The new Blu-Ray collection, The Jewish Soul: Ten Classics of Yiddish Cinema, gives a snapshot of a narrow window of history from the 1930s to 1950, when Yiddish films could actually get made.
Jews may have been common fixtures of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with studio heads like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg calling the shots. But it’s rare they got to make films about what it actually meant to be Jewish.
Meanwhile, during the same time frame, Yiddish theater was a strong and lively tradition. But there was a brief moment when these interests could overlap.
Arthouse film distributor Kino Lorber’s new Blu-Ray collection, The Jewish Soul: Ten Classics of Yiddish Cinema, gives a snapshot of a narrow window of history from the 1930s to 1950, when Yiddish films could actually get made — not that it was easy. Many of the around 100 Yiddish-language films produced during that period, largely out of New York and Eastern Europe, are now lost. And the Yiddish film movement largely died along with the widespread assault on Jewry that marked this dark time period in history.
Though decentralized across both geography and time, there’s much that binds the range of works contained here.
The headliner of The Jewish Soul is, no doubt, The Dybbuk, Michal Waszynski’s mournful, expressionistic 1937 film, in which a folkloric, vengeful spirit wreaks havoc on the life of the woman its forebear had planned to marry. In most horror movies, the fears are faced by a lone protagonist; by contrast, the horrors in The Dybbuk are felt by an entire community already riven by historical tragedy and facing new divides with changing times. Family problems are also shtetl problems, and matters of the spirit are broadly understood.
With performances sliding as called for between the eerie and the lifelike, surreal touches in lighting and design, and an attentive eye for what feels to this viewer like an accurate showcase of its community’s life, Waszynski’s film is a slow burn that’s worth the wait, one of few from the period that managed to appeal internationally to non-Jewish audiences.
Aleksander Ford’s quasi-documentary Children Must Laugh (released in 1936) takes us from a Jewish ghetto outside Warsaw to a nearby coed sanitorium filled with consumptive schoolkids — though you wouldn’t know their condition by looking. The film finds them staging plays, getting into scuffles, beekeeping and learning to farm. They sing as merrily as they do constantly (“All the fish there sing” is just one lyric), eagerly eyeing a future many of them will never see. Accompanying notes tell us that the Nazis sent many of the children featured in the film to Treblinka. Some who survived would participate in the Warsaw uprisings.
Throughout the 10 films in the boxed set, there continues to be a musical emphasis, often in the face of turmoil. This has the effect of deeply linking these movies to traditions of Yiddish theater.
This is especially true in Max Nosseck’s Overture to Glory (1940), which follows a cantor lured from his local synagogue to the Warsaw opera, outraging his father-in-law and many local peers in spite of his wife’s unflagging support. The tensions in the film, between rural and urban, and between traditional ways and new temptations that might create distance from loved ones and familiar life, have thematic resonance across all of these Yiddish works.
Fiddler on the Roof fans will find much of interest in 1939’s Tevya, director Maurice Schwartz’s early effort to adapt the Sholem Aleichem collection that serves as shared source material. Schwartz, a big fixture of Yiddish theater, also stars as the milkman, playing the iconic role with considerable gravity. As in Fiddler, the film tracks changing ways in a small Jewish community and the crossing of cultural boundaries once thought forbidden.
In place of Fiddler’s bouncy, scat-like tunes is a considered and steadily maintained air of some solemnity, wry wit leavening its inquiries into religious, traditional and communal life in ways that sometimes recall Bergman. (Also of note: Schwartz changes the ending, envisioning a different path for daughter Chava.)
Plying similar terrain is Harry Tomashevsky’s The Yiddish King Lear (1935), in which a possessive patriarch’s insistent steering of his daughters’ lives (he says early on that women should be “ornaments”) sheds light on some troubling flipsides to strict insistence on tradition.
The film, based on the play of the same name, is heavy on melodrama, as are several similar entries in the set all set in the U.S.: Eli Eli, Motel the Operator, Her Second Mother and Three Daughters (the last one, made in 1950, effectively marked the end of the Yiddish film production era in the U.S.). But even in their modest aspirations, these films showcase a broader range of works made by and about the American Jewish diaspora.
Particularly strong in this is 1940’s American Matchmaker, a tender and sly musical comedy by Edgar G. Ulmer (his fourth Yiddish film, made five years prior to his best-known work, the vicious noir Detour). Nat Silver, a serial New York bachelor reeling from an eighth broken engagement, turns to matchmaking as a profession so he can better understand just what makes a marriage. He inevitably falls for a client as those around him work to steer him toward success.
This feathery premise, along with splendid casting and its considered direction, grant Matchmaker a surprising ability to disarm. Casually showcasing generations of diasporic Jewish experience and varying approaches to immigrant life — evidenced by meek Nat’s coddling, more traditional-minded mother and his worldly, barb-tongued sister — it’s the small details in casting, writing and performance that allow the film to accumulate unexpected power.
These Yiddish films, like the language they embrace, are filled with the spirit of perseverance — artistic expressions of a people who narrowly escaped being entirely snuffed out. Taken together, their cohesion across wide gulfs makes a startlingly concrete case for the potency of shared society, identity and culture, capturing at the same time the essence of much preserved and lost.
‘The Jewish Soul: Ten Classics of Yiddish Cinema’ (with English and Hebrew subtitles) is available for purchase online at kinolorber.com.