Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: The Golem

Well, there’s your problem! The timing chain broke!

Let’s say you need a perfectly obedient servant who never gets tired, never needs to be paid, and is virtually indestructible. If you’re in a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, you’ll just fly off to the local droid auction and pick up one of those shiny gold models with lovely manners. If you’re a rabbi in 16th-century Prague, on the other hand, your options are strictly DIY: you’ll just have to make yourself a golem.

According to Jewish legend, only the very wisest and very holiest rabbis had the power to make golems, animated servants of clay. Strictly speaking, the golem is not in the same class with Frankenstein’s monster, because the golem is neither alive nor dead. He is, rather, the ancestor of all robots. So were the metal servants created by the Greek god Hephaestus, but as far as I know no one has ever been inspired to make a film about them. 

In 1913, the noted German actor and director Paul Wegener was making a film in Prague when he heard the legend of Rabbi Loew, who created a golem to protect the inhabitants of the Prague ghetto from persecution.

Intrigued, Wegener wrote, filmed and starred in a horror story wherein a modern-day antiques dealer purchased a golem found in an ancient synagogue, brought it to life, and suffered the consequences when things went horribly wrong. The Golem, from 1915, is a lost film, as is its 1917 sequel, The Golem and the Dancing Girl. All that survives of Wegener’s trilogy is 1920’s The Golem: How He Came Into the World.


Paul Wegener in the title role is impressive, with his stolid features and pale eyes blazing out of his dark face. One can only guess how much the costume and stiff wig weighed, to say nothing of the platform boots. Karl Freud’s cinematography is wonderful, from the ancient sunlight slanting down into the ghetto streets to the demon-haunted darkness of the rabbi’s spell-casting chamber. Cinematically, as one of the great examples of German Expressionism, it’s a masterpiece. Karel Çapek was influenced by it when he wrote Rossum’s Universal Robots.

For a modern audience, especially if any members of that audience are into the Kabbalah, there are problems.

Let’s get the racism out of the way first. Rabbi Loew brings Wegener’s Golem to life, not by virtue of his Talmudic studies or his personal holiness, but by the black arts. He studies astrology, he studies necromancy, he summons a demon to learn the secret word that animates inert matter. Certain Jews in the ghetto are depicted as greedy for bribes. Loew’s daughter is shown as such a fleshly wanton she practically wears a sign saying I AM A SLUT! Her eagerness to take a gentile lover sets the catastrophe of the last act in motion, culminating in the Golem dragging her by her hair through the streets.

The other problem for a modern audience—well, let’s be fair. If you’ve never read any of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, or seen the TV adaptation of Hogfather, then you won’t find yourself giggling at how much Hans Poelzig’s vision of a medieval ghetto resembles Ankh-Morpork. Due to the costumer’s odd decision to put all the Jews in pointy hats, it looks as though the wizard faculty of the Unseen University is hosting a visiting delegation of teachers from Hogwarts. The green floating face of the demon Astaroth is spooky and impressive, in a wonderful monster-creation scene, but… remember that South Park episode in which Kyle goes to Hebrew Camp and Metatron appears to judge the craft projects? Darn. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that, because now you will remember it when you watch this classic film, and you’ll be snickering too.

But the day may come when all the pop culture references are forgotten, and our descendants will feel nothing but awe as they watch Wegener’s Golem lurching slowly through the narrow lanes, implacable as HAL 9000, deadly as the Terminator, angry as Bender. He has only the beginning of a sense of self and, unfortunately, resentment has been his first emotion.  He has never heard of any Three Laws of Robotics… perhaps our descendants will think twice, the next time they get one of those glossy vid-catalogs advertising a perfectly obedient robot butler.


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