In The Golem (2018), a Israeli supernatural horror movie, filmmakers Paz Brothers adapt a tale about a monster that protects a Jewish community from hostile locals in 17th century Lithuania. Although undeniably stylish and with a few outstanding moments, the movie struggles with pacing and the lack of an engaging antagonist who would provide contrast with the female lead, Hani Furstenbarg.
According to the Jewish religion, a golem is an anthropomorphic creature that could be summoned by rabbis from inanimate matter, like soil. In the Bible, golems are known as protectors of the Jewish people. A most famous tale concerning these strange creatures was about rabbi Judah Löw ben Bezulel of Prague who conjured up a golem in the 16th century when the local congregation was attacked. Frankly, this story appeared in several films, for instance, the 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, the 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 – the result of the tragic incident in which her son drowned – forms the backbone of the plot in The Golem (2018). When she is first introduced, Hanna appears to be 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, a hint to her deeply repressed longing for the deceased son.
By doing so, Hanna contradicts the traditional Jewish model, where her main societal responsibility is to give life to children. Hanna’s trauma blocks her from bearing another one though, and there’s a flame of grief still burning inside. A setting as such give the filmmakers a firm rooting that works well for the psychological horror of The Golem (2018).
Hence when left with little direction other than grieving over her son, Hanna plots to seek a risky way out. When her community is invaded by unfriendly neighbors, who are all struck by the dark plague, Hanna takes the village’s safety into her own hands. Considering her own personal gain at stake, which is to connect with the creature that resembles the deceased son, the woman revives the old tale and summons a mighty protector.
Actress Hani Furstenberg, whose worried eyes and concerned face capably transform into madness and dedication in no time, steals the show. Furstenberg beams with confidence, and makes up for a stand out among mostly b-league actors surrounding her.
The Golem (2018) lacks a foreboding antagonist
While the backbone of The Golem (2018) evolves with Hanna’s do-or-die choice, the antagonist in the movie remains bleak and largely underdeveloped. The golem may act as an emissary of evil – a foreign spirit that enters this world with a gruelling agenda – the script does not pinpoint the creature as the story’s main antagonist.
That darkest figure is Vladimir, the leader of the plagued people who attack the Jewish community. 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. If only the directors of The Golem (2018) could keep that momentum going.
I give the actor Aleksey Tritenko applause for stealing the show for a brief moment, but Vladimir’s role is quickly reduced to a forgettable, 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 left in his trail and the abrupt invasion dissolve as screenwriter Ariel Cohen moves to follow Hanna and her golem.
The trade-off between a climatic horror for drama lacks completion and a more thoughtful approach, 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 at the beginning of the film. And it all breaks with a weak link in the form of a villain to balance out Furstenberg’s role. Tritenko makes a splendid entrance, but that’s about it.
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, covered in mud, confused. This is an unexpected twist 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, but at a certain cost.
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