Everything horror writers and filmmakers have stolen from Hebrew mysticism gets stolen right back by the Israeli writer-director team of Yoav and Doron Paz in The Golem (2019). A well-crafted and idiosyncratic supernatural thriller, the film plays like a mix of Frankenstein, The Witch, and some of the Coen brothers’ more explicitly Jewish movies.
Hani Furstenberg stars as Hanna, an iconoclastic wife in a 17th century Lithuanian village, where the Jews frequently come under attack by superstitious neighboring Russian Christians. Wanting to help her people, Hanna takes what she’s learned from her surreptitious reading of her husband’s Kabbalah and creates a protective spirit — a golem — who looks just like her own dead son.
Even before the creepily boyish avenger starts wreaking havoc, The Golem has a sense of grim unease. As a woman who refuses to let the elders in her deeply religious community control her, Hanna is undeniably sympathetic. But Furstenberg plays her with an edge: A lifetime of keeping her interests and passions secret, coupled with lingering grief, has made Hanna paranoid.
The Golem never turns into a splatter film, and it deploys its big scares sparingly. Mostly, the Paz brothers create an impressively detailed version of old-world Eastern Europe, coupled with lots of precise explanation of the “the 72 sacred letters” and other Jewish arcana.
That rich, realistic background adds a tragic dimension to what happens when Hanna tries to play God, creating a life so monstrous that she has to wonder: What hath she wrought?