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arts / rec.arts.sf.movies / THE DYBBUK (1938) (film retrospective by Mark R. Leeper)

o THE DYBBUK (1938) (film retrospective by Mark R. Leeper)Mark Leeper

THE DYBBUK (1938) (film retrospective by Mark R. Leeper)


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Subject: THE DYBBUK (1938) (film retrospective by Mark R. Leeper)
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 by: Mark Leeper - Wed, 8 Dec 2021 13:26 UTC

CAPSULE: Paydirt! A Yiddish film made in Poland in 1938 turns out
to be a little-known gem. The film lacks a lot of what we might
consider high production values, but besides being an unintentional
artifact of the culture of Eastern European Jewry wiped out in the
Holocaust, it also turns out to be a haunting horror film that
deserves to be seen by all fans of 1920s and 1930s horror films.
At least one sequence, a grotesque dance, ranks this film up with
some of the best of German Expressionism. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4).

Watching the 1938 Polish-made Yiddish film THE DYBBUK, one is only
too aware that the film is flawed. Much of the acting is
exaggerated as it would be in a silent film. Some of the
photography seems poor, as well as some of the editing. At least
once the film cuts from a quiet scene to a loud scene and the
sudden sound causes the audience to jump. It is true, however,
that in retrospect most of the faults seem hard to remember. The
strongest memories of the film are beautiful images, some haunting
and horrifying. And while taken individually many of the scenes
were less effective for me than they may have been for THE DYBBUK's
intended audience, this is a great mystical horror film, perhaps
one of the better horror films of the 1930s.

[Spoilers follow, though as with a Shakespeare play, one does not
see THE DYBBUK for plot surprises.]

Sender and Nisn have been very close friends since their student
days. Now they see each other only on holidays. To cement the
bond of their friendship they vow that if their respective first
children--each expected soon--are of opposite sexes then they will
arrange a marriage of the two children. Sure enough, Sender has a
daughter Leyele, though he loses his wife in childbirth. Nisn has a
son, Khonnon, though an accident claims Nisn's life before he can
even see his new son or conclude his arrangement to marry Khonnon
to Leyele.

Years later Khonnon, now a Talmudic scholar, meets Leyele and they
fall in love. Neither knows about the vow they would be married
and Sender does not know whose son Khonnon is. The intense Khonnon
is already considering giving up his study of the Talmud to study
Kabalah, the great book of mystical knowledge and magic. Sender
three times tries to arrange a marriage with a rich but rather
sheepish young man. Twice the plans fail and Khonnon believes his
magic has averted the arrangement. The third time, however, an
agreement is reached. Khonnon calls upon dark forces to help him
but is consumed by his own spell and found dead. The day of
Leyele's marriage--in fact, during the marriage ceremony itself--
Khonnon's spirit returns from the grave as a dybbuk, a possessing
demon, and takes over the body of the woman he was denied. Leyele
is taken to a great and pious Rabbi, now nearing the end of his
life and torn with self-doubts, who alone may have the knowledge to
remove the demon.

If some of this smacks of William Peter Blatty, it should be
remembered that this is a 1938 film based on a pre-World-War-I
play. THE DYBBUK by S. Anski (a pen name for Shloyme Zanvl
Rappoport), along with THE GOLEM by H. Leivick (a pen name for
Leivick Halper), are perhaps the two best remembered (and most
commonly translated) plays of the great Yiddish Theater. While
Yiddish folklore has many dybbuk and golem stories, and the play
THE GOLEM was based on an actual legend ("The Golem of Prague"),
THE DYBBUK was an original story involving a legendary type of
demon. The film retells the story of the play, but remains very
different. Other than plot there is not much of the play carried
over into the film.

All too commonly constraints of budget and even what appears now to
be inappropriate style rob some scenes of their effect. Much of
the acting is exaggerated in ways that might have been more
appropriate to silent film or to the stage. In fact, in some ways
this feels like an entire film done in a style much like the early,
good scenes of the 1931 DRACULA. Director Michal Waszynski could
well be excused on the grounds that he was making the film for a
very different audience. However, just occasionally, a scene will
be really supremely well done. The best sequence of the film is
when Leyele, just before her marriage, is called upon to dance with
the poor of the town, as is traditional. Leyele is reluctant and
the dance turns into a grotesquery culminating with Leyele dancing
with a figure of death. The film is a showcase for Yiddish songs,
cantorial singing, and dancing, both traditional and modern. Much
seems out of place, but this one dance creates one of the most
eerie and effective horror scenes of its decade.

THE DYBBUK stands as more than a good horror film. It is also an
artifact of pre-Holocaust Yiddish film and of Eastern European
Jewish village life. Curiously, for a Yiddish film some of the
stereotypes that appear could be interpreted as being anti-Semitic.
We see a miser with exaggerated Jewish features counting and
recounting his coins. We see what is intended to be a great Rabbi
looking pompous, fat, sloppy, and apparently lazy. Why a Yiddish
film would have such images is open to question. Still, it is a
pity that this film is not better known. It deserves to be thought
of as a major film of its decade. I rate it +3 on the -4 to +4
scale. Congratulations to the National Center for Jewish Film for
restoring this film.

Mark R. Leeper

arts / rec.arts.sf.movies / THE DYBBUK (1938) (film retrospective by Mark R. Leeper)


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