In the Israeli horror The Golem (2018) filmmakers Paz Brothers adapt a tale about a monster that protects a Jewish community from hostile locals in the 17th century Lithuania.
According to Jewish religion, a golem is an anthropomorphic creature that could be summoned by rabbis from inanimate matter, like soil. In the Bible, golems are told to be the protectors of the Jewish people. A most famous tale about rabbi Judah Löw ben Bezulel of Prague mentioned the creation of a golem in the 16th century, when the local congregation was attacked. This story served as a basis for several films, for instance a silent German film The Golem (1920).
The Prague summoning appears as a prologue to The Golem (2018) too. Massacred bodies lie on the floor of a synagogue, where a rabbi attempts to control a gnarling shadowy figure standing at the altar. After that brief introduction to the monster, Paz brothers relocate the story’s setting to Lithuania, where Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) – the protagonist of the movie – lives in a closed-off Jewish community.
Hanna – the troubled protagonist of The Golem (2018)
Hanna’s turmoil – result of the tragic incident in which her son drowned – forms the plot’s backbone in The Golem (2018). When she is first introduced, Hanna appears cold, and distant. As pointed out by her frustrated husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan), the woman’s glued to reading sacred books and learning the rabbi’s secrets. But in the traditional Jewish model, she should give life to children. Hanna’s trauma blocks her from bearing another one, and there’s a flame of grief still burning inside.
That is a curious turn made by the directors and their screenwriter. Hanna’s repressed emotions find a peculiar way out, when her community is invaded by unfriendly neighbors, who are all struck by the dark plague. Played on an almost feminist note, Hanna takes the village’s safety in her own hands. She also has her own personal gain at stake, which is to connect with the creature that resembles the deceased son.
The drama is sensitively portrayed by actress Hani Furstenberg, whose worried eyes and concerned face capably transform into madness and dedication in no time. Furstenberg beams with confidence, and makes up for a stand out among b-league actors surrounding her.
The Golem (2018) lacks a foreboding antagonist
The backbone of The Golem (2018) evolves, yet the antagonist remains bleak and underdeveloped. While the golem, which is summoned by Hanna, acts as an emissary of evil, the script does not pinpoint the kid as the story’s main antagonist.
That figure is Vladimir, the leader of the plagued people. Vladimir’s arrival is arguably one of the film’s highlights. Wearing a Plague Doctor outfit, and holding a half-fainted woman in his arms, Vladimir’s solemn figure appears on the horizon like an omen of destruction.
I give the actor Aleksey Tritenko an applause for stealing the show for a brief moment, but Vladimir’s role is quickly reduced to a lackluster antagonist, whose first appearance is no match for anything that comes later. The build-up made with creepy Plague Doctor beaky masks, piles of bodies and their abrupt invasion dissolves as screenwriter Ariel Cohen moves onto the subplot including Hanna and her golem.
The trade off between a climatic horror for drama is not complete, and that’s where The Golem (2018) struggles most. Within this poignant story about mother’s love and pain, Paz Brothers can’t capture the robust, darkly folk horror promised in the beginning of the film. And it all begins with a weak link in the form of a villain to balance out Furstenberg’s role.
The Golem (2018) is filmed with exquisite care
What I liked about The Golem (2018) though is how it approaches the fabulous element of the story. The creature summoned by Hanna is a young, innocent boy that walks around covered in mud. This is an unexpected choice considering the snarling monster, twice as big as the rabbi, shown in the beginning. A wise decision it is, for it allows Hanna’s character arch to be far more relatable. She who starts as an outcast, wins the chance to become the savior of her people.
Another positive side to The Golem (2018) is the work of Igor Ryabchuk and Rotem Yaron, two cinematographers who helmed the project. Their photography conjures the rustic setting for the story, as well as capably highlights darker, more dreadful moments in the film.
Although I’m a sucker for climatic horrors myself, The Golem (2018) falters on its hunt for a cold-blooded villain which would make the dramatic layer resonate more. But there’s enough fuel, delivered in form of climatic cinematography and well-structured storytelling, that should keep audiences invested nevertheless.
The Golem (2018) – Culturally Hated or Loved?
While its unhurried pace can be discouraging to some, this Israeli horror relies on a solid drama that carries its less fortunate choices well.
The Golem (2018)
Hate Grade: 3.5/10
Directors: Paz Brothers (Doron Paz & Yoav Paz)
Screenwriters: Ariel Cohen
Cast: Ishai Golan, Hani Furstenberg, Kirill Cernyakov, Aleksey Tritenko
Cinematographer: Igor Ryabchuk, Rotem Yaron
Music: Tal Yardeni
Where to watch: Netflix
Looking for more folk horrors? Take a look at those films similar to The Golem (2018):
- The Witch (2015) – a go-to movie for folk tale fans, and a likely inspiration for Paz brothers
- The Village (2004) – the classic M. Night Shyamalan film finds a congregation living in the deeps of the woods, where monsters hunt
- The Wind (2018) – a climatic drama infused with some serious horror bits and a distinct 19th century setting
- November (2017) – an Estonian black-and-white folk tale about a girl who uses witchcraft to win the heart of a man she loves