The Golem

Year of Premiere: 
1987
Composer: 
Betty Olivero
Artists: 
Mina Miller, piano.

Made at a pivotal time in European Jewish life, The Golem: How He Came Into The World is set in 16th-century Prague, and based on a mystical Jewish legend. By 1920—the year the German Workers Party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers Party—the conflicting currents of Jewish assimilation and separation were converging with an increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. The director’s own biography illustrates that tension: Paul Wegener, once a pacifist, was later honored by Josef Goebbels for his production of Nazi propaganda films. Wegener co-wrote and co-directed The Golem, and also portrayed the Golem character. The film was shot by Karl Freund, the lighting legend behind Metropolis and Dracula. (After emigrating to the U.S., Freund became head cameraman for I Love Lucy.)

Wegener produced three Golem films, but only the third – The Golem: How He Came Into The World – has been preserved. Rabbi Loew, responding to the Emperor’s decree expelling the Jews from Prague, creates the Golem and brings him to life. The Golem saves the Ghetto, but he soon slips from the rabbi’s control. The story is rich in symbolism and allegory. Some Jewish thinkers have seen in the legend a depiction of complex moral choices faced by those confronting the threat of destruction. For German film audiences, The Golem contained provocative imagery of Jews and Jewishness, and the film’s impact was social as well as artistic. Olivero’s score brilliantly reinforces the cinematic effects of this classic German Expressionist film, combining folk styles and contemporary techniques. Some of the music has its genesis in klezmer tunes, and another melody quotes from “Place Me Under Thy Wing.” The music, seamlessly integrated with the film, blurs the lines of memory and fantasy, history and myth.

Betty Olivero offers the following remarks:

About fifteen years ago I had some concerts in Munich and by chance I met a woman who was involved in the restoration of the film The Golem: How He Came Into The World at the State Museum. I was honored to be present at a private projection of the final, just-restored work. I was amazed by the beauty of the film. The legend, in all its different versions, was well known to me, and I had always wanted to write an opera, or ballet music, for it. I was so attracted by Wegener’s silent movie that I decided that this would be the perfect realization of my dream. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) I then met clarinetist Giora Feidman through a dear friend, and I told him about the film I had just seen. We decided to realize my dream together. I would write the music for clarinet and string quartet and he would play it. The body movement of the actors, the exaggerated expressions, the over-acting—all so characteristic of the silent movie acting style—seemed to me like a ballet that music should be set to. It was like writing music to an existing choreography.

Starkly different worlds are brought together in The Golem: the 16th-century Jewish legend about the Golem of Prague, Jewish customs and traditions throughout the centuries (up to the early part of the 20th century when the film was made), and German Expressionism. The music I composed to accompany the film pays homage to these different cultural strands, and manifest the crossroads of these far-apart worlds, which are yet connected through the film’s artistic vision. Each of the different characters and scenes that appear in the beginning of the film has a particular and distinctive musical theme. As the drama develops, these themes—all emerging from traditional tunes from the Jewish folk and klezmer repertoire, as well as highly sacred music from ancient Jewish liturgy—weave into each other.