• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, November 16, 2007

    Golem, l'esprit de l'exil
    (Golem, the Spirit of Exile)

    One of the reasons I first started this blog was to have somewhere to write down a few notes on a Bible film after I had seen it. One of the things I've found over the years is that by writing about a film I come to understand it more. But somewhere along the line, I've ended up only writing reviews, or scene guides, in other words things that are a bit more polished. This, in turn, means that I end delaying writing certain pieces until I forget about them and they never get written

    So I've decided to return to my roots for this one. The main reason for doing this is that Golem, l'esprit de l'exil is such a complex film that it's hard to really "get it" on a first viewing, particularly given the paucity of commentary and analysis on it. I may return, on further reflection, to write a more thought-out review, (particularly once I've had a chance to watch the interviews that are included amongst the DVD's extra features), but if not then at least I've documented my thoughts in some form.

    The story of Golem is not,from the Bible of course. It's based on later Jewish texts which describe an "animated being created entirely from inanimate matter".1 A wealth of stories have sprung up around these texts, involving appearances to Rabbis, defending the Jewish people from anti-Semitic attacks, and so on. The stories of these dumb, shadow beings, and the themes associated with them can be seen at work in more recent artistic pieces. The monster in Shelley's "Frankenstein" is clearly in this tradition. Other examples are Gustav Meyrink's 1915 novel Der Golem which inspired a series of silent movies, (such as the 1920 film The Golem) and Julien Duvivier's "Le Golem" (1936). Today "Golem" evokes "Lord of the Rings", which has clearly been influenced by these traditions.Having said all that there is also a strong biblical element to this film. This functions on two levels: narrative and text. The film's narrative is essentially a modernisation of the story of Ruth. Naomi and Elimelech are migrants in gentile France and their two sons are romantically involved with two gentile women. Elimelech's death is followed swiftly by his sons "being killed in a hate crime", leaving the three women alone.2 One returns to her parents, the other, Ruth, stays with Naomi, and the pair return to Israel. There Ruth meets and marries Boaz and eventually bears him a son.

    On a textual level there are, of course, a number of passages from the Book of Ruth. However, the script also quotes numerous chunks of scripture from various places in the Old Testament: Genesis, Ecclesiastes and the prophets. All of this is interwoven with modern day additions which give the biblical quotations a more staid feel whilst simultaneously underlining their importance.One of the most interesting things about this film is how it uses it's French context. As noted above, this is a gentile, and furthermore secular, setting, and there's a sense in which the characters of Naomi, Elimelech and their two sons always seem out of somewhat out of place. This is perhaps underscored most forcefully when the Orpah figure returns to her parents home. But it also has the effect of putting us (well, westerners) on the side of the original story's Moabites, rather than on the side of the original stories Israelites (as The Story of Ruth does by choosing a non-US actress to play Ruth).

    Whilst, on the one hand, being companions, there's a tension in the original story between Naomi, who is eager to return to her home land, and Ruth who is actually leaving her home land in order to stay with Naomi. This aspect is brought out superbly by what is perhaps my favourite shot in the film. Naomi and Ruth are seated on the back of an open truck, sights from urban France passing in the background. There's a deliberately unrealistic feel here which combines with the slightly meditative soundtrack to give the scene a feeling of detachment. But whereas Naomi sits out in front and looks forward to what's ahead, Ruth looks behind her with a certain sadness.

    Screen Shot to follow

    It's relatively unusual that films based on the Bible contain much nudity, perhaps because this might alienate some of the potential audience for such films. As Golem clearly isn't on a quest for ratings it's a little more free to experiment in this regard. So all three couples are shown in some sort of frank love scene, which as Peter Chattaway points out gives extra poignancy to the scenes following their deaths. Their depth of relationship has been heavily underscored prior to the tragedy.3

    There's also an unusual nude scene between Naomi and Ruth. This could also be interpreted as a love scene, especially as Song of Songs is quoted at the time, but there's little indication, at least from the acting that this is the case. Some scholars have speculated that Ruth 1:14's use of the word translated clave (traditionally used to indicate marriage e.g. Gen 2:24) suggests this, but personally I'm unconvinced. The book does indicate a strong attachment between these women, and the intimacy and tenderness of this scene, whilst clearly beyond the realms of the text, does bring that home.

    It's perhaps stating the obvious to say that this film also has a great deal to say about migration. Many consider the canonical purpose of the Book of Ruth to be to counter anti-gentile feeling during / following Ezra's reforms. Here Gitai is clearly keen to highlight the dangers migrants to the west - Elimelech is killed in a (preventable) industrial accident; his sons are "murdered" because of their nationality, and you get the impression that the police are not taking the case particularly seriously; Naomi is evicted and is told that she cannot bury her family in France, and thus, is effectively deported.

    I'll end with a quote from Gitai himself:
    "The Book of Ruth is based on a documentary story: a family in Bethlehem suffers from the famine there and goes to Moab, the "new country of exile". But the biblical writer takes this event and transforms it into fictional material. And this then becomes eventually even more than fiction: it becomes a sanctified myth. We, in turn, place the biblical story in the present and work with those ambiguities, but we strip away some of the sanctification, keeping the mythological echoes but placing them in the here and now. The issue of creation is the general framework of the film and, inside this framework, there is a permanent back and forth movement to the issue of exile. Through the Golem, I tried to deal with some of my own questions regarding the cinematic language. In Golem, the Spirit of Exile, the central spine of the story is the theme of being uprooted, which links the whole trilogy".4

    1 - "Golem" from Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem
    2 - Peter Chattaway - "Passion disturbing, inspiring and challenging" - http://www.canadianchristianity.com/cgi-bin/bc.cgi?bc/bccn/0304/22passion
    3 - Peter Chattaway - OnFilm message board - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/onfilm/message/4404
    4 - Amos Gitai, in Yann Lardeau, "Les Films d'Amos Gitai", (unpublished)

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