Life & Culture

Do androids dream of electric Jews?

The classic sci fi movie Blade Runner is 40 years old. Nathan Abrams argues that this AI tale can be read in a very Jewish way


Still from Ridley Scott's futuristic film 'Blade Runner'(1982)

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Sir Ridley Scott’s landmark science-fiction film Blade Runner.
Set in a futuristic Los Angeles in 2019, Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a so-called Blade Runner who has the job of hunting down and killing renegade androids known as “replicants”.
Part of that wave of late 1970s and 1980s so-called “tech-noir” films like Alien and The Terminator, Blade Runner asked difficult questions about artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, cyborgs, multinational corporations, rampant capitalism, and what it means to be human. But it also holds many underlying Jewish themes.
I’m not going to argue that its director meant Blade Runner to be understood as a Jewish tale. But in the creative choices that he made and using that playful form of Jewish interpretation known as midrash, I will suggest how the movie can be read in a Jewish way.
Let’s start with its author. Philip K Dick was not Jewish, but he showed an interest in Jewish themes possibly influenced by his third wife, Anne Rubinstein, whom he married in April 1959 and divorced in October 1965.
While still married to Rubinstein, Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle (1962) depicting an alternative history in which a defeated United States is divided and ruled by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Jewishness was a core feature. His follow up Simulacra, in 1964, even placed a kibbutz on Mars.

Dick searched the Jewish scriptures for the answers to existential questions. He was drawn to the visionary, mystical, and apocalyptic books of the Hebrew Bible like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. He was especially fascinated by the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is no surprise, then, to find Blade Runner’s source text, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is influenced by both the Holocaust and the Bible in what one scholar called its “thoroughgoing interest in the Jewish question.”
In Dick’s novel, in the future, the world is almost entirely devoid of animals hence the “electric sheep” of its title. Its protagonist, Deckard, is a Noah-like caretaker who even buys a rare and expensive Nubian goat. These sheep and goats suggest not only a kosher diet, but the types of animals slaughtered as sacrifices in the Bible.
The Rosen Association manufactures lifelike NEXUS-6 androids, “a being virtually identical to a human” but superior in strength, agility, and intelligence. The “6”no doubt refers to the sixth day of creation on which God created Adam. These machines invoke the legend of the Golem, and its warning of technology run amok.
The Rosen Association is run by industrialist Eldon Rosen. Whether he meant to or not, Dick’s choice of this family name hints at evil Jewish capitalists who pursue profits over ethics. Rosen’s “daughter” is called Rachael — another name rich in biblical association. Believing she is human, her metaphorical veil is lifted when she is revealed to be an android. A character called Isidore befriends the renegade androids and like the biblical Lot provides them with sanctuary.
Sir Ridley Scott may have renamed the Rosen Association, the Tyrell Corporation to remove the Jewish reference when making his film, but in a nod to the novel’s underlying Jewishness, he cast a Jewish actor in the role of Eldon Tyrell. Joe Turkel is probably best known for playing Lloyd the bartender in a Jewish director’s movie —Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in 1980.
While his given name is of Old English origin, meaning “Ella’s hill”, its first syllable does suggest the biblical word for God. As if to emphasise the stereotype, Tyrell wears a pair of oversized glasses. And his daughter continues to be called Rachael, maintaining the biblical link.
The film’s suspicion of multinational global corporations — here it is labelled “The Tyrell Corporation” — follows in the wake of Jewish director Alan J. Pakula’s conspiracy films of the 1970s, particularly Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976).
In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, in his vision of a dystopic futuristic LA, Scott even placed a Charedi Jew. One further nod can be found in the casting of Harrison Ford, the grandson of Harry Nidelman and Anna Lifschutz, Jewish immigrants from Minsk, as Deckard. Ford once said, “As a man I’ve always felt Irish; as an actor I’ve always felt Jewish”.
The film constantly invokes the 1930s and 1940s. It takes and updates the film noir setting of Los Angeles. Deckard looks like he’s stepped out of a film noir movie. He wears a trench coat — the iconic symbol of the film noir detective. Film noir was a genre whose leading directors were often Jewish. One of those, Fritz Lang, made Metropolis in 1927, to which the look of Blade Runner owes a massive debt. Lang even created a robot for his film — the ancestor of the replicants. Made in Weimer Germany, Metropolis has been said to predict the coming of the Nazis.
Indeed, in a Nazi-like euphemism, the job of killing the replicants is assigned to special units called “blade runners” and their work is referred to not as execution but as “retirement”. To make the task of killing them easier, the blade runners stigmatise and dehumanise the replicants as “skin jobs”. Since the replicants are remarkable humanlike robots manufactured to work as slaves in the hazardous colonisation and exploration of other planets, their ability to pass as human suggests a gift for mimicry — a hallmark of the Jewish condition.
They are “more human than human,” Tyrell boasts to Deckard. But they can be detected by a simple examination known as the Voigt-Kampff test.
One of its key elements is eyes, a motif that punctuates the movie because it is through vision and memories that the replicants are distinguished from humans. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” one might ask at this point.
Intentionally or otherwise, this eerily recalls the Jewish condition, especially during the Holocaust when Jews — often masquerading as non-Jews using forged “Aryans papers” — were tracked down and murdered.
As the renegade replicants’ leader, Roy (played by Rutger Hauer) tells Deckard, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?” Far from coincidentally, the first replicant we meet is called Leon Kowalski, whose surname is a Polish Jewish one meaning “smith”.
In Scott’s film, there are also the references, similarities and homages to Joseph Losey’s Monsieur Klein, a 1976 mystery drama film set in Vichy France, in which a Gentile Parisian art dealer is seemingly mistaken for a Jewish man of the same name and unable to prove his identity is targeted in the Holocaust.
Arguably, none of these Holocaust parallels is coincidental, as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was the product of the Second World War research Philip K. Dick conducted while writing The Man in the High Castle.
The author consulted diaries of SS soldiers stationed in Poland and came across a sentence that haunted him: “We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Dick believed that anyone who could write that belonged to “a defective group mind, a mind so emotionally defective that the word ‘human’ could not be applied to them.”
Did reading these accounts inspire Dick to write Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick thought this cold-blooded mentality was not a “German trait” but something that “could be picked up by people anywhere, at any time.”
And he was writing the novel at the height of the Vietnam War, when US war crimes were being revealed and increasing parallels to the Nazis were being made.
The problem he posed at the heart of his book was that in killing the androids “Could we not become like the androids, in our very effort to wipe them out?”
But if the replicants are the Jews and the blade runners the Nazis, then the metaphor is a complicated one. The main blade runner and the replicants’ creators are both played by Jewish actors.
By contrast, the replicant leader is played by the Aryan-looking Rutger Hauer who, in the end, in a seemingly Christian act, sacrifices himself to save Deckard having killed his symbolic father, Tyrell.
However one wants to interpret the film, it will still provide plenty of midrashic thought for the future.

Nathan Abrams is professor of film at Bangor University

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