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BARBICAN YIDDISH RETRO, '96

Chaim Pevner, Film Critic

FILM NOTES TO THE BARBICAN YIDDISH FILM RETROSPECTIVE

(London, October 12-24, 1996) 

THE YIDDISH language cinema is nearly unique among world cinema cultures in that it had no specific homeland.  Yiddish films, including “silent Yiddish” films, were produced wherever there were major Yiddish speech communities and a Yiddish theatrical circuit  from which  talent could be recruited.  The majority of Yiddish language films were therefore made in New York or in Poland, although a number of Yiddish films were also produced in the Soviet Union and a few were produced in Vienna and elswhere. 

Silent films by Jewish directors with Yiddish theater actors were already being made as early as the late teens but it wasn’t until the twenties that Yiddish cinema began to flourish.  With the coming of sound the Yiddish language began to be heard on the screen.  Adaptations of melodramas and comedies from the Yiddish stage featuring the leading Yiddish stage actors of the day were filmed, and Yiddish musicals with such established singing stars as Molly Picon and Moishe Oysher became extremely popular.  Songs were present in nearly all films, even the dramas and Melodramas.   Recurrent themes throughout the two interwar decades during which Yiddish cinema thrived were the uprooting of the Jews from Eastern Europe, the mass immigration to America, the resultant dismemberment of families, the decay of traditional values and the tragi-comic efforts of the “greenhorns” in American to adjust to a new way of life. Another popular motif was nostalgia for the shtetl way of life that had been left behind forever.  

The Golden era of Yiddish film was the Second Half of The thirties with the work of Joseph Green in Poland and Edgar Ulmer in New York leading the way.   Most of the works now considered Yiddish classics were made during this period.  With the rise of Fascism in the mid thirties a sense of foreboding began to pervade certain films but, although the writing was already on the wall, the new menace was never quite dealt with as an explicit issue in these films.  Essentially this was due to fear of aggravating an already serious situation -- adding fuel to the fire. The Holocaust was, of course, just around the corner.  With the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 organized Yiddish film production came to an abrupt  halt.  A few Yiddish language films were made after the war but 1940 is basically the end of the road for the real thing.  Since most of the Jewish victims of World War II were Yiddish speakers their extermination basically eliminated the potential audience for Yiddish films.  The cultural shock factor is also inestimable and, of course, the rise of Israel and the promotion of Hebrew in Jewish communities after the war further reduced the importance of Yiddish as the Jewish lingua franca. 

Most Yiddish film productions were, by today’s definition, low-budget, independent affairs made in improvised studios (in some cases, in the living quarters of the director) with vague contractual arrangements  among producers,  actors, writers and technicians. It was not uncommon for producers to pay off print processing laboratories and performers with daily gate receipts, or other last minute desperation measures. In Poland, where technical talent was recruited from the well established local film industry films made there in the late thirties tended to have a somewhat more polished look. Considering the lack of a stable financial base and the haphazard way in which many films were slapped together for a captive audience that would go to see almost anything for the novelty of hearing their own language (“mame-loshen”) on screen, a surprising number of really good films were made by a loosely organized core of dedicated filmmakers and a plentiful supply of experienced Yiddish stage actors.  Nevertheless, even today, most people tend to think of the surviving Yiddish films as isolated, oddball curiosities. This is largely due to the fact that the Yiddish cinema always existed in the shadow of the Hollywood cinema.  Fine Yiddish films were coming out at the same time as Golden Age American films like “Gone With The Wind”, so it is not surprising that they were to some extent “lost in the shuffle”. Only now, in the light of systematic scholarship is it being recognized that this was, in fact, a vibrant ethnic film industry in its own right, with many quality productions in spite of financial problems and frustrating  working conditions. 

After the war the relatively small stock of Yiddish films that had been preserved from the several hundred originally produced, were rarely shown outside of  limited nostalgia revivals in a closed circuit of Jewish communities in such Jewish centers as New York, Miami and Los Angeles.  As the older, Yiddish speaking audience began  to die off, even such limited revivals became fewer and fewer. The films were for the most part shelved and, few people were even aware of the existence of a considerable stock of Yiddish films comprising a fascinating compendium of Jewish culture between the wars.  With the establishment of the Center for the Preservation of Yiddish Film at Brandeis University in Massachusetts many “lost films” were restored and again made available for viewing by academic and other interest groups.  With the advent of the Video Cassette business in the past two decades a fair number of Yiddish “classics” have now been transferred to video and put on the market.

The last TEN years or so have seen a rather striking revival of interest in the long dormant Yiddish cinema.   In 1991 the Museum of Modern Art  (MOMA) in New York staged a very successful Yiddish film retrospective including most available films and, concomitantly, published  a handsome book-length study Of Yiddish cinema entitled “Bridge of Light” (Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds).  In 1993, at a parallel “sidebar” to the Warsaw Film Festival, some two dozen Yiddish films were shown, including a number Of Yiddish silents from the Kiev Film Archives that had never been seen outside of the former Soviet Union.  “Jewish” film festivals, though not  specifically Yiddish in Content, have suddenly begun to pop up all over the place—New York,  London, Seattle, San Francisco and elsewhere.  

An honored guest of the San Francisco Jewish film fest two years ago was Wanda Jakubowska,  the eminent  88 year old Polish Director who made “The Last Stage” (Ostatni Etap) --which was the first feature film ever to tell the story of Auschwitz.  Ms. Jakubowska, who is not Jewish but was herself an inmate and survivor of the camp, made the film in Poland in 1948, just a few years after the war, while the actual events were still fresh in her memory. The 1996 Barbican retrospective of Yiddish film, the first such overview of Yiddish film ever to be shown in Great Britain, may thus  be seen as part of an international trend in the revival of a nearly forgotten national cinema culture. 

Below, notes on selected films and key personalities.

A Tribute to Joseph Green and Molly Picon -- a singing, dancing dynamo

Possibly the most popular Yiddish actress/singer/performer of all time was the irrepressible Molly Picon, a major star  of the interwar New York Yiddish stage.  An immense talent who could sing, dance and do either comedy or drama with equal flair, her most famous film was “Yidl mitn Fidl” (Yiddle and his Fiddle), 1936, co-directed by Joseph Green and the Polish director Jan Nowina-Przybylski  -- a great piece of entertainment by any standards.  This story of a girl who dresses as a boy and leads a band of roving, ragtag street musicians around in thirties Poland has some striking similarities to Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl”(1983).  “Yentl” is actually based on a Bashevis Singer story but the Picon influence is more than casually evident.(Picon also had a major role in Norman Jewison’s “Fiddler on the Roof”, 1971). 

The rousing title song “Yidl mitn fidl”, repeated at various points in the film -- even in a swing version toward the end on the ship going to America - became a mainstay of the Yiddish popular musical repertoire and remains so to this day.  This is a picture loaded with songs, dances, naive romance and non-stop comic situations—a little bit of everything and then some. It may be mentioned that when Yidl was made  Molly was already in her late thirties yet had no trouble at all playing a teenager, while in “Mamele” (1938) when she had already turned forty there is a number where she appears as a twelve year old child.  She was simply an amazing performer and, one reason there will never be a remake of “Yidl” is that there will never be another Molly Picon. Mollie Picon appears in two other films in the series; “Mamele” (Dear Little Mother) see Joseph Green, below, and an early silent made in Austria in 1924 entitled “East and West”.  In the latter she performs athletic feats such as weight lifting and boxing, teaches young villagers to shimmy and irreverently gorges herself before sundown on Yom Kippur  - strictly not for the strictly orthodox! 

Joseph Green - A Quartet of Classics

Yidl Mitn Fidl (The Jewish Jazz Quartet)

Perhaps the most important Yiddish director of the late thirties, who on the eve of the war seemed determined to create a real Yiddish film industry on his own and might have succeeded had the war not intervened, was Joseph Green. Born in Lodz, Poland, at the turn of the century, Green arrived in the United States as an actor with the touring Vilna Yiddish Theatre Troupe in 1923.  He stayed on in the States where he embarked on a bit-part career in films—among them, a walk-on in Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer”.  When the decision was taken to add Yiddish speech to an old Italian silent called “Joseph in the Land of Egypt”, Green landed the job of dubbing the voice of the main character, Joseph.  Funds being short he was given a copy of the film in lieu of cash remuneration. 

Green returned to Poland in the mid 1930s bearing a copy of the film which, to his own surprise  became a smash hit ith Jewish audiences there.  With the profits from “Joseph” and realizing that it was possible to make quality productions in Poland for a fraction of the American cost, he decided to become a producer and director himself.   His first effort, in collaboration with the Polish director Jan Nowina-Przybylski, was “Yidl Mitn Fidl”, the biggest Yiddish hit ever.   Within the next three years, working on both sides of the Atlantic at a feverish pace, as if aware that his Yiddish speaking audience was about to disappear forever, Green made three more films, all of which are now seen as landmarks of the late Yiddish repertoire.  The films were shot in Poland while much of the office work of his compny “Green Film” was done in New York.Unfortunately, this quartet of  remarkable films by a self-taught director with a unique vision,  would remain as his total legacy to world cinema. The entire Green Quartet, “Yidl Mitn Fidl”, 1936, “Der Purimspieler” (The Jester), 1937, “Mamele” (My Dear  Little Mother ),1938, and  “A  Brivele Der Mamen”, (“A Letter to Mother”) late 1938, are all on view in the current series. 

Green’s films whatever shortcomings they may have, are ethnographically accurate, technically forward looking visually rich and are filled with a sense of commitment. One of the reasons Green’s Polish films are so penetrating is that, having grown up there completely,  he knew Jewish life in Poland firsthand, from the inside out. Unlike other directors who tended to sentimentalize the Old Country from an American point of view, Green was more concerned with capturing the culture on film --on the spot  before it disappeared as,  better than most, he knew it would.   At heart Joseph Green was a documentary poet and a ubconscious anthropologist. On multiple viewings of “Yidl  Mitn Fidl”, Green’s undisputed masterpiece, one’s attention is drawn to its wealth of visual and compositional treasures, while admiration for the novice filmmaker Green  (and his collaborator, Nowina-Przybylski to be sure!) can only grow.  -- A field of Monet haystacks followed a few moments later by a shot of Monet-like water lilies on the Moon-lit river -- incredible shots of wind swept leaves and back-lit clouds, punctuated by a bolt of lighting - the visualization of  Picon’s  stormy discovery of her budding  love for Froyml as she sings “Oh Mama - Am I in love” --  pictorial countryside compositions worthy of a landscape painter --  a montage of Kazimierz rooftops reminiscent of Ozu’s evocation of a Japanese shtetl  in “Tokyo Story” --   group compositions of the four shabbily clad singers that could have come from Flemish genre painters -- an extended wedding dance sequence that is a small film in itself, and the memorable first collaboration of the competing buskers, or street singers, where the courtyard dwellers first close their windows one after another to shut out the cacophony, while even a stray dog howls his disapproval --  segueing into the harmonious coming together of their music as Picon strikes up a haunting melody on solo violin -- and then the  reopening of the windows, one by one, with a montage of knowing nods and approving smiles -- “Aha, this is more like it”  --  followed by a hail of coins from the upper stories - - the first public success of the new little “Filharmonia” -- is one of the most eloquent,  purely cinematic sequences in the entire Yiddish cannon -- brilliant.

Another amazing section of this unique film, is the freudian, or perhaps, Jungian dream sequence (although it was probably not intended to be psychoanalytic as such) in which we see the Itke’s dilemma, in love with a man but committed to maintaining her masquerade as a boy.  The lapse-time photography fading her alternately in an out of  boyish garb and frilly feminine attire, all set to exhilarating music, is state of the art for the time.  The conception of these scenes, so lyrically conveying her frustration -- from which she awakens clutching a cat -- predates by a decade serious postwar Hollywood films with Freudian iconography.  The entire film is in fact, modernist to the hilt for an ethnic musical comedy made on a relatively modest budget.   Even the musical numbers are not typical klezmer fare but seem to owe more to jazz-age influences than Second Avenue schmaltz, and the overall musical soundtrack  with its clever commentary on the action  is quite exceptional.  From this single film it is clear that Green had a vision, albeit one that formed as he went along, of a type of Jewish film that would eventually transcend the bounds of ethnicity.  

An interesting documentary aspect of the film, the first Yiddish talkie to be shot completely on location in Poland, is the portrait it provides of the traditional Jewish country town of Kazimierz on the Vistula as it looked in 1936 --  not to be confused with the Jewish district of  the city of Cracow, which is also called Kazimierz.  There was no need at the time to paint phony street signs in Yiddish - they  were already there. Kazimirez is also seen in a number of other Yiddish  films where shtetl atmosphere is needed but Green and Przybylski’s  poetic evocation of the town from the opening shots of the hilltop castle, the  tiled rooftops, and the central  market place, stand apart. Today “Kazimierz na Wisle” is still a popular summer resort -- minus the Jews.  In present day Polish films, the Kazimierz locale is still used to evoke the ghost of lost Polish Jewry as, for example, in Wojciech Has’ 1975 masterpiece “Sanitarium Under the Hourglass” or in the more recent “Two Moons” (Dwa Ksiezice),1992. 

Also to be seen are a few  glimpses of  Warsaw as it looked before the barbaric German destruction of the city in 1944, a montage of the streetcars, the monuments, and the Old City as they appeared just before the war. As an historical document, aside from its primary entertainment value, “Yidl” is, in passing, a portrait of everyday Jewish life in Poland just three years before the German invasion wiped it away.  If one were to be limited to a single film in this exceptional series, this is the one not to miss.   A combination of pure joy and historical significance. 

From the production point of view a few other remarks concerning “Yidl Mitn Fidl” are in order. The dual directorial credit is due to the fact that Green was learning the trade by a process of  O.J.T. --  On the Job Training.  In effect, Green instructed the actors and Nowina-Przybylski, who was not Jewish and did notknow Yiddish, took care of the technical aspects of the mise-en-scene.  The cinematography was handled by Jakub Janilowicz, a seasoned veteran of the Polish industry whose name appears in the credits with an odd  American twist as “Jack” Janilowicz. The screenplay was written by Green with Konrad Tom, a Polish professional of Jewish extraction, active in the thriving cabaret and film fields as both writer and director. It was Tom who came up with the hilarious idea of a bride escaping from an arranged marriage by running off with the musicians in the midst of the wedding, the premise from which the story was developed. 

The music was written in Warsaw by Picon’s regular composer, Abe Ellstein, and the famous writer Itzik Manger was hired to do the lyrics --  quite an ensemble of talent.  The film was loaded with hit songs and Molly was ably supported by a cast recruited from Warsaw’s Yiddish theaters, notably Max Bozhyk, who would soon become a fixture of Yiddish cinema and young Leon Liebgold who would make his mark the very next year as the talmudic scholar in league with the Devil in Waszynski’s “Dybbuk”.  Picon was paid  $10,000, a superstar contract for the time, and “Yidl” which was a giant hit, first in Poland and then in New York, became the trend setter for a new kind of Yiddish cinema -- real cinema, rather than the filmed stage plays which had been the standard before. 

As these notes were being written New York Times and Variety obituaries reported that Mr. Green had died in New York on June 20, 1996, at the advanced age of 96.   Asked in later years why he had not returned to filmmaking after the end of the war, he remarked poignantly that with six million (i.e., most) of his potential audience eliminated,  there wasn’t much point in going on. 

DER PURIMSHPILER -- (THE PURIM-PLAY ACTOR)

“Der Purimshpiler” (The Jester) -- Directed by  Joseph Green and Jan Nowina-Przybilski, with camera work by Seweryn Steinwurzel.  Poland, 1937.   Green  co-wrote the script with “Chaver-Paver”, the pen name of a well-known left-wing New York journalist, which in English would come out something like “Comrade-Pomrade”. This film stars Zygmunt Turkow as Getsel, a roving jack-of-all-trades and sometime actor who is sort of a “shlimmazel” (luckless loser) but once played the Persian king Akhashuerus in a Purim play.  The other major roles, Esther and Dick, are played by Meriam Kressyn and Hymie Jacobson who were a real life couple and become a couple in the film.  Turkow was a leading figure on the Polish Yiddish film scene from the early twenties on as actor, publicist and he even directed one film, the silent version of “Tkijes Kaf”, with Esther-Rachel and Ida Kaminska.

 At the very beginning we see the feet of Getsel (Turkow) trudging through the Polish countryside with a  knapsack over his shoulder.  It’s summer and Getsel comes upon an orchard where a pretty young woman (Kressyn) is up in a tree picking apples (the apples of temptation?).  After a knowingly shy flirtation scene - the Yiddish version of Eve coming on with The Apple—he tramps into the village walking on air and finds work in the local cobbler’s shop.  The crabby boorish owner of this cobbling atelier is the father of the young woman in the tree.

The good natured Getsel quickly ingratiates himself with the other workers with his repertoire of skits and pranks and is well liked.  He obviously has eyes for the daughter, Esther, who carries the name of the Jewish heroine of the well known Purim story—and the feeling is apparently mutual.  Up to here the rustic lyrical atmosphere is comparable to Ulmer’s lyrical “Green Fields”, but now the direction changes sharply...A circus comes to town, and the entrance into the village of the circus is a major event.  The star of the circus (Hymie Jacobson as “Dick”) a fast talker who claims to come from “Macedonia”, immediately takes a shine to Kressyn and she is equally enthralled by his glibness and fine garb. He invites her to see his act, which is basically a vaudeville type soft-shoe song and dance, and he quickly sets up a couple of late-night trysts with Esther.  The father is against this liaison with an itinerant actor and when she stays out all night on one occasion, he forbids her to see him again. 

The circus leaves town, but soon the boorish father comes into an unexpected inheritance.  One of the best sequences in the film is a montage of town gossips commenting (like a Greek chorus) on the surprising good fortune of the not too highly regarded local clod. Suddenly rich he now wants to promote his social standing by marrying Esther off to the son of a wealthy family.  A match is arranged at a lavish Purim party but the groom of the wealthy family is a driveling idiot.  Esther’s aversion is so great that she has to be physically dragged into the room to meet the doltish marriage prospect.  Meanwhile Getsel has gathered a small group to perform a masked Purim play at the matchmaking festivities.  The merry entrance of the Purim jesters turns into a derisive parody of the nouveau riche father trying to buy “ikhes” (social standing) - When the outraged father unmasks Getsel the latter proclaims that a cobbler is still a cobbler no matter how much money he has.  

The match falls through and Getsel is unceremoniously kicked out. Esther approaches him and says “take me away with you”. Things now look good for Getsel but he is, after all, a loser.  On the road with Esther he can’t find a job to support her and they have to live like vagabonds on the verge of starvation. One day they come upon a cabaret where -- guess who -- Dick – is the MC up on stage.  Esther mounts the stage, gets into a vaudeville song and dance duet with Dick (almost a parody of an MGM number), and they end up dancing the night away while Getsel looks woefully on. For a while, at Dick’s generous invitation, Getsel hangs around but soon, realizing that three’s a crowd, he moves off humbly on his own.  Esther marries Dick, becomes rather well off herself, and confronts her father as a now successful bride.   In the last scene Getsel passes the orchard and gazes up at the tree where he first saw Esther, then shuffles off.  The camera picks up the same shot of the striding feet that we saw at the start, now heading the other way. 

What is odd about this film is that the climax, the Purim play, comes in the middle—and the rest is denouement, all  about how the hapless hero, Getsel,  unquestionably the good guy – the sympathetic central figure of the piece --  loses the girl to a basically shallow jerk with a smooth line -- one who isn’t even very good looking. Nicely shot by a professional Polish crew on Polish country locations (once again the old  Jewish town of Kazimierz na Wisle), and well acted, it looks as if director Green who was still learning the trade (this was his second collaboration with the Polish professional Przybilski) was trying, in his second outing as a co-director, to break away from some of the more worn clichés of the Yiddish theater and stake out new territory more in the line of mainstream cinema.  While “Purimspieler” may not be quite as satisfying dramatically as his other three films, it is, in a way, the most experimental piece in the Green cannon and Zygmunt Turkow’s Getsel, even though he turns out to be a sad sack after his big Purim scene, is somehow a shlimazel you can’t quite forget. 

“MAMELE” (Little Mother)

"MAMELE" is another star vehicle for Molly Picon (see “Yidl mitn Fidl” above) in what might loosely be called a Cinderella role.  In the summer of 1938 Green had aready assembled the cast and production crew for “A Brivele der Mamen” in Warsaw,  when Molly Picon turned up in Paris on a European tour. A chance was seen to capitalize on the earlier success of “Yidl” if another film vehicle for Molly could be slapped together quickly.  Putting his “Brivele” cast on hold, Green entered into a second collaboration with the Polish-Jewish film director, Konrad Tom, who already had an appropriate story in hand which was quickly turned into a screenplay.  With Tom co-directing, the 100 minute film was then shot on a lightning schedule of a few weeks in the fall of 1938, employing members of the technical staff of “Brivele” including cameraman Seweryn Steinwurcel. CAST: Molly Picon, Edmund Zayenda, Max Bozhyk, Gertrude Bulman, Ola Shlifko Simche Fostel, Menasha Oppenheim, Max pearlman, Ruth Turkow. 

At the very outset we see  Khavchi, (Picon) the youngest sister of three, making the rounds trying to get her lazy sisters, brothers and father out of bed.  She  prepares their breakfast, does the shopping, cleaning, cooking  and chores, and runs the family’s funds—all with a smile and a song on her lips—only too glad to be of service to these spoiled, selfish siblings and their feckless father, all of whom take her for granted and treat her like dirt. We soon find out that when Mama was dying Khavchi promised to look after the family - to be a “little mother” to them in her stead.  Hence, the title of the tale. Her teenage brother gets involved with crooks and the lead crook, Max Katz, has eyes for her vain, impossibly arrogant sister Berta. She foils a break-in that could have landed her brother in jail, and, in the film’s funniest scene, she gets the smooth, well-dressed but not too literate bandit Katz to write a letter in Yiddish renouncing Berta. Prodding him with a length of lead pipe which he believes to be a gun, she forces him to write “I am a Goneff” (I AM A CROOK) with a capital gimel (G) -- and good riddance.  Her efforts to keep the household in shape and its members in line, are met with endless abuse, especially from the insufferable older sisters.  Her boundless good nature finally wears thin and she breaks with the thankless brood, having been invited to move in with the sympathetic (and handsome) musician, Schlesinger (Edmund Zayenda), who lives with his mother across the courtyard.   At length their flat having become a hopelessly chaotic disaster area, the terrible sisters realize that without little mother, “Mamele Khavtchi” to run the show, they’ll go under -- so beg her to come back on bended knee.  Reluctantly—mainly for the sake of the innocent youngest boy who is still in Heder (Jewish grammar school), she agrees to move back in, but only with Schlessiger, now her bridegroom, in tow. 

One of the high points of the film, punctuated throughout with Picon songs, is an extended musical number where Molly, gazing wistfully at her grandmother’s picture, eases into an imaginative song and dance routine which recycles the main stages of bubba’s entire life.  As the old photograph comes alive, with lapse photography somewhat similar to  the dream scene in “Yidl”,  Khavchi  becomes successiverly;  granny aged twelve, traipsing lightly on dancing feet --  granny aged 24, in a tight fitting gown—she now shimmies  her hips --  then, at sedate forty eight her arms do the dancing, and finally, at 78 the head is still bobbing in time to the music. This whole incredible sequence could be a little film all by itself.

The theme song “Abi gezint” (who cares - as long as you’re healthy)  is also outstanding in this slice of life in a Jewish slum (the setting was Lodz) with all the warts and blemishes including (as long as you’re healthy) pool-shooting Jewish gangsters! --  a first and only in Yiddish cinema. 

CAST: Khavtchi --------------------  Molly Picon

      Sister Berta ----------------  Gertrude Bullman

      Sister Itke ------------------ Ola Shlifko

      Father ----------------------- Max Bozhyk

      Max Katz (the gangster) ------ Menashe Oppenheim

      Schlessinger ----------------- Edmund Zayenda

      David ------------------------ Max Pearlman

      Naderman --------------------- Simche Fostel

      Balche ----------------------  Ruth Turkow

"A BRIVELE DER MAMEN" (A little letter to Mama) shot in a hurry, back-to-back with “Mamele” at the end of 1938 when Green realized that time was fast running out for the Jews of Poland, turned out to be his swan song as a director as well as the next-to-last Yiddish film made in Poland prior to the German invasion (The very last was Alexander Marten’s “Without A Home”)  This is the story of a Jewish family migrating in stages from the Ukraine to New York before and after World War I, and the letters that various family members keep writing to Mama back home. Lucy Gherman dominates the show as Dobrisch, the long suffering Jewish mother of the meshpukhe, trying to hold  her brood together in the face of incredible “tsores”, -- trials and tribulations. 

First  her  “luftmentsh”  husband, David,  leaves for New York to strike it rich -- and finds only poverty.  In a touching Seder scene back in Poland, the youngest boy, Arele,  addresses himself to his father’s empty chair tearfully improvising a fifth “kashe” (Passover ritual of four questions) -- “Papa, why did you leave us?” --  Then, Miriam, the marriageable daughter engaged to a nice local boy, runs off to Odessa with a nefarious dance teacher who leaves her in the lurch.  In a painful wedding scene, when the guilt-ridden daughter, back from Odessa,  tries to inform  her naive groom (the earlier fiancé)  that she is no longer a virgin -- he goes into deep Jewish denial -- “Don’t tell me anything -- I don’t wanna know”. 

When World War One erupts in 1914, the oldest son, Meyer, is drafted and is killed in the war.  The family, penniless, leave their endangered shtetl and, after a harrowing trek take refuge in Warsaw where  “Mamele” is reduced to taking in wash. Her dear friend, Shimen, the tailor (the ubiquitous character actor, Max Bozhyk) bemoans their fate as he sits at his sewing machine with the words, “The world is falling apart like a badly sewn shirt” – (Di velt vert tzefalen azei vi a shlekht geneite hemd) -- which becomes a leit motif of the film. Eventually Mamele makes it to New York but there things are not much better. Her loser husband who came over years before has died. Her beloved youngest son, Arele, who was sent ahead years before has completely disappeared. At a Jewish benefit concert she comes across her long-lost son now a successful singer with a changed name, but he doesn’t recognize her.  Running after him she gets hit by a car -- but, finally in the hospital, there is a bedside reunion with her long lost boychik, and maybe she’ll recover -- Oy,Vey! 

Although this may sound like the material of a soppy tearjerker Green’s by this time assured direction, Lucy Gherman’s powerful performance as Dobrisch the archetypal all-giving Jewish mother, and the general excellence of the entire cast make this something else altogether  -- a highly engaging, well-produced drama, even if the ending is a bit schmaltzy.  Released in America in September 1939,  as German  bombs were already raining on Warsaw, “Brivele” was another great success -- and was the picture that Green always claimed as his own personal favorite. With his instinctual feeling for family epics one wonders whether Joseph Green might  not eventually have  made a Jewish “Gone With The Wind” … 

EDWARD G. ULMER — The POET OF POVERTY ROW 

Among the odd assortment of international directors who made Yiddish films, Edward G. Ulmer is the only one with an authentic Hollywood pedigree, although he was basically  an off Hollywood  “poverty row”  director of “B” movies,  something like Sam Fuller. For a while in the thirties he specialized in low budget ethnic films (the Negro film “Moon Over Manhattan”, several Ukrainian films, Spanish films, and of course, his Yiddish films)  while his mainstream Hollywood flicks,  many of the film-noir genre, included such titles as “The Black Cat”, 1934,   (with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), “Bluebeard”, 1944, with John Carradine,  the cult film “Detour”, 1945,  and “Ruthless”, 1949,  with Sidney Greenstreet and Zachary Scott.  A whole string of  cheapie  fantasy films in the fifties included such programmers as  “The Man From Planet X”, “The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll”, “The Amazing Transparent Man” and “Babes in Bagdad” starring Gypsy Rose Lee.  Nevertheless, because of an uncanny ability to turn out visually striking, offbeat films of interest on ridiculously low budgets and incredibly short schedules, Ulmer was belatedly discovered by the European cognoscenti and became something of a cult figure with a  coterie of admirers on both sides of the ocean.  Peter Bogdanovich, one of the first American critics to take Ulmer seriously, summed it all up in a single sentence: “Nobody ever made good films faster or for less money than Edgar Ulmer.” 

Reared and trained in film in Germany where he came from a totally assimilated  family, Ulmer never learned Yiddish, yet he was able to guide his Jewish stage actors through many memorable scenes with brilliant Yiddish dialogue to boot.  The Yiddish films were all made in four years during Ulmer’s “ethnic period” and are actually among his best work,  perhaps because, as a Hollywood “pro”, he was accorded a little more respect than usual and had more leeway to exercise his art.  Perhaps there was also a need somewhere to connect with the traditional Jewish culture his family had discarded.  At any rate, any Ulmer retrospective would certainly be remiss not to include his Yiddish work. 

Like Joseph Green, Ulmer made just four Yiddish films, but with the Green quartet, plus “Tevye” and “Dybbuk”,  they comprise the hard core of the golden age of late thirties Yiddish cinema. The Barbican series includes three of the four films Ulmer made in Yiddish:  The Singing Blacksmith,  1938,  “The Light Ahead” (1939) with David Opatashu, and  one of the most famous of all Yiddish films,  “Green Fields” (1937)  -- the latter a pastoral Polish romance filmed entirely in the green fields of northern New Jersey subbing for the pastures of Poland. The last film of the Ulmer Quartet,  “American Matchmaker”, 1940,  was shown here in June at the NFT Jewish film week and will not be shown on this occasion. 

“GREEN FIELDS” (GRINE FELDER) 

“GREEN FIELDS” is based on a very popular Peretz Hirschbein folk-drama first produced on the New York stage in 1920. Director, Edw. G. Ulmer; Assistant director, Jacob Ben-Ami, music, Vladimir Heifetz, World premiere at the Squire, N.Y., October 11, 1937, running time 103 minutes. 

Levi-Yitshok (Michael Goldstein) an orphaned rabbinical student leaves the Beys Midrash (special religious school)  in his home town to wander across the countryside  in search of Jews who are more in contact with life. He comes upon a family of Jewish peasants (yes, there were some)  who take him in as a tutor for their children.  The bashful scholar falls is taken  with the farmer’s fetching daughter, Tsine (Helen Beverly), but can barely deal with her unsubtle advances.  A neighboring Jewish farmer also aspires to snare the handsome young “rebbele” as a mate for his own daughter.  To complicate matters, the oldest son of the first farmer is in love with the lusty daughter of the second farmer, who beats the hell out of her  every time she steals off to see her rustic swain, the rugged Hersh-Ber. Vociferous  altercations  between the two earthy farmers and their equally earthy wives over the young tutor and the respective daughters in question  make for a series of side-splitting episodes. 

For those who know Yiddish well, the exchanges between the older people—the two parental couples played by Isidore Cashier and Anna Appel vs. Max Vodnoi and Leah Neomi --  are a continual crackup and will immediately be recognized as the top of the line of Yiddish comedy — some of the richest, most colloquial Yiddish ever heard on the Jewish screen. In terms of virtuoso comedy the elders very nearly steal the show from the theoretically more central young couple (Helen Beverly and Michael Goldstein) whose Yiddish, while adequate, has a slightly stilted American accent and simply lacks the juiciness of the veteran older actors.  A teenage ruddy-faced Hershl Bernardi has a key secondary role as a kind of kosher Tom Sawyer introducing the helpless scholar to the pleasures of pitching hay and tilling the soil while his sister Tsine (Beverly) teaches him the art of pitching woo. 

In the uproarious grand finale of this blatantly sentimental, almost corny, but irresistible comedy,  everything works out  to the ultimate satisfaction of all concerned.   In the closing outdoor double-wedding scene the very last shot is a close-up of a plow, underscoring the films implicit message, the Zionist view that even amongst Jews, the salt of the earth are closer to G-d. “Grine Felder” was a box-office smash in New York’s Jewish neighborhoods and was described by one prominent  critic as “an outstanding artistic and financial success, unparalleled in the history of Yiddish film in America.”  It remains one of the  outstanding landmarks of  late Yiddish cinema. 

CAST OF GRINE FELDER

The bashful scholar, Yitshok-Levy ---- Michael Goldstein

The unbashful Tsine, in love with the scholar 

                    -----------------  Helen Beverly

Her teenage brother ------------------ Hershl Bernardi

Her older brother, Hersh-Ber --------  Saul Levine

Tsine’s father    -------------------  Isidore Cashier

Her mother        -------------------- Anna Appel

The other farmer   ------------------- Max Vodnoy

His wife     ------------------------- Leah Neomi

Their daughter,inlove with Hersh-Ber - Dine Druta 

“THE SINGING BLACKSMITH”  -- (Yankl der Shmid), 1938. Adapted for the screen by David Pinski, from his play of the same name, Yankl had been a classic of the Yiddish stage since 1909.   Produced by Rebush and Landy; Directed by Edgar Ulmer; Screenplay by Ossip Dymov and Ben-Tsvi Baratof; Music, Jacob Weisberg;  camera, William Miller, running time 116 minutes. 

MOISHE OYSHER, the suave superstar synagogue cantor with a voice like Caruso, made three films  between 1937 and 1940. His best, “The Cantor’s Son” and “Overture to Glory” are, unfortunately, not available for this retrospective,  however, “Blacksmith” still affords ample opportunity to hear one of the great screen tenors of all time.  As Variety put it: “There may be flaws in direction, photography and acting, but there can be no denying that Oysher’s voice by far dwarfs those faults”. 

The story concerns a swaggering, womanizing, hard drinking blacksmith who has this great voice and will sing for anybody, anywhere, at the drop of a hat. With the pencil mustache he wears for the role Oysher looks like Hollywood leading man, Gilbert Roland.  When the Smith is smitten by the Coup de Foudre for the beauteous Tamara and decides to give up his free-wheeling bachelorhood, the matchmakers in town, one an impossible stutterer, start vying for his business.  Chaye, considered the best shadchen (MATCHMAKER) in town, is forcibly engaged by the shmit to do the arranging, but she thinks he’s such a bad catch she feels compelled to apologize to the prospective in-laws (the film’s most comedic scene). To everyone’s amazement Tamara, who clearly has a mind of her own, abruptly  accepts. They are married, but the other woman, Rifke, who although married to a simpering wimp, has had her eyes on Yankl  from Day One, is not about to let little things like marriage contracts stand in her way. In one steamy scene in the forge she really turns on the heat in what is probably the most,  if not the only, explicitly raunchy sex scene in all of Yiddish filmdom.

Caught with his fingers in the pie, so to speak, Yankl, sorely chagrined by his weakness for drink and inability to resist Rifke’s advances, even as his new bride is found to be with child -- is now an outcast and  slinks from the house head lowered in shame.   In the end Family Values will finally win out  -- but just barely --  as Ulmer stretches them to the limit in this  all-but-black comedy.  After all the Peyton Place shenanigans that have come before,  the final shot of the repentant Yankl and his forgiving Tamara,  half hidden behind a close-up  of the newborn baby suspended in an airborne crib by strings from above,  has more the air of a dirty joke than a morally proper conclusion.   Leave it to Ulmer.

One of the odd things about this movie is that, while it is ostensibly a showcase for the magnificent Oysher singing voice that audiences of the time came to hear -- the first half of the film being little more than a series of excuses for the staging of Oysher songs -- from about the halfway mark on there are no more songs -- as Ulmer gets down to the business HE was interested in -- the dramatic and kinky aspects of the story. Thus, it is a musical that stops being a musical halfway through, and turns into a sex drama -- just this side of tragedy -- when we see Rifke (Ms. Weiss) heading glassy-eyed in the direction of the river having  realized she’s never gonna lure Yankl away from that pure little wife, Tamara!   As a footnote one might add that Florence Weiss was Oysher’s real life wife at the time, and it is said that her real life jealousy  led to their ultimate separation off screen as well. 

Miriam Riselle is Tamara, the long-suffering, young wife who eventually tames the rakish blacksmith.  Florence Weiss is the sexy vamp out to steal him away, Michael Goldstein, the scholar of “Green Fields” is once again a nebbish -- her hopeless nebbish of a husband, and the marvelous Anna Appel (one of the wives in “Green Fields”) is Chaye the matchmaker.  The expressionistic lighting,  unusual camera angles, frame compositions, and risqué situations in “Yankl” already presage the noir thrillers Ulmer would soon be making for Hollywood in the forties. 

CAST OF "YANKL DER SHMIT"

Yankl, the singing Blacksmith  ------------ Moyshe Oysher

His Wife, Tamara     ---------------------  Miriam Riselle

The other woman, Rifke      --------------  Florence Weiss

Chaye, the matchmaker   ------------------- Anna Appel

The old blacksmith    --------------------- Ben-Tsvi Baratof

Yankl as a boy  --------------------------- Hershl Bernardi

  

“THE LIGHT AHEAD” aka “Di Klyatshe”  

“THE  LIGHT AHEAD” (‘Fishke der Krumer’ -- a.k.a.  Di Klyatshe’ or "The Mare", 1939.

Produced and directed by Ulmer; Screenplay by Shirley and Edgar Ulmer; Dialogue director, Isidore Cashier; adaptation from the works of Mendele Mokher Seforim by Chaver-Paver; (Gershon Einbinder),  Camera J. Burgi-Contner.  Running time 94 minutes. Starring Isidore Cashier as Mendele, Helen Beverly as the blind girl, Hodl, and David Opatashu as Fishke the Gimp.  This vari-titled film is a powerful adaptation from the works of the 19th century “grandfather of modern Yiddish literature”, Mendele Mokher-Seforim,  condemning the self-serving religious hypocrisy and backwardness of its Ukrainian shtetl dwellers.

This is, in fact, one of the rare Yiddish films to take an openly dim view of traditional shtetl life, which in most films was idealized and romanticised all out of proportion.  Fishke, a lame young man who is a ward of the community, is employed as an attendant in the local bathhouse -- the lowest job in town -- and loves the beauteous but blind young, Hodl, who is too proud to beg.  Both are orphans and are practically the only pure souls in the benighted Ukrainian town of “Glubsk” -- an invented name that translates directly to  “Stupidsville”.  Though clearly meant for each other, they are literally, too poor to get married. Throughout, like a one-man Greek chorus, Mendele the learned, philosophical travelling bookseller -- obviously the alter-ego of the author -- comments wryly on the rampant hypocrisy and degradation he sees around him while taking an avuncular interest in Fishke and Hodl.  

After collecting 100,000 rubles for “charity” the town elders refuse to fund a much needed hospital, claiming that God is their doctor.  They are, however, willing to spend to support psalm and prayer societies.  When a cholera epidemic hits the town they ignore the filth that  surrounds them and blame the plague on a group of village girls who broke the Sabbath by swimming in the river.   Mendele, the wise  bookseller who has befriended Fishke and Hodl, invokes an  obscure Talmudic passage to  convince the superstitious elders that the only way of warding off the plague is to stage a marriage of orphans in the cemetery at midnight. This will, of course,  become the salvation of the young lovers as Mendele takes them away in his wagon immediately after the wedding.  The climactic, hysterical wedding scene with closeups of laughing faces, Hodl pirouetting sightlessly in the macabre handkerchief dance,  and a wild hora amidst the graves,  would  certainly  be seen with approval by Bunuel or Breughel.  Isidore Cashier is particularly impressive as Mendele and is really the heart of the film -- a wonderful actor, memorable also as the eventual father-in-law of the scholar in “Green Fields”.  

CAST of “The Light Ahead”

Fishke, the lame ------------------- David Opatashu

Hodl, the blind girl  -------------- Helen Beverly

Mendele, the book seller  ---------- Isidore Cashier

Getzel the Ganef  ------------------ Wolf Merkur

Gitl     --------------------------- Anna Gushkin

Prabke  ---------------------------- Rosetta Bialis

Dobe   ----------------------------- Jennie Cashier

Isaak  ----------------------------- Judl Dubinsky

Wecker  ---------------------------- Wolf Goldfaden

Badchen   -------------------------  Zishe Katz

 

 MAURICE SCHWARTZ --  The Definitive “Tevya” 

Because of the giant worldwide success of the Broadway show, Fiddler on the Roof, the canonization of its many hit songs, and the subsequent international success of the film based on the show, the hero of the piece, “Tevya der Milkheker” (the dairyman)is by far the best known figure in Yiddish literature -- probably the only one known generally to the gentile world.  The show has been produced in many languages, even Japanese, and many stars have interpreted the role of the lusty, crusty, unschooled Jewish dairy farmer who carries on a personal dialogue with God every day while tending his cattle and brood of seven daughters. (In this film, only two daughters) Not so well known is the original Yiddish film version of the Sholem Aleichem story  Produced directed and starred in by Maurice Schwartz in 1939. 

In the thirties Maurice Schwartz was the dominant figure of the New York Yiddish stage -- the “Jewish Broadway” of the Lower East Side -- where he was known as an autocratic director and a bravura actor, but he did not enter the Yiddish film making business until it was almost over.   Nevertheless, since he was a veteran of many stage productions of the play bringing to the Tevya character an intimacy no-one else was able to equal, Schwartz, in a sense, “owned” Tevya,  and his 1939 film production  stands as one of the major achievements of the Yiddish cinema along with a few other landmarks such as “Green Fields”, “ Dybbuk” and “Yidl”.  No matter whether you may have seen the Hollywood film or one of the many stage versions in languages other than Yiddish, Schwartz’s “Tevya”, his only directed film,  remains the definitive grand-daddy of them all. 

Variety’s, the show business bible, described the film in these tems in its review of Dec. 1939: “ ‘Tevya’ is one of the best Yiddish films made to date — certainly the most expensively produced. Old world racial prejudices of another era are closely dovetailed with the story’s primary element of intermarriage, and a fine supporting cast, notably Miriam Riselle, as the daughter who weds the

Christian, helps maintain the brisk pace.”  Thematically  this “Tevya” --  light years away from the aseptic, highly romanticized 1971  “Fiddler” of Norman Jewison—is an extended condemnation of the “sin” of intermarriage wherein Schwartz pulls no punches in portraying Ukrainian peasants as loutish, ignorant brutes and potential pogromchiks.  The story centers on the marriage of his favored daughter to a gentile youth, and then his relentless disowning of her until she returns to the fold just as the family is being expelled from their land.  The wayward daughter is played by Miriam Riselle who was Schwartz’s niece in real life.  Riselle is also seen as Moishe Oysher’s long suffering wife, Tamara, in “The Singing Blacksmith”.

In this series, a second  Schwartz film, only as actor, is “Uncle Moses” , 1932.  In this he plays a wealthy clothing manufacturer running a sweatshop on New York’s  Lower East Side, who is caught between an elderly father whose only wish is to return to Poland to die, and his love for the daughter of one of his employees. This early talkie is a filming of Schwartz’s own stage adaptation of a 1918 novel by Sholem Asch.

 DYBBUK -- THE JEWISH EXCORCIST 

Michal Waszynsaki’s “The Dybbuk”, Poland, 1937, is probably the most widely known, if not necessarily the best liked, of all Yiddish films.  Like Ulmer in America Michal Waszynski was an accomplished mainstream Polish director with numerous non-Jewish films to his credit, but this film is considered his masterpiece even by the Poles. The prominent Warsaw writer, Alter Kacyzne, worked on the screenplay of what is easily the spookiest Yiddish movie ever made.  

In the opening scene two young Hassidim, close friends, vow that if they both have children one a boy and the other a girl, these children will marry.   An ominous other worldly messenger (Meshulach), who appears and disappears at will,  warns that no-one has the right to vow for unborn children.  Already the die is cast.   One of the friends is lost in a storm rushing to the bedside of his wife who is giving birth to a boy. The wife of the other Hassid dies in childbirth leaving a girl behind.  Eighteen years pass.  The boy, Chonen, is now an impoverished talmudic scholar.  The girl, Leah, has been adopted into a wealthy family.  Chonen becomes a tutor in the same family.  The two are immediately drawn to each other and fall in love but are unaware that they were promised to each other long ago.  The solemn vow is broken when the girl is betrothed to another. 

Chonen, versed in the arcane mysticism of the Kaballa,  invokes Satan’s aid but dies in the process. On Leah’s wedding day Chonen’s spirit  enters the new bride’s body as a “Dybbuk” and possesses her.  To the horror of all, only his voice comes out of her mouth. The famous  rabbi of Wielopole is called in to exorcise the evil spirit from the girl’s body.   Only when the spirit is threatened with excommunication from the Jewish community, even in the other world,  will the Dybbuk leave the body of his beloved, but, when he does she too dies to join him forever in the Other World. An impressive work with many ritual set pieces, this is a one of a kind Yiddish film of The Occult.  A classic originally written in Russian by the Jewish playwright S. An-Sky. “Dybbuk” has been performed in many languages on the stage and was remade as an Israeli-German film co-production in 1968.   If “The Golem” is the Jewish Frankenstein  the Dybbuk, rich in ancient mysticism and folklore, must surely go down in film history as the Jewish Exorcist.  (The Hollywood “Exorcist” was made, incidentally, by a Jewish director, William Friedkin).

 

One of the things that made the film so impressive were the professionally choreographed ritual dances, and an eminent Jewish historian, Dr. Meyer Balaban, was hired to assure accuracy in the presentation of religious detail. Lili Liliana and  Leon Liebgold  (he, of “Yidl Mitn Fidl” and “Tevya” ) are the star crossed lovers and not long after, as if to confirm their heavenly union in the film, became man and wife in flesh and blood.   Avrom Marevsky is the Great Exorciser, and Max Bozhyk also appears, but the role that is likely to remain longest in memory is that of  The Ominous Messenger as played by Isaac Samberg.   Waszynski, a Ukrainian Jew whose original name was Waxman, was only 33 and Polish cinema’s reigning wunderkind when he directed “The Dybbuk” in 1937.    In Poland today, “Dybbuk” is regarded as much a Polish film as a Jewish one. 

CAST of  “DYBBUK”

 Leah ---------------------- Lili Liliana

 Chonen ------------------   Leon Liebgold

 The Messsenger  ----------  Isaac Samberg

 The Wonder Rabbi ----------  Avrom Morevsky

 Nuta ----------------------- Max Bozhyk

 

A Tribute  to Dzigan and Shumacher

“JOLLY PAUPERS”, “UN A HEYM”  and  “UNZERE KINDER” 

Shimon Dzigan, and Israel Schumacher, known on the stage simply by their last names  as “Dzigan & Shumacher” were by far the most famous comedy act in Yiddish entertainment history.  Even before Joseph Green and others started making Yiddish films in Poland, Dzigan & Shumacher were already Jewish celebrities as cabaret comedians.  Shumacher was the plump one and had a fine singing voice.  Dzigan was the wiry dark haired guy and together they delighted audiences with a brand of humor based on skits that were often quite satiric and political. They appeared in three of the dozen Yiddish films made in Poland and were slightly different in each one  because they were good actors as well as comics.  They survived the war by escaping to Russia and after the war emmigrated to Israel where the continued to have a dedicated following for many years.  Many recordings of their comic routines made in Israel survive and are still listened to by aging Dzig and Shu enthusiasts. Encouraged by the success of Joseph Green with “Yidl” and “Purimshpiler” Itzik and Shaul Goskind who ran a film processing laboratory, Sektor,  teamed up with the popular cabaret satirists , Shimon Dzigan and Israel Shumacher, in 1938 to form “Kinor”, a film cooperative of Jewish actors and artists in Poland. In their films Dzigan and Shumacher were expected to supply the comic relief , but in two of the films shown in this special tribute they are the lead players. 

JOLLY PAUPERS  (FREYLIKHE KAPTSONIM)

The definitive Dzigan and Shumacher showcase is the satiric comedy “Jolly Paupers” (Freylikhe Kaptsonim, The Sektor Group, Poland, 1937) directed by Zygmunt Turkow and Leon Jeannot, who had made short Yiddish-language documentaries. The film is characterized by a kind of gallows humor and a sense of economic desperation.  Two friends, Naftali the mechanic (Schumacher) and Kopl, the tailor (Dzigan) are convinced they have discovered petroleum when they come upon a puddle of oil from a can kicked over by a drunk in an open field.   The new “millionaires” are soon beset by a horde of wheeler-dealers who bombard them with business propositions and nudniks looking for handouts.   Now

everybody, including Max Bozhyk as a shadkhn, wants to get into the act.  When it is eventually discovered that the land contains no oil, just stones, the jolly paupers are not discouraged figuring they’ll just open up a factory for tombstones.  Hoberman calls  this film “the least sentimental of Yiddish talkies” and one which  disturbed Jewish audiences, even as it amused them because of the way in which it catered to uncomplimentary Jewish stereotypes of the time. 

“UN A HEYM” 

The film “Without a Home” (‘On A Heym’, Poland 1939) directed by Alexander Marten (who also plays the male lead, “Avremele”) is based on  Jacob Gordin’s Yiddish stage play of the same name, was adapted for the screen by Alter Kacyzne, and features Ida Kaminska, the shining light of the Warsaw Yiddish Theater.  Produced on a shoestring budget as attacks on Jewish institutions were becoming increasingly blatant and open,  it was shot entirely on studio sets by Jakub Janilowicz, the talented cinematographer of “Yidl Mitn Fidl”  and became the last Yiddish feature produced in Poland. The Brandeis print of the  film is, unfortunately, of very poor quality -- dark and blurry, with a very muffled sound track.  In spite of this the pictorial qualities of the film come acrossquite strongly.  The lighting, full of high contrast light and shadow, give a film noir feeling in keeping with the mood of the story and this is one of the few Yiddish films that emphasizes key moments with full screen facial close-ups.  It is also full of all kinds of wipes, in and out, across and diagonal, an inventory of tricky transition devices that were then in vogue in mainstream films. In short, “Home” looks like a real professional movie of the period and needs no apologies on the technical side.  

Kaminska achieved lasting international fame late (26 years later) with her magnificent portrayal of the old Jewish woman in “The Shop on Main Street”, the marvelous Czech film for which she achieved an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in 1966. Dzigan and Shumacher, who were at the peak of their popularity as a comic team in Poland, provide their usual comic relief when the going gets a little too heavy, but they also have fully fleshed out supporting roles that contribute much to the narrative. Their humor goes far beyond mere slapstick and they are seen here as a pair of well rounded actors. Shumacher was also a creditable singer and does one song in the film. “Fishl”, the would-be cantor is schumacher, and “moshl”, the English “expert” is Dzigan.   Despite a number of comic sequences thrown in to allay the overall gloom, this dark drama paints a rather unpromising picture of the “golden land” America, which many Jews in Poland  had come to look upon as the last refuge from the gathering storm in Europe.

 

The “Variety” review of April 1939 described  “Without A Home” as “a stark drama whose excellent direction serves to maintain a steady gait  that might easily have swerved to the maudlin.”  “UN A HEYM” is basically a family breakup melodrama about a poor family from a Polish fishing village who move to New York.  Upon the drowning of his elder son in a storm Avreml Rivkin (Marten) is so distraught that he decides to leave his wife, Bas-Sheve, (Kaminska) and their young son, Khena,  in Poland, and takes off for America alone.  There the best job he can find is dishwasher in a nightclub but  he strikes up a touching relationship with Bessie, the voluptuous club singer.   Sympathetic to his plight and charmed by his humble manner, she offers him the money he needs to bring his wife, son and aged pious father over to America. In New York  Bas-Sheve quickly discovers that America “has no sentiment”. She is like a fish out of water and finds it impossible to adjust to this strange new land of beardless Jews. 

Moreover, although Avreml is maybe not exactly having sex with Bessie (yet), Bas-Sheve is not exactly overjoyed at the attention Avremele pays her. Even on the night of her arrival in America, Avreml will not take one night off to be with her.  There is room to suspect  that his devotion to dishwashing is not the only reason. As he spends more and more nights away from home, Bas-Sheve becomes obsessed with the biblical triangle of Abraham, Sara and Hagar, and the little family starts coming apart at the seams. 

The son, Khena, is estranged from both parents when he overhears their decision to separate. When the boy disappears and there is evidence indicating he too may have drowned in the river, Bas-Sheve, already severely depressed,  suffers a complete breakdown and has to be put away.   In the clinic, in a wild-eyed state, she sees herself back in Poland rocking an imaginary child to sleep.  When, at length, it turns out that Khena is, after all, alive and has merely  run away from home, Avremel begins to repent for his shoddy behavior. Bas-Sheve regains her sanity, but a  happy ending  (not present in the original stage play) does not completely dispel the mood of pessimism that pervades the picture.   The film is technically very well executed and all the performers are very much in touch with their roles.  Simply stated, “Heym” is a very good film, but it was a flop in Poland because, in the spring of 1939 the idea that America was not the haven it was cracked up to be, and might even be a tradition-destroying trap -- was the wrong message to be sending an increasingly jittery Jewish populace.  

The portrayal of American Negroes, played by Poles in blackface for laughs, (Yiddish speaking negroes as comic relief is a theme that pops up briefly in a number of other films) is hardly reassuring and only adds to the estrangement, serving,  if anything, to underscore the fear that America is not going to be any picnic for new arrivals from Poland. The plaintiff Yiddish lament “Vu-ahin Zol Ikh Geyn” (I have no place to go) which, ironically, came along just a bit later, would have made painfully perfect theme music, although  the actual title song “Un a heym”, sung twice in the picture (once by Schumacher himself), gets the job done. As a study of displacement, alienation and disintegration of values in the new world, “Un A Heym” echoes the pessimism of Green’s “A Letter to Mother”,  made a bit earlier on the Eve of Destruction. Yet, neither film makes any direct reference to the systematic terrorization of Jews that was already well underway, as if this was an unwritten taboo the breaching of which might hasten the impending disaster. 

UNZERE KINDER

OUR CHILDREN (“Unzere Kinder”), Poland, 1948, is an unusual Postwar Yiddish film, a real discovery, that deals with attempts to heal the emotional scars of children of the Holocaust through song and dance. Producers, Shaul Goskind and Joseph Goldberg; directed by NATHAN GROSS; screenplay, Rokhi Auerbach; music, Shaul Berezovsky; camera, Stanislaw Lipinski.  Cast: Shimon Dzigan, Israel Schumacher, Neumiah Gold and the children of the orphanage.  Released in 1951, it was inexplicably shelved by the communists for thirty years as “politically incorrect”.  The Brandeis print, struck from an original nitrate negative, makes this outstanding film doubly rewarding to watch. In 1946, prewar producer Shaul Goskind returned from the Soviet Union to become the film librarian of the newly formed Film Polski.  He and Joseph Goldberg organized a production company in Lodz and called  it “Kinor”, reviving the name of their prewar company.  From 1946 to 1950 they made two features and a number of shorts. 

“Unzere Kinder”, made in Warsaw in 1946 and 1947, is a semi-documentary about Jewish war orphans starring Dzigan and Schumacher, who had also survived the war by escaping to Russia.  In postwar Warsaw two Jewish actors give a serio-comic performance about the Warsaw Ghetto.  In the audience are some children from an orphanage outside Warsaw one of whom becomes restless and disrupts the performance.  Afterward, the group comes to the actors’ dressing room to apologize, identifying themselves as children from the Ghetto who had outwitted the Nazis and managed to survive.  For them the  show had evoked memories that were nearly too painful to bear. They complain that the comical view of the Ghetto presented  on stage trivializes the incredible suffering  they saw with their own eyes.  Nobody had pieces of roast duck to throw down from the windows and the starving beggars were literally too weak from hunger to dance.  The matron invites the actors to do a show at the home.   On this occasion Dzigan and Schumacher are entertained by the children before they themselves take to the stage. Among their skits is a fantastic enactment of the famous Sholom Aleichem piece, “Krasilevke Brent”  (The town is on fire).  That night, the two comedians, deeply affected by what they have seen of these children, decide to slip out in the middle of the night.   In the halls, in the most moving section of the film, they overhear some children swapping tales of their unbelievably miserable wartime experiences.  In one flashback we see a Gestapo officer brutally toss a little girl, from a truckload of children being carted off to their death -- to a Polish peasant who has purchased her on the spot to save her. Other heart wrenching revelations are heard. In the morning, however, the resilient young children are once again seen happily at play. The actors leave the orphanage enriched and enwisened.   This is a truly remarkable film that not only preserves some of the best Dzig and Schu skits on celluloid, but also shows what magnificent, sensitive  “menshen” they were, apart  from their great comedic  skills.  The film itself is one of the best in the series, the kind you walk out with the feeling that a great discovery has just been made. 

In late 1948 Goskind was officially reprimanded by the

Communists and fled to Israel.  He was later joined there by Dzigan and Schumacher who immediately resumed work and went on to become a legendary comic team in their new and final home. 

“WHERE IS MY CHILD”  (VU IZ MAYN KIND”)

“Where Is My Child”, Menorah Productions, USA, 1939, running time 90 minutes. Producer, Abraham Leff; directors, Henry Lynn and Abraham Leff; story, Forgotten Mothers, by Sam Steinberg and William Leff; Camera, J. Burgi Cotner. CAST: Celia Adler, Anna Lillian, Morris Strassberg, Rubin Wendroff, Morris Silberkanter, Blanche Bernstein, Misha Stuchkoff, Cirel Arnod, Esther Gorber, Leo Schechtman. 

“Vu iz mayn kind” is an example of a tearjerker that also presents a social problem, arbitrary commitment and treatment of patients in mental hospitals. Celia Adler, a star of the Second Avenue Yiddish theater, plays a young mother widowed on the boat trip to America.  Lost in a strange land, she decides to put her infant son up for adoption.  Minutes after giving up her child,  she changes her mind and returns to claim him.  The head of the orphanage refuses,  saying that she has renounced all rights.  Adler finds the parents and begins to pester them, demanding her child back.  The head of the orphanage convinces them that she is insane, and she is committed.  Twenty five years pass. The son has grown up and become a doctor.  He is planning  to get married. One of the patients in his asylum, a very timid woman who keeps begging for her child, holds a special interest for him.  Secretly she twists the sheets into a doll and, rocking her “child” in her arms, croons him to sleep.

Meanwhile, the son’s adoptive family are throwing a party to celebrate the son’s engagement. He insists on inviting one of his patients, this poor woman.  She is brought to the house and is recognized by the head of the orphanage as the woman who brought this child to him twenty five years before. He repents and tells the new parents and son.  All is forgiven and mother and son are reunited.  Adler goes to live with her son and his new son. The overwhelming critical reaction to Lynn’s films was disapproval of their technical inadequacy. His plots were all melodramas and the acting leaned toward the worst of  so-called “shund” (trash) theater.   Nevertheless, Celia Adler’s performance, a gripping story and intriguing subject matter, among other things,  makes this a melodrama of more than passing interest. 

“HIS WIFE’S LOVER”  (Zayn Vaib’s Lyubovnik)

   Black People Speaking Yiddissh! 

IS WIFE’S LOVER”  (Zayn Vaibs Lyubovnik), USA, 1931, directed by Sidney M. Goldin, was based on a play by Sheyne Rokhl Semkoff.  Billed  as “The first Jewish musical comedy talking picture” the film was conceived as pure escapism from the poverty of the depression, was well received and presented a screen novelty a Yiddish-speaking black maid!!  ... To be slightly more precise, the tall Nubian dienstmaidl,  dressed in a typical black skirt, white apron, and white doily on her head -- actually delivers

her few lines in German  (“jawohl, Madam”) but it is still a riot to hear this, and a total surprise  (there is a later picture, not in this series,  in which a black boardwalk rolling chair pusher actually does speak authentic Yiddish, and there is also, believe it or not - a Yiddish cowboy movie...)   -- Like so many American Depression films this one takes place in lush uptown Manhattan settings where everyone seems to be living in the lap of luxury without a care in the world. 

As for the story, this was a star vehicle for the immensely popular singing comedian Ludwig Satz in which, on a bet, he disguises himself as an old man and wins the hand of a beautiful young woman, who was in love with him before the maskerade. Then, on a second bet with the same cynical misogynist (the lovably detestable Isidore Cashier who made a career of such roles) he has to test her fidelity to the  phoney old man by trying to seduce her as himself.   All this is punctuated with songs, and Isidore Cashier is the perfect foil to Satz’s fast change artist, as the sleazy buddy who keeps sucking him in to these insane big money bets.   A welcome change of pace from too many heavy melodramas. Starring: Ludwig Satz, Lucy Levine, Isidore Cashier and Michael Rosenberg. RT, 77 minutes. 

A VILNA LEGEND, (TKIES KAF) – The Handshake Agreement - Poland, USA,  1924 -1933.

Director, George Roland, (sound version), Zygmunt Turkow (silent version); screenplay, Jacob Mestel, camera, Seweryn Steinwurcel, 60 minutes.   Cast:  Joseph Buloff,  Ida Kaminska, Esther-Rukhel Kaminska, Zygmunt Turkow, Moishe Lipman, Henryk Tarlow, Samuel Landau, Ruth Turkow. A great sound-plugged-in adaptation of the 1924 Polish silent film.

“Tkies Kaf” -- An early  forerunner, one is tempted to say ‘prequel’ -- to “Dybbuk”, with emphasis on “The Messenger” (as a polymorphous prophet Elijah) who outflanks the Devil by bringing the star-crossed lovers together before their prenatal vow can be broken.  With a rich Yiddish soundtrack so ingeniously dubbed you’d think you’re watching a talkie if you didn’t know better. One of the most interesting films in the entire collection.  Street shots of Vilna and the whole atmosphere of the film evoke the mystical sanctity of  “Jerusalem on the Baltic” in the mid-twenties when Vilna was the undisputed Mecca of Yiddish culture. “Vilna”, by the way,  is the Yiddish name for Vilnius, the present-day capital of Lithuania, known in Polish as Wilno. 

THE JEWISH KING LEAR

USA, 1935,   “Der Idisher Kenig Lear”, producers, Johnny  Walker and Jack Rieger; director, Harry Thomashevsky; based on the play by Jacob Gordin; screenplay, Abraham Armband; camera, Joseph Freeman and --  supervised by Joseph Seiden, 86 minutes. CAST: Maurice Krohner (Dovid-Moishe = “Lear”), Fannie Levenstein, Jeannette Paskewitch, Esther Adler, Morris Weisman, Morris Tarlofsky, Jacob Bergreen, Edward Pascal, Rose Rosen, Harold Schutzman.  

Supervised by Joseph Seiden, the master of “Shund” (theatrical trash) this transposition of Shakespeare’s Lear to the Jewish community of 20th century Vilna is -- let’s face it -- putrid!  Arguably the trashiest version of Lear ever produced on any screen in any language.  Krohner’s mannered, blustery windbag of a Jewish Lear, by no means a king -- just a rich Jew with an obviously tacked-on white beard a foot long -- is pathetic, as is the entire film, not because of the inherent tragedy but because of the ridiculous conception and portrayal of the part.  The same can be said for the rest of the cast -- which is uniformly inept, mouthing lines of Yiddish dialogue so banal it’s embarrassing --  hard to believe this is an adaptation of a play by the great Yiddish dramatist, Jacob Gordin.  Presumably the blame for the dialogue is ascribable to scenarist Abraham Armband under Seiden’s consistently churlish supervision, while Thomashevsky seems to have had not the slightest clue as to camera placement, framing, cutting, or the construction of scenes, let alone the direction of actors.  Had this been conceived as a parody of Lear, which in effect it is, and played for laughs, it would have come off much better. 

All this said, the Yiddish King Lear is still of some interest, historic if nothing else, simply because it is the one and only screen version in Yiddish of a Shakespearean play and also, one might say, an excellent example of “high camp”, Yiddish style - thirty years before the word was invented.  “Mirele Efros”, the Jewish Queen Lear, is a masterpiece by comparison. The women seem to have been cast for their physical Ugliness, and even the good daughter (the Cordelia equivalent) while not exactly repulsive,is a bit on the meaty, porcine  side in looks

and behavior and totally out of it as an actress.   Lear’s wife would have been the perfect  witch in a Jewish “Snow White”, while the leering son-in-law seems to have learned his leers on the Kabuki stage.  The acting of the entire cast is so mannered that, with heavier makeup and a few gongs, this could have been billed as Jewish Kabuki and sent over to Japan where it might have gleaned a pile of yen.  Seen as an historical oddity and maybe for laffs, this Lear might be of marginal interest, but if you’re looking for something like Schwartz’s “Tevye” be prepared for a letdown. 

SOVIET YIDDISH FILMS

“Noson Beker Fort Aheim” (NATE BECKER GOES BACHK HOME) -- or,  

“The Return of Nathan Becker”, USSR,1932, is an odd piece of Soviet-Jewish propaganda.   It is well known that many Jews eagerly embraced Communism in the early days of the Soviet state largely because they firmly believed that, with the withering away of religion, discrimination against Jews would also disappear in the Brave New Bolshevik World.  In the early thirties many idealistic Jewish workers who had earlier fled pogroms in the Ukraine re-emigrated back to the USSR to help in the construction of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  Jewish culture in Russia was supposed to become “Communist in content and Yiddish in form”.  Noson (Nathan) Becker , a bricklayer,  is one of these Jewish returnees coming back to Russia after 28 years in America.  “Noson” (pronounced “Noosn”) is the Yiddish version of the Hebrew name “Nathan”, whence the proper name in the title.

In all fairness, it must be said that this film is simply not very good -- a rather boring piece of  the most blatant Soviet propaganda conceivable.  The bricklayer Noson who returns to Russia after many years in America with his attractive wife and a negro friend - also a bricklayer,  is convinced that Russian training techniques and gymnastics organized by the ministry of labor and economic research, are useless. 

To prove his point - of the superiority of the capitalistic way of laying bricks, he challenges the top Russian shock worker to a bricklaying duel. (could this be where Wajda got the idea for “Man of Marble”?) This competition is portrayed as an athletic event, with viewers in bleachers, as if a major football match were going on.  Of course, Noson loses to the highly trained (and much handsomer) Russian, and then sees the light -- the superiority of  Soviet planning and organization.  The black actor is apparently a Paul Robeson figure but doesn’t sing a single song and is basically around as window dressing.  The old bearded father who looks significant but spends most of the film mumbling Synagogue chants under his breath, is the famous Russian-Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels.   Perhaps this is the film’s one redeeming feature - a chance to see what the legendary Mikhoels looked like even if he doesn’t do much. PS: He was murdered by the Russian secret police shortly after the war at Stalin’s behest 

Noson, the hero, has a jutting jaw like Jay Leno and struts around in much the same way.  The film seems to have been dubbed from Yiddish into Russian, or perhaps made in two versions. The first reel -- in such bad condition that an apology is made on screen -- is spoken in Yiddish and has the added surrealistic touch of showing the arrival of Noson and “Black Jim” twice - once in Yiddish and  the second time in Russian.  The rest of the film is straight Russian, so it’s really kind of misleading to call it a Yiddish film at all.  This work of Social sur-Realism abounds in bombastic montage sequences showing proliferations of scaffolding at construction sites and other totally uninteresting imagery -- a badly overworked legacy from Eisenstein, who would probably approve of the film because of its unswerving adherence to the party line, both politically and in terms of Soviet film esthetics.  

Blatantly boring and Neanderthal in conception, this film is basically a curiosity whose chief interest is the insight it offers into the Communist ideas of the time when Jewish films were to be “Jewish in form but Communist in content”.  As an indication of what Jews back in the USSR could really expect, both screenwriter Peretz Markish and the great actor Solomon Mikhoels were unceremoniously murdered as “untrustworthy internationalist elements” in Stalin’s brutal  anti-Semitic  purges following World War II. The film is of perhaps marginal interest as an example of “Jewish Communism” and as one of the rare chances to see Mikhoels on screen. 

A companion piece to “Nathan Becker” is the 1928 USSR  silent (with English  intertitles) “Laughter Through Tears”.  This is based on a Sholom Aleichen story “Motl Peysi, the Cantor’s Son” and features actors of the Moscow Art Theater as well as Moshele Silberman, “the child wonder of the Russian stage”.   In contrast to the preceding film which belittles small town Jewish “shtetl” culture, this film reflects official Soviet policy of the late twenties which opposed the prevailing anti-Semitism of the general populace by drawing a basically sympathetic portrait of Sholom Aleichem’s shtetl. All films shown in this collection, as well as many others titles, are available from the Center for the preservation of Jewish Film, at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

(Copyright, Chaim Pevner, London 1996)

 

 

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THE FESTIVALS BLOG by Alex Deleon. Watch for festival coverage from the circuit.

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