01:07 - Source: CNN
Keanu Reeves back as Neo in new 'Matrix' trailer

Editor’s Note: Roy Schwartz is the author of the new book “Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero.” Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and at royschwartz.com. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

The highly anticipated “The Matrix Resurrections” arrives this week as the somewhat unexpected fourth film in the trilogy, which began in 1999 with “The Matrix.” That movie became a true cultural phenomenon and a watershed in sci-fi storytelling and visual effects, redefining Hollywood blockbusters for the 21st century.

Roy Schwartz

To refresh your memory, the “Matrix” movies take place in an artificial reality, where cool stuff happens like “bullet time” slow-motion gunfights and gravity-defying kung fu. But that’s not what the films – “The Matrix,” followed in 2003 by “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” – are actually about. The story is about artificial intelligence machines in the future becoming self-aware, turning on their masters and subjugating humanity, and mankind’s fight to reclaim dominance.

“The Matrix” drew upon many influences, including cyberpunk, neo-noir, anime, wuxia, Eastern and existentialist philosophies, comics, computer games, early hacker culture, “Alice in Wonderland” and more. The Wachowskis, the auteur siblings who wrote and directed it, said that they “were determined to put as many ideas into the movie as we could.”

Yet one source that has gone virtually unmentioned – surprisingly, given how much of a forbearer it is – is folklore. Specifically, the legend of the golem of Prague.

Like most folktales it has several versions, but the most famous involves real-life 16th century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a.k.a. “the Maharal,” renowned in his time for his erudition and wisdom. His numerous philosophical and legal writings have had a lasting impact on Jewish thought.

Prague, now the capital of the Czech Republic, was then in Bohemia, part of the Holy Roman Empire. As the tale goes, the Jews of Prague, already confined to the ghetto, were to be expelled or killed by order of Emperor Rudolf II.

To defend his people, Rabbi Loew used clay from the banks of the Vltava River to form a human shape and vivified it using kabbalistic mysticism, creating a golem. The indestructible and inhumanly strong creature, usually depicted as a hulking, lumbering figure, became the protector of the Jews, fighting off their persecutors.

Things then go astray. The golem became destructive, either rising upon his creator, killing others, continuing to grow uncontrollably or simply setting out to desecrate the Sabbath, and the rabbi was forced to destroy it.

The word “golem” originates in Psalms 139:16, meaning in Hebrew a formless, imperfect substance. It’s a reference to the creation of Adam in the book of Genesis 2:7, where “God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” – a golem.

Animated creatures of clay are prevalent in Jewish folklore, dating back as early as 500 CE in writing and even earlier in oral tradition, but the story of the golem of Prague is by far the most famous and the most impactful on world culture.

The folktale itself likely originates in Germany or Poland. The oldest written record is a 1674 letter by German astronomer Christoph Arnold and the first published record is in 1808, written by Jakob Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm.

A decade later, in 1818, Mary Shelley published her groundbreaking novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” Given its many similarities to the golem legend, it’s believed (though also contested) to have been inspired by it.

The preface to the book describes how it was inspired by “some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands.” Grimm’s tale was quite possibly among them, and as a member of the era’s literati Shelley would have likely read it regardless. (As the book’s subtitle suggests, the Prometheus myth is a source of inspiration as well. But though the golem is also a cautionary tale, the theme of hubris preceding downfall isn’t part of it.)

The success of “Frankenstein” helped popularize the golem legend, but it also supplanted it in the public imagination as the source of the theme. When “The Matrix” came out several articles compared it to “Frankenstein,” but none mentioned the golem.

Still, the folktale remained part of European culture, coming in and out of the zeitgeist. Between 1913 and 1914, German author Gustav Meyrink turned it into an immensely successful serialized novel, simply titled “The Golem.” In 1915, writer-director duo Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen adapted it into a silent horror film (“The Monster of Fate” in the US), which proved equally popular. It was followed in 1917 by “The Golem and the Dancing Girl,” and in 1920 by the even more successful “The Golem: How He Came into the World” (“The Golem” in the US).

In 1921, more than three centuries after Rabbi Loew, fellow Praguer Karel Čapek gave the yarn his own spin, turning it into the first science fiction play, “R.U.R.” (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”), about artificial people used as laborers who gain sentience and revolt, leading to humanity’s extinction.

The revolutionary play coined the word “robot” (Czech for “worker”) and was widely lauded as a masterpiece. By 1923 it was performed in 30 languages around the world, with the 1922 Broadway production introducing a fledgling young actor named Spencer Tracy. Čapek went on to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times.

Despite its renown, the fact that “R.U.R.” is a retelling of the golem tale remains largely unknown. This despite Čapek acknowledging that it’s a “rendering of the legend of the Golem in modern form. … the Robot is the Golem made flesh by mass production.”

German writer Thea von Harbou’s acclaimed 1925 novel “Metropolis” borrowed heavily from “R.U.R.,” something that was noted by reviewers. In 1927 it was turned into a movie of the same name, cowritten by von Harbou and her husband, director Fritz Lang. One of the most important films ever made, it influenced everything from “Star Wars” to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” music video and was the first film to ever be inducted into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

Another famous film, Universal Studios’ 1931 “Frankenstein” starring Boris Karloff, was so heavily inspired by the golem films, thematically and esthetically, that it’s based as much on the golem legend as on Shelley’s novel. Nearly a century later, it continues to inspire in turn numerous variations and derivatives – one being “Doc Frankenstein,” a 2004 comic book series by the Wachowskis. Its iconic monster, more the golem than Shelley’s intelligent, long-haired, pearly-teethed creature, is recognizable worldwide.

Today, the theme of an unnatural creation, whether created by altruism or egotism, becoming autonomous and rising upon its human creators, can be found in countless seminal works, including “I, Robot,” “Westworld,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Blade Runner,” “Terminator” and, of course, “The Matrix.”

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    The hero of the Matrix movies, Neo, is something of a golem himself, an unformed man awakened in the real world by the truth – in the most popular version of the golem folktale, the creature comes to life when the Hebrew word “emet,” meaning truth, is written on its forehead.

    The last movie, “The Matrix Revolutions,” ended with Neo actually saving the machines from the renegade program Agent Smith – a golem of the golem – and brokering peace between creation and creator. Plot details for “Resurrections” are being kept close to the vest, but it’s a safe bet that, in one way or another, the golem will rise again.