The terror of being a Jew in a shtetl.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Golem, the latest movie by the brother filmmaking duo Doron and Yoav Paz, is an energetic English-language retelling of the legend of the golem, set in a Lithuanian shtetl in the 1670s. It’s full of Grand Guignol-style bloody killings, jump scares and creepy atmosphere, much like their 2015 Jeruzalem, the zombies-in-the-Holy-City flick.
Oddly, though, the golem plot itself isn’t all that scary, but what is very frightening is the sense the movie brings of the terror of being a Jew in a shtetl hundreds of years ago – nothing could be scarier than that.
The most famous story of the golem – that it was a creature created from earth by a rabbi in 16th-century Prague – was told in a famous 1920 film and is referenced in a prologue here.
The story then moves to the Lithuanian countryside, where Jews are being targeted by the gentile population, who blame them for a plague. The Jewish community’s rabbi instructs everyone to try to lay low.
But one rebellious young woman, Hanna (Hani Furstenberg), feels they should try to fight back. She breaks conventions in a number of other ways, mostly by her devotion to learning Kabbalah, which she does in secret. Her husband, Benjamin (Ishai Golan), stays with her, although their one son died and she hasn’t had any others. What he doesn’t know is that she is going to the shtetl’s healer (Brynie Furstenberg) and receiving some kind of elixir that prevents her from getting pregnant — she is afraid of having another child and then losing it.
After a brutal attack by the local thugs that disrupts her sister’s wedding and leaves one man dead, Hanna pleads with the rabbi to use Kabbalah secrets to create a golem to defend them. He won’t listen, so she does it herself.
As in so many horror films, the creepiest part is when you know the monster is loose but you don’t see it. When he finally surfaces, he is a cute-looking kid, the same age as the son Hanna lost. But, like the zombies in Jeruzalem, when he is ticked off, his pupils become completely dilated and with just a nasty look or two, he wreaks havoc on anyone who threatens or upsets Hanna. She nurtures him in a maternal way, in a kind of Rosemary’s Baby subplot.
There are a couple of satisfying scenes where the golem kicks some sadistic gentile butt, but from the beginning the child-demon is presented as someone who is just as likely to murder Jews with whom Hanna has some issues as to take vengeance on the truly evil enemies of the shtetl. So from the beginning we’re wary of him, and we don’t get to entertain the fantasy, even for a moment, that he will lead the Jews of the shtetl to victory against their enemies.
Again and again, the most heart-stopping moments are when the Christian marauders threaten the village, often wearing beak masks that were the garb of plague doctors in the 17th century. These scenes and the cinematography throughout seem to have been inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch, the Dutch Renaissance painter known for macabre and nightmarish visions.
Hani Furstenberg, a distinctive actress with real presence who is convincing even in the story’s most outlandish moments, first made a splash here on television in The Bourgeoisie (in Hebrew, Haburganim) nearly 20 years ago. She had a small but memorable part in Eytan Fox’s Yossi & Jagger, then had her breakout role in Joseph Cedar’s second film, Campfire, playing a teen from a religious family. Following that, she moved to the US and acted mostly abroad for over a decade. Now, she’s back in Israel in a big way, with starring roles in two high-profile TV series, Asylum City and the second season of False Flag, as well as The Golem.
Ishai Golan, who also speaks unaccented English, will be familiar to Netflix viewers from his role in Greenhouse Academy (the American version of the Israeli series Hahamama) and to Israelis from many televisions series, including Prisoners of War, The Gordin Cell and False Flag.
In spite of the fine acting and cinematography, The Golem seems stuck in the middle – too focused on Jewish historical realities to appeal to hard-core horror fans, and too bloody to entice typical viewers of serious period dramas. But like Jeruzalem, a sequel to which is currently in the works, it is filled with inventive and evocative moments, particularly those grounded in the truly scary aspects of Jewish history.