Golem (1980)

Ah, what a marvelously strange film!

Polish director Piotr Szulkin made four strange and surreal political allegories disguised as Science Fiction back in the Eighties, of which Golem was the first.

It tells the story of an artificial man, who doesn’t realize that he isn’t really who he thinks he is.  He’s been copied from one of the residents in a rundown apartment house as part of a secret government program to create artificial men to replace the human race, and thanks to a bureaucratic foul up, he’s taken the place of his original.

He is confounded by the irrational behavior of the other residents, harassed by a crooked landlord who also enforces government rules and regulations on his tenants, arrested and released for murders he hasn’t committed, surrounded by spies, government agents and other strange people, and constantly buried under the weight of bureaucratic regulations.

While Szulkin credited a book on the legendary Golem of Prague as his inspiration for the film, he obviously has drawn heavily from Kafka – and from the harsh realities of Communist Poland.  Some of the details – like having the landlord act as an agent of the state, complete with lots of paperwork for his tenants – may seem surprising to those who have little understanding of Communist rule and how it enlisted everyone to enforce the will of the state.

His Golem, however, bears little resemblance to the blank and impersonal Golem of the 1920 silent film – instead, he is far more caring and compassionate, far more willing to help others and far kinder than any of those around him.  He seems at times the only human being in a decaying age.

Ironically, Szulkin’s film career foundered with the death of the Soviet Union and the changing realities in Poland, perhaps because, while he knew how to work within the stifling bureaucratic realities of the Eighties, he never learned how to navigate the new political hazards of the incoming regime.

Golem has a rich, sepia-tone look which reminds me of Jeunet et Caro’s Delicatessen, a film which is almost as surreal and absurd, although it has also been compared to Gilliam’s Brazil, and Tarkovsky’s Stalker.  Which, you have to admit, is pretty good company.

Just don’t turn off the film as soon as the credits start, as the last, ironic joke is yet to come.

(film available here)


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