Movies and the Jews: Der Dybbuk (1937)

der-dybbuk

Leah the Bride’s pas de deux with Death

“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”  – From the Song of Songs

In celebration of Hanukkah, I will be writing this month about classics of Jewish cinema.

“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine,” is one of the most celebrated statements of love from the Hebrew Bible’s Song of Songs, also known as Songs of Solomon in the Christian Old Testament.  However, the phrase takes on a sinister meaning in this 1937 Yiddish film, whose subject is a young bride possessed by the soul of her dead lover.

Der Dybbuk is a film from Poland based on S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk.  Ansky’s play, originally written in 1914, was the result of years of research concerning folktales of the Russian and Ukrainian Hassidic Jews.  The play has long been considered a seminal work of the Yiddish theatre.

Storyline:  Two friends (Nisan and Sender) pledge that their children will marry each other.  Years later, when Nisan’s son Chanan shows up at Sender’s doorstep, Sender reneges on the promise and arranges to have his daughter Leah marry a rich suitor.  In desperation,  Chanan calls upon Satan to ensure that he will have the young maiden as his own, and he dies.  During the wedding ceremony, Leah is suddenly possessed by Chanan’s spirit (the dybbuk).  The situation is mitigated by a Jewish exorcist, who successfully expels the dybbuk.  However, Leah ends up choosing to die in order to be with her soulmate, Chanan, in the next world.

As a horror/fantasy offering, the 1937 film of the play is rather long and somewhat static, with all actors using old-fashioned silent movie acting technique.  However, it’s worth everything to see the wedding scene, which is a set piece that plays as a parody of the dance sequences in The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky.  Here we see a strange, Expressionistic ballet presented by peasants, poor people, and the wedding party.  The most chilling scene features a variation on the medieval Dance of Death, where Leah the Bride performs a pas de deux with an anonymous person wearing a death mask.

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This film offers an invaluable time capsule concerning Jewish Chassidic life as it existed prior to the Holocaust.  For example, we get to hear Nigunim, Jewish songs without words, throughout the film, as well as lovely dance melodies.  Who knows how much of this music was lost in the tragedy that was to follow just a few years after The Dybbuk was filmed.

One happy outcome to this story:  The actors who played Leah (Lili Liliana) and Chanan (Leon Liebgold) actually fell in love and remained married for more than fifty years.

You can purchase a DVD of The Dybbuk at amazon.com through the following link:

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I would strongly recommend reading Kenneth Turan’s Not to be Missed:  Fifty-Four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film for more information on The Dybbuk’s history.  In case you’re not familiar with Turan:  He is the chief film critic for the L.A. Times, and a fine writer.  I am indebted to him for introducing me to this film.  You can purchase a hard copy or Kindle version of Turan’s book through the following link:

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Pluses:  Evocative expressionistic cinematography; great wedding scene; fascinating story

Minus:  Silent movie-style acting; some sections not subtitled.

Cast:  Abraham Morewski, Ajzyk Samberg, Mojzesz Lipman, Lili Liliana, Leon Liebgold

Director:  Michal Waszynski

Rating:  Unrated

Black and White

Country of origin:  Poland

Language:  Yiddish, with English subtitles

Length:  125 minutes (some versions are shorter)

Sources:

“The Dybbuk (film)”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  813 November 2016.  Web.  6 December 2016.

Turan, Kenneth.  Not to be Missed:  Fifty-Four Favorites from a Lifetime of Film.  PublicAffairs New York (Copyright 2014)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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