The Golem with Black Francis – Performance Review

(Photo from my BlackBerry. Sorry about the blur: I was walking!)

Well, the line wrapped around the block and extended well down 19th Street, and they had to delay the start of the performance in order to get the capacity crowd into the theater. It was a good show.

The Golem, set in a medieval Jewish ghetto, was produced in Germany in 1920 — the year the Nazi Party was founded. As you might expect from that context, the film was at times baffling, at times infuriating, but always compellingly weird and thought-provoking. And the original music by Black Francis was basically awesome.

The story is based on a legend first recorded in the mid-19th century, recounting events that were supposed to have happened three centuries earlier. Rabbi Loew, the leading elder, receives an edict from his emperor proclaiming that the ghetto is to be evacuated and destroyed. At the same time, his daughter Miriam falls inconveniently in love with the foppish courtier, Florian, who was sent to deliver the message. What’s worse, Florian responds to her love. Faced with these threats, the Rabbi determines he will fashion a golem — a clay man, made animate by magic — to protect his household and his people. Of course this creature is dangerously simple-minded, and trouble develops almost immediately.

From there the story follows an ambiguous path, and the ambiguities seem to spring from the filmmakers’ own divided feelings about their subject. Given the context, the story is remarkably sympathetic to the Jews — if you can even dignify these strange amalgamated occultists with that name. Apart from the yarmulkes and Hebrew letters that occasionally appear on screen, there’s not much Jewish about them. Throughout, scenes of astrology and black magic are all mixed up with synagogue and prayer, and in this world a ‘rabbi’ is really more of a gypsy sorcerer with a long beard — tall conical hat and all. He consults fat tomes of arcane lore, and names and places like Astaroth, Solomon, Thessaly and Babylon are invoked. And although by tradition a golem is a holy thing, a sign that its master enjoys great wisdom and special status in the eyes of God, here the golem is animated only with help from an evil spirit, who appears with smoke billowing from his mouth to reveal the needed magic word.

Yet for all this, it’s clear that the directors meant for our sympathies to lie with Rabbi Loew and his people. His community — his daughter! — is threatened by an all-powerful emperor, who can destroy them all at will, and it seems that Rabbi Loew is a good man who uses black magic only as a last resort, in self-defense. When the emperor’s court howls with laughter at a representation of the Exodus and a figure who might be Moses, the palace begins to collapse and their lives are only saved because Rabbi Loew commands the Golem to hold the ceiling up. As for the golem himself, he is an innocent, amoral being, subject to forces beyond his control. When the stars dictate obedience, he is obedient; when they dictate he go berserk, he goes berserk, setting fire to the ghetto and kidnapping Miriam. In the end there is a happy ending for all.

The accompanying music was superb. For instance, the opening scene shows an astrologer contemplating the stars and discovering bad omens there; against this was set a powerful, languorous guitar riff, heavy with atmospheric fuzz, that created a sense of truly epic foreboding — a sense only intensified when the rest of the band made its overpowering entrance. It was a great beginning to a great song, and they continued at this high level throughout the performance.

Almost every song had lyrics, and at first I was skeptical about that. But in every case Black Francis used the words to summarize the themes of what was happening on screen, providing a kind of running commentary as the visuals and title cards streamed by. And like any good silent film score, he reprised snippets of melody and even entire songs to emphasize thematic connections. One song had the refrain “evil,” and this was played at least twice — first when the emperor decreed destruction of the ghetto, and again when Rabbi Loew summoned the evil spirit. One excellent song, with the refrain “you be my master, I’ll be your slave,” pulled that dynamic between the Rabbi and his creature into high relief. Beyond that, the songs were great music; by the time the show was over, I wanted a recording of the complete performance to listen to again.

The only thing detracting from the show was the incessant wisecracking of the MC. There were long pauses between certain songs, and he’d take these opportunities to say something “amusing.” While this was welcome at first, once the story had gotten underway, they only served to break the involvement of the audience. It didn’t help that the jokes became increasingly tasteless and unfunny as the show went on, and by the end people had long stopped laughing at his efforts.

Overall, though, it was a wonderful performance, and a great example of how newly created music can refresh and augment the power of a weird old silent film. A repeat performance would be most welcome!

4 Comments so far

  1. pete on April 26th, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

    The MC almost ruined the whole thing for me. I was there to see an interesting film with a new score, not MST3K. But I also thought the score had some major weaknesses… primarily that it wasn’t a score, but a collection of songs about the movie. It felt like I was seeing a Black Francis concert that happened to have a movie playing.

    The music was good, and the film was fascinating. I might buy the record that BF has already mentioned he may do of this, but I’d really like to see the movie again with a real score.

  2. erwing on April 28th, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

    Pete, I totally agree. My take on it was that Black Francis wrote a soundtrack, not a score. I loved the music, and have always loved the film, but I think the music didn’t complement the film or augment its emotion and mood as a score should.

    This is a small problem compared with the "MC." Whose idea was this guy?? Even on paper that idea would look terrible. Does someone have so little faith in the audience that they think they need banal pop culture references to keep them interested? Does that person see the film not as a beautiful relic of Weimar Germany but a silly little piece of kitsch that needs the MST3K treatment? Even if the "MC’s" comments weren’t so thoroughly puerile("Hey his teeth look like Freddy Mercury’s!" "Hey, that hair looks like Diane Feinstein’s"), even if his knowledge of film was deeper than a gloss over the wikipedia site, he could have only detracted from the feel and sheer beauty of the film.

    As it was, I think he did ruin it for me — and everyone near me that I talked to afterwards.

  3. Jeremy Hatch (jhatch) on April 28th, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

    Thank you for your comments, pete and erwing!

  4. billr on April 29th, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

    I also want to chime in on the MC. He didn’t ruin for me, but he was a distraction (three YouTube jokes?) and what was the point in demeaning the film? Both people I was with didn’t like that either. I liked the music, I am a Black Francis/Frank Black fan, and thought it mostly worked with the movie and even where it didn’t work as well, the music was still good. Overall, it was a very cool show and one of the more unique movie events I’ve been to. I just hope someone has talked to the MC so he knows he should never do something like that again.

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