Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Prince and the Dybbuk (2017) and The Dybbuk (1937)

The National Center for Jewish Film's 21st Annual Film Festival, May 2–13, 2018
The Prince and the Dybbuk (2017), dir. Piotr Rosolowski and Elwira Niewiera
The Dybbuk (1937), dir. Michał Waszyński
May 6, 2:00 and 4:00, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

These two films—the first a documentary related to the second, which is based on Yiddish theater—screen back to back and should be seen together if possible.

Waszyński, 1930
The Prince and the Dybbuk (2017) and The Dybbuk (1937) are chock-full of complexities that might take more than one viewing of each to fully appreciate. Shot in black-and-white, The Dybbuk surely ranks among film classics, partly for its Yiddish theater legacy. It also embodies a dimension related to the personal life of its director, “Prince” Michał Waszyński (1904–1965), that would not be known were it not for the The Prince and the Dybbuk interpreting the material.
Waszyński, an aristocratic and admired filmmaker from his young adulthood until his death, hid his shtetl and yeshiva beginnings in Kovel, Ukraine, not only from the world but also from himself, as those early memories bore too much pain. The haunting images we’re shown from both his past life in Kovel and his post–World War II life in Italy involve his repressed homosexuality that may have prompted  his early flight to Warsaw and then Berlin, as well as his conversion to Catholicism and his name change from Moshe Waks to Michał Waszyński.
Later, memories of the Holocaust and murder of his family and friends increasingly break through Waszyński’s efforts to forget, leading to intolerable psychic pain, made worse by his inability to share his story with others, not even with his adopted family in Rome, the Dickmanns. However, one does wonder if just after the war he might have revealed his past to the older, humanitarian Italian countess, Dolores Tarantini, who helped him, married him, and promptly died, leaving him her fortune and palace in Rome.
The Prince and the Dybbuk uses traditional documentary techniques to piece together Waszyński’s life, but it also takes off creatively for many of its segments, integrating archival film footage of shtetl life, which complement voice-over memories from Waszyński’s diary. A particularly painful scene shows the Kovel synagogue today, first from the outside and then within, where the central cavity under the square dome has become a clothing factory. A Kovel survivor tells us how the Germans locked the town’s Jews, including the Waks family, in the synagogue. There, waiting to be killed, they wrote last messages on the walls. Archival stills show us individual faces—faces that could easily be your own family members’ faces no matter what your religious background. These captive faces are trying to make sense of being imminently killed. Voice-overs simultaneously speak the lines we assume were written on the synagogue walls. It’s a difficult moment in the film—incomprehensible pending murder—and yet, its reality is exactly what Waszyński couldn’t erase from his memory.
The documentary links Waszyński’s obsession with his film The Dybbuk to his own life, and integrates a mystical cemetery scene from the film. Waszyński’s diary toward the end of his life reveals how he’s tormented by a dybbuk who has possessed him. The film interprets this spirit as a yeshiva student Waszyński might have loved, forcing his flight from Kovel, his change of identity, and his inconsolable grief over the Nazi genocide.

Lili Liliana and Leon Liebgold in The Dybbuk, 1937

One of the documentary’s most shocking scenes is of the Battle of Monte Cassino, which Anders’ Polish army fought with the Allies. Waszyński was the troop’s filmmaker and recorded the cataclysmic bombing, its towering clouds of smoke, and the ancient monastery’s destruction. The army went on to liberate Rome, where Waszyński’s life and career came to settle.
Even without the insights and enrichments of Rosolowski and Niewiera’s documentary, Waszyński’s The Dybbuk stands alone as a film classic. Besides capturing with beauty and perfection a lost culture—Eastern Europe’s shtetl life and yeshiva study—it also preserves traditional Yiddish theater and folklore or mythology. The film is based on S. Ansky’s 1914 play of the same name. Its structure resembles Greek drama, and its story is a parable. The sets, action, acting, and cultural atmosphere filled with religious music all contribute to an outcome of extraordinary film art that shares an aesthetic with Orson Welles.

Etching by Ephraim Moses Lillien (1874–1925). In Jewish mythology, a dybbuk is the evil spirit of a dead person that possesses another person. In The Dybbuk, a young shtetl woman is possessed by the spirit of the man she was to marry but her father rejected.

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