Kenneth Turan’s favorite films span a century of the world’s most satisfying romances and funniest comedies, the most heart-stopping dramas and chilling thrillers from All About Eve to Seven Samurai to Sherlock Jr. He will be reading from his recently-published volume Not To Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites From A Lifetime Of Film on Monday, June 23, 2014 at 12:00PM. See details about Turan’s appearance and read an excerpt from the book here.
Author Appearance: Monday, June 23, 2014 at 12:00 Noon at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. Come hear Kenneth Turan talk about these timeless films—classic and contemporary, familiar and obscure, with budgets big and small—and judge for yourself the truth of director Ingmar Bergman’s observation that “no form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.” Turan’s appearance will be moderated by Brian Hackney, Reporter, KPIX TV. Location: SF Club Office; Time: 11:30AM check-in, noon program, 1:00PM book signing. Cost: Members Free, $20 non-Members, $7 students (with valid ID).
Excerpted from Not to Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites from a Lifetime of Film by Kenneth Turan. Copyright © 2014 by Kenneth Turan. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through our affiliate link at Amazon.com.
Directed by Michael Waszynski. Starring Leon Liebgold, Lili Liliana.
Though the great works of world cinema have become my solace and my joy, I grew up as a Saturday matinee kid in Brooklyn without any awareness of their existence. One of my paths to knowledge was stumbling on books like Parker Tyler’s Classics of the Foreign Film: A Pictorial Treasury , and I have not forgotten the shock one particular entry gave me.
This passionate, heavily illustrated book became a touchstone, and I remember reverently turning the pages, looking at the pictures and reading about films I’d never heard of or seen. Then came a when-worlds-collide moment: sandwiched chronologically between Marcel Pagnol’s The Baker’s Wife and Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky was The Dybbuk , a Yiddish language film that Tyler, never one to downplay his enthusiasms, called “one of the most solemn attestations to the mystical powers of the spirit the imagination has ever purveyed to the film reel.”
I may not have known from film classics, but Yiddish I knew about. It was the first language of my immigrant parents, who spoke it constantly to each other and everyone they knew. It was a language I loved without reservation, but no one of my acquaintance had ever connected it with anything artistic. A film in Yiddish worthy of being spoken of in the same breath as Napoleon , La Strada , and Hiroshima, Mon Amour ? There must be some mistake.
It took some time to experience The Dybbuk for myself, but when I did I realized the mistake was mine. This story of love and otherworldly possession was, as Tyler had suggested, a deeply haunting film, a convincing portrait of the existence of a supernatural sphere intimately connected to our own. But it was more than that, considerably more.
Directed by Michael Waszynski (a prolific Polish filmmaker who ended up with associate producer credits on postwar films like El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire ), The Dybbuk was first and foremost a stylized and sophisticated art film that made use of the tenets of expressionism in set design, music, and dance to create its world and make its points.
But because it was made in 1937, just a few years before the Holocaust would decimate the universe it portrays, the film’s re-creation of the culture and civilization of Europe’s Hasidic Jews, its depiction of a world that would soon be no more, resonates in a way no one involved in its production could have foreseen.
Another reason The Dybbuk is so good is that it’s the direct descendant of a pair of culturally significant predecessors, a groundbreaking project of cultural anthropology and a major hit play, both bearing the name of S. Ansky.
S. Ansky was the pseudonym of the writer Shloyme Zanvyl Rapoport, who between 1911 and 1914, when World War I forced a halt to the work, headed an expedition to the Russian Pale of Settlement under the auspices of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society of St. Petersberg. “Armed with cameras and recording equipment,” writes J. Hoberman in Bridge of Light , his definitive history of Yiddish film, Ansky and his cohorts devoted themselves to “transcribing Jewish legends, noting spells and remedies, collecting songs and proverbs, photographing old synagogues and cemeteries, and purchasing ceremonial objects, jewelry and clothing.”
One of the legends Ansky came across was that of the dybbuk, often a demon (as in the writings of Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer) but also a wandering soul who, according to the later screenplay, “returns to the earth so that it may complete the deeds it had left undone, and experience the joys and griefs it had not lived through.”
Ansky was so taken with this story that he turned it into a play, Between Two Worlds, that is set in an indeterminate past, a time when wonder rabbis regularly performed prodigious miracles, when spirits wandered the earth, and tampering with fate inevitably led to dire results. In this particular story, the soul in question returns to fulfill a love that dared not speak its name while the lover still lived.
Though a number of theatrical impresarios had expressed interest in Between Two Worlds, including the Moscow Art Theater’s celebrated Constantin Stanislavski, the play was never performed during Ansky’s lifetime. It was produced by the vilna Troupe as a posthumous tribute just a month after the author’s death in 1920. Its popularity skyrocketed after that, and as Yiddish language film became a going concern in Poland, a movie version (making use of some of Warsaw’s top Yiddish theater talent) was all but inevitable.
The Dybbuk opens with what is essentially a long prologue that sets the film’s spectral, otherworldly tone from the opening frames. A long shot of an empty country road suddenly presents a man magically appearing in the middle of the frame, a man walking purposefully with a long staff in his hand.
As his miraculous entry makes clear, this is no ordinary man but a kind of mystical messenger of almost golem-like focus and intensity. A harbinger of destiny who knows what will happen before it happens, the messenger is given to enigmatic pronouncements like “a man must see where he is going” and “a man never knows when it is time to rejoice or time for sorrow,” and his somber presence never fails to disconcert whoever he meets on his way.
The messenger (Isaac Samberg) is headed to the court of Reb Azriel, the Tsaddik of Miropole, the head of a Hasidic community whose followers revere him for holiness and wisdom, a man whose grandfather, Reb velvele the Great, was a student of Hasidism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, and was said to have the power to resurrect the dead.
As played by Abraham Morewski, who originated the role in the 1920 vilna Troupe production, the Tsaddik is a wonder rabbi to the core, someone whose faraway look indicates involvement with the higher spheres even as he leads his followers in the singing of evocative nigunim, the wordless melodies that are part of Hasidic communion with God.
It is the time of the High Holy Days, and it’s not only the messenger who wants to be at the Tsaddik’s court. Two good friends from yeshiva days, Sender (Moshe Lipman) and Nisn (G. Lemberger), have reunited here and, discovering that their wives are both pregnant, have made a decision about the future they can’t wait to announce to their spiritual leader.
Ignoring warnings from the somber Tsaddik (“man does not make decisions” he cautions them), the two men pledge that should their wives give birth to a boy and a girl, they will marry. The messenger tells them point-blank that “you cannot pledge something as yet unborn,” but they are unmoved and begin the journey to their towns with the vow intact. As my mother used to say, no good will come of this.
Things start to fall apart almost immediately, as Nisn dies before reaching home and before telling anyone of the pledge he and Sender have made, a pledge his son Chanon grows up with- out knowing anything about.
Sender stays alive, but his wife dies giving birth to a daughter, Leah. Partly to deal with his sorrow, Sender devotes himself to his business, coming to care more for money than his lonely daughter.
Eighteen years pass, and the impoverished Chanon (Leon Liebgold) comes to Sender’s town of Brinnits to study. Naturally he and the beautiful Leah (Lili Liliana) meet and feel an immediate attraction neither one can explain, as well as a fascination with a grave in the center of town. It’s the resting place of a bride and groom who were killed in 1648 by Chmielnicki’s murderous Cossacks as they stood under the wedding canopy about to be wed.
Because Sender, having forgotten his vow and having no idea who Chanon is, insists on marrying Leah into a wealthy family, a desperate Chanon abandons study of the cold Talmud for the mystical precincts of Kaballah, which “pulls the soul free of earth to spiritual heights.”
The young man fasts, takes ritual baths, mortifies the flesh, and, in his extreme anxiety, even calls out to Satan (“in every sin there is holiness”), all in an attempt to make Leah his own. He dies in the attempt, but when Leah stands under the wedding canopy about to be wed to the young man of her father’s choosing, Chanon’s spirit enters her body and takes possession of her soul. “Into the bride,” says the messenger with terrible and deliberate finality, “has entered . . . a dybbuk.” Does anyone, even the great Tsaddik himself, have the cosmic power necessary to sever these bonds?
Several factors make this unnerving and fantastical situation plausible, starting with the film’s intense atmosphere, its use of expressionism to create a skewed but compelling world where buildings have a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari tilt and Judith Berg’s choreography of village dancing, including a pas de deux between Leah and a terrifying figure wearing a death’s head mask, is always unsettling.
Equally central, and equally convincing, is the acting in the lead parts, especially Liliana and Liebgold (who costarred with Molly Picon in Yidl Mitn Fiddle and with Maurice Schwartz in Tevye ) as young lovers who create the feeling they must always be together, in death as well as life. In fact the two actors fell in love during the production and remained married for more than fifty years. Such is the power of The Dybbuk’s spell.
What to Watch Next:
The Light Ahead (1939), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.
Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds , by J. Hoberman.
Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Los Angeles Times‘ book review editor. A graduate of Swarthmore College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, he is the co-author of Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke. Turan teaches film reviewing and nonfiction writing at the University of Southern California and is on the board of directors of the National Yiddish Book Center. His most recent books include Free for All: Joe Papp , The Public , and The Greatest Theater Story Ever Told and Never Coming to a Theater Near You . Turan lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter @KennethTuran.