Daniel Wildmann on Feelings about Jews: Morality and Emotions in German Film, 1914-2014

Dear Friends,

As you know, I am working on a project entitled Feelings about Jews: Morality and Emotions in German Film, 1914-2014. I am currently working on the second chapter, which deals with films of the Weimar Republic. Paul Wegener’s film The Golem (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam [1921]) is one of the three films that I discuss in this chapter, within the context of my larger project. The films of the Weimar Republic represent a broad spectrum of visual projections of the intended space for Jews and Jewishness in German society – a politically contested question in the period between the Wars, which is engaged here in visual language, as I will show.

The Golem is considered a classic of Weimar Republic filmmaking. But for us film scholars, it is also one of the most challenging films of this time. Wegener’s Golem film of 1921 is contradictory and ambivalent, and this constitutes its power to fascinate – then as now. The film’s visual language wanders back and forth between different positions for Jews and Jewishness in Christian society. The film’s emotional language changes just as much. Thus, it argues that the Jewish society in the film must be shown respect, but at the same time, it holds that this same society must be excluded from the film’s Christian society. How can forms of laughter, curiosity or refusal, which characterize Christian society’s gestural forms of expression in key scenes, be interpreted as feelings that are based on moral values? How do these feelings become interpretable as moral sentiments, and how are they presented to a potential audience of the 1920s? Are the viewers supposed to agree with or are they supposed to refuse these feelings? And – in order to complicate matters further – how should these feelings be separated from the feelings that the public exhibited for the actor and director Paul Wegener in the universe of Weimar Republic film stars? Wegener not only directs this film but also plays the main role – the golem, an artificial creature that is created by a rabbi, gets out of control and must be brought back under control. At the end of the film – to save Jewish and Christian society in the film, but also to liberate the audience in the theater – this being is indeed brought back under control – by a Christian girl. What normative implications does this ending have? These are questions that cannot be easily answered.

A possible key to an answer may lie in reinterpreting the cultural role that Wegener, as a star of the German theater and film world, played in shaping contemporary notions of the beautiful and the ugly. Other keys include the influence of early 20th century German neo-Romanticism on the film’s visual language – Wegener was a prominent representative of neo-Romanticism – and the ambivalent fascination of neo-Romanticism for the foreign and the exotic. We will see…