On October 29, just in time for Halloween and exactly one hundred years to the day of its original release, The Golem was shown to an audience of King’s community members and the wider public. In a live-streamed event co-hosted by the Contemporary Studies Program (CSP), the History of Science and Technology Program (HOST) and Halifax non-profit Upstream Music Association, the 1920 silent film was shown online with the accompaniment of a live, improvised score played by the Upstream Quartet.
Directed by Paul Wegener (who also played the titular figure), the film presents a version of the Golem story that is a part of traditional Jewish folklore, through a decidedly non-Jewish narrative about a 16th century rabbi who tried to protect his people from sudden expulsion and destruction by creating a man from clay (the golem). In the film, the rabbi creates the golem with the hope of impressing the aristocracy in order to convince them to revoke their hasty and callous order to expel his community. And when the rabbi uses the golem to save the king and his court from a collapsing building, the king ‘pardons’ the Jewish people and allows them to remain in the country. Having achieved his purpose, the rabbi takes the golem’s life away. When the rabbi’s assistant reanimates the golem later on, it causes death and chaos. Featuring a panoply of special effects circa 1920, and with evocative sets created by German architect Hans Poelzig, the film is considered a major work of German Expressionist cinema.
Dr. Lissa Skitolsky, the Simon and Riva Spatz Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at Dalhousie University, delivered one of two brief introductory talks. In her presentation on “The Golem and the Racial Anxiety of European Jews,” Dr. Skitolsky provided context for the Jewish story that inspired the film. She explained that the film perpetuates the same anti-Semitic tropes of Jews as provincial, backward, superstitious and dangerous that motivated and rationalized both anti-Jewish sentiment and state violence against Jewish communities in the medieval and modern eras. For this reason, she reminded the audience that this is a portrayal of a Jewish community through a non-Jewish lens, which often mistakes the effects of the European persecution of the Jews as the cause of their persecution. As she explained: “if many Jewish communities appear to be insular, and resist assimilation, and remain wary of cultural norms, it’s as a result of the perpetual displacement, discrimination and mass death suffered as a result of those norms. So for this reason it’s important to keep in mind that Jewish history itself is characterized by Jews in diaspora, scattered around the world and stateless, always granted temporary residence in a country under compromised conditions—prevented from owning land or property—until suddenly they would be thrown out by the whims of a fickle leader.”
Dr. Stephen Snobelen, associate professor of humanities in the HOST program delivered the second introductory talk, addressing “The Golem, science fiction and the history of science.” Dr. Snobelen began his talk showing artistic depictions of a male and a female golem by the artist Abraham Pincas. The figures in each of the portraits bear the Hebrew letters aleph, mem, and tau on their foreheads—together these letters spell “aemet” which means “truth.” In the golem legend, placing these letters on the figure’s forehead gave the golem life. By removing the aleph, the golem was left with “met” meaning “death.” Consequently, by removing the aleph the golem’s life could be ended. For this reason, Dr. Snobelen likened the letters to a “kill switch”—a phrase popular in science fiction that refers to a safety mechanism that initiates the total shut down of a machine or system. In the film, the golem does not bear letters as such, but rather an amulet that contains the letters on paper. When the amulet is removed the golem falls to the ground. Further exploring the links between the golem and present day popular culture, Dr. Snobelen explained that in recent years the golem has become a metaphor for technologies that bring with their adoption the potential for great benefit and for great harm.
Throughout the screening, Upstream Quartet, featuring Dawn Hatfield, Geordie Haley, Andrew Miller and Lukas Pearse, played an improvised soundtrack that traced the film’s narrative flow. As Pearse noted in his introduction, fully or partially improvised scores were common during the silent film era, and in this way Upstream Quartet’s accompaniment was a nod to the era.
This event continues the history of collaboration between the HOST program, Lukas Pearse, and Upstream Quartet to produce events integrating science-themed films from the era of silent pictures with music from live bands. Films shown in past years include Metropolis (1927), Nosferatu (1922) and Battleship Potemkin (1925).
This text was revised on November 10, 2020, to better reflect Dr. Lissa Skitolsky’s lecture.