23 December 2008 | chaos-rampant
Kafkaesque claustrophobia meets surrealism in a sci-fi retelling of a classic story
As the opening credits and the title reveal, Piotr Szulkin's debut proper, following a series of experimental shorts and TV work, is a retelling of Gustav Meyrink's classic story of the Golem, a clay figure magically animated by a rabbi to protect a Jewish community somewhere in Germany. Szulkin emphasizes the prophetic nature of the story by transposing it somewhere in the near future, with scientists experimenting with eugenics to create a new race of superhumans after witnessing the devastating effects of a nuclear war.
Unlike Paul Wagener's automaton-with-a-heart from his silent classic of German expressionism, Szulkin's golem is a common man in appearance and more human than the actual humans in heart and soul. His name is Pernat and he's a copper craftsman living in a shabby apartment block. The first scene finds him interrogated for the murder of a doctor that lived in a nearby apartment, a murder he knows nothing about. The nightmarish, claustrophobic mood established by this early scene that seems to recall Kafka's THE TRIAL is sustained throughout, embedded from all sides with surrealism, dark humour, social commentary and general absurdity.
A great example of the socially-minded dark surrealism Szulkin goes for is a scene where Pernat, our golem, is invited into a cinema by the cranky old father of a girl he meets, or as he calls it the Church of Transfiguration. Once inside Pernat witnesses the projection of a commercial, sung by children voices to the tune of the Christmas carol, advertising sleeping pills (called 'Happy Dorm' - "sleep from night to morning is what Happy Dorm will bring")! The commercial follows a particularly creepy second one advertising plastic surgery. As all this is happening the father who is sitting next to him is dozing off. He then walks to the toilet (which is plastered with posters portraying FRANKENSTEIN, THE WOLF MAN and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES) and removes his own face, while the cleaning lady is slamming on the door.
Later on, another character rants on about the voyeurism of theater audiences, how they watch movies for sentimentality and schmaltz, so they can feel themselves more human compared to the characters on screen. What may sound as the disillusioned preaching of an avant-garde director speaking through his own characters, bears relevance to the larger frame of the movie. As one of the scientists who created Pernat replies to the question of another: "what makes you so sure (Pernat) is human?".
Filmed around a shabby apartment block in dark orange hues, like the sepia tinting of a silent film, GOLEM works more often than not, has a point to get across, and in the same time marks Szulkin as a visionary auteur in his own right. His later sci-fi movies were more playfull and inventive (no doubt helped by significantly higher budgets), but the social commentary, satiric approach and black humour are constants in his work. From the claustrophobic opening to the enigmatic ending, with its kafkaesque ambiance and small tributes to other films (THE TRIAL, BRAZIL, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and possibly CITIZEN KANE in the end-credits scene), GOLEM is worth your time.