fear and seems unaware of any differences between the Gentiles and the Jews. Kindness can destroy all anger. Children are the future so this indicates a dawning of a time of cooperation without prejudice. When foolishness proves his undoing, the Sock Golem also finds that his enemy can be his friend. Maturity (admission of problem, suggestion to cooperate) finds him friendship through which he can do good (raise the property values) where once only harm was done. Capitalism, the grand arbitrator, rewards them for their cooperative with a wage which abides with the minimum legal requirement. The traditional golem of legend is laid to rest when a protector is no longer needed, when law and good will protects all.

The golem is a symbol for the potential strength within a community to protect itself. This metaphor seems clear within the text of the old myths. However, as seen through the more cynical eyes of filmmakers, no community is ethical enough to warrant having such power. Neither are the rulers of a community, be they monarchy or elected government, who are also assumed to be a hindrance to the well being of the people. Many filmmakers depict power and money as universally corrupting factors. The path of least resistance, the support of the status quo, according to some filmmakers, is the path to happiness; "Everything will work out in the final reel". It is this kind of fatalistic, rose-tinted-glasses view of the world that I believe The Golem of Socks pokes fun at. This short film points out that the story does not end just because one character thinks it does. Frederick locks the Sock Golem in the tower and that should be the end . But no; a person must constantly be doing what he or she thinks is best and should never leave their problems for someone else to take care of. Only then can there to be real hope for the future.

Gerald Saul 2005