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Interview: Yoav Paz and Hani Furstenberg Discuss Bringing “The Golem” Back to Life

Saturday, February 23, 2019 | Interviews

“When telling the story of our people – it is impossible to separate truth and myth.” These lines, in voiceover, begin The Golem, the newest film from Israeli horror maestros Doron and Yoav Paz, which aims to revisit a time and place of the past through folklore. Set in an isolated Lithuanian Jewish community in 1673, the film transports audiences back to a plague-ridden Europe, at a moment when this community is beset by panic-stricken Christians, who blame them for the disease. Enter Hanna, played by Hani Furstenberg, who, while struggling with the death of her child, delves into the knowledge of the Kabbalah – forbidden to her as a woman – to create the Golem, a powerful, uncontrollable being made of dirt and clay, in order to save the town. In this telling, however, the Golem takes the form of a small child – one who looks very familiar to Hanna…

             According to co-director Yoav Paz, one of the fundamental reasons behind reviving the story of the Golem – which is centuries older than the invention of cinema – was the fact that the character had remained dormant for so long: “The last time someone did a feature film about the Golem was 90 years ago – there was an episode of The X-Files, an episode of The Simpsons, but that was it!” Paz goes on to describe how, despite the lack of mainstream visibility, the Golem has remained a constant figure in Jewish folklore for at least 1000 years: “There’s all kinds of stories, but the basics are always the same – people want to hurt the Jewish community, and then the Rabbi – the leader of the community – makes a monster out of clay and mud – there’s variation on how the Rabbi puts life into the Golem, but it saves the Jewish community.”

            As with any mythical story, tales of the Golem need to be changed and updated for the time and place they are being told in order to survive. Here, one of the most interesting changes is that it is Hani Furstenberg’s Hanna who brings the Golem to life, instead of the Rabbi of previous versions. For Furstenberg, this change fundamentally alters the story: “This is a time and place where women weren’t allowed to study the Kabbalah at all. My character is a feminist before her time – she’s underneath the floorboards of the synagogue, studying secretly, and she just happens to be much smarter and much braver than all the men above her who were studying, and she is the one who goes against the grain and goes against society, and decides to save her village.” Hanna’s position in the story is further complicated by the choice to make the Golem, in Furstenberg’s words, “come to life in the form of a seven year old boy, which my character and her husband had lost seven years prior.” For Furstenberg, this choice complicates Hanna’s character further, allowing Hanna and the Golem to “become one and the same – I give him life, but then he becomes part of me, and we feel each other, we influence each other.”

The complicated relationships between the central family – Hanna, her husband Benjamin (Ishay Golan) and their deceased child (Kirill Cernyakov, also the Golem) – was part of Paz’s approach to building the film’s horror: “we didn’t want to make any jump scares – we had enough of those when we were working on our previous film, JeruZalem – we wanted to make it different, we wanted to tell the story, and put people into the atmosphere. It’s a slow burn, but we wanted people to be inside Hanna, to show what she’s going through and tell her story – and not to give thrills every few minutes.” According to Paz, taking the time to build the atmosphere and world of the film was important “especially because this is something that was never touched – there has never been made a film about this community in this kind of way. There is, I think, Fiddler on the Roof about this old Jewish community, and maybe the one with Barbara Streisand, but there wasn’t a real dark Jewish story set in this Orthodox community – because it’s such a unique and untouched world, it was very important for us to take our time, and to show the cultural life.”

For Furstenberg, traveling back in time to embody this community wasn’t a challenge – “we had the okay to go with our imaginations – we had this amazing set that was in the middle of the Ukraine – which was actually a Russian set which was abandoned like 50 years prior – and it was just acres and acres of green land, with all this village that’s just there. This is what I love about movie-making – you’re just thrown into this world, and especially when you’re on set, away from home, you’re in this bubble, and you get to live in it.” For her, this is especially true given that it is her first horror film: “this is the most fun I’ve ever had doing a film – you go back to being a kid, and everything is playful, and everything is extreme, in the horror aspect of it – it gives you more freedom as an actor to just play and be, and let the story and setting take you on this ride.”

When it came to the actual process of shooting, co-director Paz found working with his brother to be a gift: “We don’t how someone could direct alone – it’s such a difficult job. Also, I think that everyone needs some kind of dialogue – even directors working by themselves will have a dialogue with their Director of Photography, or someone else that they trust – but you need to argue! When we were writing the script with Ariel Cohen, we argued a lot, and from arguments come good things, because you need to justify your ideas, and then you understand that maybe you are wrong – it’s a wonderful thing to share it with someone else, and not to have to make all the decisions by yourself.”

“They work so peacefully together… I’m not sure that I could do that with my brother!” laughs Furstenberg, “although – I’m acting with my mother in the film [Brynie Furstenberg], who plays Perla, the healer of the village, which was also a challenge – but a fun one.”

After helping to bring the tale of the Golem back to life, Paz can’t help but wonder what other figures from Jewish folklore could receive a similar treatment: “It’s a goldmine – there’s all kinds of figures and monsters from Jewish tradition, just waiting for people to pick them up and start doing things with them – there’s Lilith, a demon femme fatale who attracts men like a siren, but also kills babies – there’s the Dybbuk, which was the source for The Exorcist, there’s all kinds of dark angels you can read about in the bibles – it’s a world of monsters and creatures!”

Sarah Woodstock
Sarah is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, with a love for writing about and researching anything horror-related.