Golem and Mirjam

Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM

Cathy S. Gelbin

Since the Middle Ages, monsters have functioned to warn against sin; in modernity, they became signs of difference in. In keeping with these meanings, Paul Wegener’s iconic 1920 film Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem, How He Came Into the World) exemplifies this concept’s multiple aspects of racial, sexual and gender transgression. Like other artificial humanoids in Weimar film, the golem in Wegener’s film represents an alternative type of masculinity, a “New Man” complementing the idea of the sexually empowered “New Woman” also presented in so many Weimar texts. This image is present in the figure of Mirjam, Rabbi Loew’s daughter, as the Jewish femme fatale who had embodied the negative ideas about both women and Jews since the fin de siècle.

In turn, Wegener’s golem exemplifies the fin de siècle idea of the “Muscle Jew,” a new Zionist warrior type who would till the soil and defend his people, which reimagined the anti-Semitic stereotype of the weak, effeminate ghetto Jew. This type is suggested in Rabbi Loew’s Famulus, who has been unsuccessful in vying for Mirjam’s attentions. Instead, Mirjam has entertained a liaison with the Christian Knight Florian, an act of transgression against the implied norms of a bounded female sexuality on the one hand, and the racial discourse against miscegenation on the other. Famulus thus calls on the golem to destroy the knight. This unleashes a violent desire in the golem, who overpowers Mirjam and drags her away. Mirjam will now succumb to Famulus’s advances as he promises to forgive her wrongdoing and keep it a secret. The golem, therefore, functions as a narrative tool to restore the patriarchal order and its prescribed boundaries between Christians and Jews.

Wegener’s image of the monster bearing the woman would be borrowed time and again as a staple for the racialized love dramas of 1930s Hollywood horror film, from Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) to Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933). The lasting impact of the film is not simply incidental, for Wegener made the golem and his Jewish creator a sign of the creative powers of the cinematic medium, in which German-speaking Jews played a crucial part. Wegener himself, who also played the golem, was a non-Jew, but his cast included a number of Jewish actors, such as Albert Steinrück in the role of Rabbi Loew and Ernst Deutsch as Famulus, who, like him, were engaged at Max Reinhardt’s famous Deutsches Theater. As Wegener proposed in his 1917 essay “Von den künstlerischen Möglichkeiten des Wandelbildes” (“On the Artistic Potential of the Moving Image”), the essence of film lay in the art of the camera, whose poetry unfolded in the image.1 Wegener saw in “the silent and mystical golem” the perfect encapsulation of the “purely pictorial presence in film”.2 The lasting fascination with Wegener’s Golem no doubt derives from its celebration of the cinematic medium, as well as its enigmatic and ambivalent images of the Jew.

Cathy S. Gelbin is senior lecturer in German studies at the University of Manchester and co-editor of the Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook. Her main research is German-Jewish culture from the beginning of the 19th century including questions on gender and sexuality. Other special interests lie in Holocaust representations and contemporary German-Jewish culture in the European and global context.

  1. Paul Wegener, “Von den künstlerischen Möglichkeiten des Wandelbildes”, in: Helmut H. Diederichs, ed., Geschichte der Filmtheorie. Kunsttheoretische Texte von Méliès bis Arnheim, Frankfurt am Main, 2004, p. 225–226. ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎

Filmstill from the movie “The Golem, How He Came Into the World” by Paul Wegener: the golem looks at a resting woman in a scared manner, his hand is resting on her abdomen.

The Golem, How He Came into the World (Filmstill)
Directed by Paul Wegener/Carl Boese
Written by Paul Wegener/Henrik Galeen, Germany, 1920
Photograph, 24 x 30 cm
Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt a.M./Nachlass Paul Wegener - Sammlung Kai Möller

Citation recommendation:

Cathy S. Gelbin (2016), Golem and Mirjam. Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM.
URL: www.jmberlin.de/en/node/4700

Golem as action figure (detail)

Online Edition of the GOLEM Catalog: Table of Contents

The Golem in Berlin: Introduction by Peter Schäfer
Chapter 1
The Golem Lives On: Introduction by Martina Lüdicke
My Light is Your Life: Text by Anna Dorothea Ludewig
Avatars: Text by Louisa Hall
The Secret of the Cyborgs: Text by Caspar Battegay
Chapter 2
Jewish Mysticism: Introduction by Emily D. Bilski
Golem Magic: Text by Martina Lüdicke
Golem, Language, Dada: Text by Emily D. Bilski
Chapter 3
Transformation: Introduction by Emily D. Bilski
Jana Sterbak’s Golem: Objects as Sensations: Text by Rita Kersting
Crisálidas (Chrysalises): Text by Jorge Gil
Rituals: Text by Christopher Lyon
A Golem that Ended Well: Text by Emily D. Bilski
On the Golem: Text by David Musgrave
Louise Fishman’s Paint Golem: Text by Emily D. Bilski
Chapter 4
Legendary Prague: Introduction by Martina Lüdicke
Golem Variations: Text by Peter Schäfer
Rabbi Loew’s Well-Deserved Bath: Text by Harold Gabriel Weisz Carrington
Chapter 5
Horror and Magic: Introduction by Martina Lüdicke
Golem and a Little Girl: Text by Helene Wecker
The Golem with a Group of Children Dancing: Text by Karin Harrasser
Bringing the Film Set To Life: Text by Anna-Carolin Augustin
Current page: Golem and Mirjam: Text by Cathy S. Gelbin
Chapter 6
Out of Control: Introduction by Emily D. Bilski
Golem—Man Awakened with Glowing Hammer: Text by Arno Pařík
Dangerous Symbols: Text by Charlotta Kotik
Be Careful What You Wish For: Text by Marc Estrin
Chapter 7
Doppelgänger: Introduction by Martina Lüdicke
From the Golem-Talmud: Text by Joshua Cohen
Kitaj’s Art Golem: Text by Tracy Bartley
The Golem as Techno-Imagination?: Text by Cosima Wagner
See also
GOLEM: 2016, online edition with selected texts of the exhibition catalog
GOLEM: 2016, complete printed edition of the exhibition catalog, in German
Golem. From Mysticism to Minecraft: Online Feature, 2016
GOLEM: Exhibition, 23 Sep 2016 to 29 Jan 2017

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