- Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters by Maya Barzilai
The golem crosses many borders. A popular culture icon and an enduring image of creative power, its hybridity contributes to its elusive nature. What it is and what it means shifts over time. Maya Barzilai's Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters takes a unique approach. Deeply interdisciplinary, as one must be to explore such a complex and paradoxical figure, and drawing on religious, literary, cinematic, and historical contexts, Barzilai weaves a rich tapestry of golem narratives. All the while, Barzilai keeps a clear eye on the golem's ongoing association with war, seeing its birth in the clay trenches of World War One and tracing its later evolution as emblematic of nuclear weapons, computer technology, and Israeli military policy.
As Barzilai claims, others have written about the evolving shape of golem narratives, but her study is the first to focus primarily on cultural images of wartime violence. Beginning with the birth of the golem in the early part of the twentieth century, she then documents its travels from Europe to the United States and Israel and finally into postmodernity. She focuses on the story's "continual reshaping in the context of modern, as well as postmodern, warfare and its implications for Jewish populations and nations" (9). Touching on the intercultural negotiations that have transformed the story over time and place, she affirms the golem's ability to bridge high and low culture.
Chapter 1 focuses on Paul Wegener's three golem films. Deftly explaining how all three films contribute to the golem myth and to the popularity of the [End Page 207] figure and the actor, she sees the 1914 film Der Golem as blurring the border between bodies and mud, the 1917 film Der Golem und die Tänzerin as wartime escapism, and the well-known 1920 film Der Golem, wie er en die in Welt kam as giving voice to criticism of Germany and its wartime conduct. I enjoyed learning that in the 1914 film, the golem was played by two figures—Wegener and a puppet double—but was startled by her reading of the third film (she sees the final dismantling of the giant by a blond Christian child as redemptive). I view the film differently, as more contradictory and ambivalent, but Barzilai's interpretation is well-supported and deserves attention. She unearths much important historical evidence of Wegener's wartime experiences, including a photo of Wegener himself in the trenches, and much helpful theoretical evidence to support her close reading of the film as not only redemptive but also as self-reflexive of the emerging film industry. The rabbi's telescope stands in for the camera and its ability to enable us to see differently. The golem becomes the embodiment of film spectator-ship, representing the childlike pleasure of the viewer as fleeting images magically move across the screen. Cinema, she argues, returns us to the forgotten world of visual expression and gesture. The film "instructs its viewers in the process of rehumanizing others, both Jews and golems" (64).
In her second chapter, Barzilai explores what she terms "the golem cult of 1921 New York." Perhaps because I am not familiar with the texts covered in this chapter, I found it confusing, but nevertheless I found her research meticulous as well as judicious. First she looked at H. Leivick's Der goylem, a dramatic poem in eight scenes published in 1921 in New York, one year after Paul Wegener's third golem film was released. Leivick's Yiddish poem stresses the catastrophic results of golem intervention and ends in chaos and terror. She then discusses the American framing devices that accompanied the New York Criterion Theater's long run of Wegener's third golem film. Skits, music, and narratives emphasized the film's relevance to Jewish life and helped make Jewishness less alien. Like the more typical American films Humoresque (1920; adapted from a Fannie Hurst short story) and His People (1925; written by Isadore Bernstein), Wegener's third golem film...