The Dybbuk, classic horror, not rated, in Yiddish with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Set in a Jewish village in Poland in the 19th century, The Dybbuk, a 1937 film based on a 1914 play of the same name by S. Ansky, a Russian, is a foreboding tale of love and greed put in motion by the appearance of a dybbuk, a wandering evil spirit. At the start, a title card ominously informs us that the soul of a man who has died an untimely death gets sent back to finish the deeds he has left undone. Just such a one appears on a country road and makes for a village with ill intent, uttering cryptic pronouncements to those he encounters.
At temple, Sender (Mojzesz Lipman) and his friend Nisn (Gerszon Lemberger) are taking instruction with the rabbi. The two have made a pact: Since both their young wives are pregnant and due on the same day, Sender and Nisn have vowed they will marry the children off to each other. The spirit (Ajzik Samberg), who calls himself a messenger, offers dire warnings. Sender’s wife soon dies, right after giving birth to a girl, Leah, and Nisn, in another town, is swept off a boat and drowns during a storm. His wife has given birth to a son, Khonnon. Many years later, Khonnon (Leon Liebgold) travels to the village for instruction. He finds the Talmud to be dry and prefers studying the Kabbalah. Unbeknownst to him, he’s under the dybbuk’s spell. When he encounters Leah (Lili Liliana), they fall madly in love. But Leah’s father, having forgotten his oath, has arranged another marriage for her, and Khonnon turns to black magic in order to win her. Possibly foreshadowing the star-crossed lovers’ fate, a tombstone erected as a morbid monument in the center of town commemorates another young couple, tragically killed years before while saying their wedding vows.
The Dybbuk, which is inspired by folk legend, is set in a place where belief in mysticism and magic is still strong. Efforts were made to make the ceremony and ritual scenes authentic; the filmmakers even employed historical advisors. The temple congregations sing haunting melodies, the mysterious appearances and disappearances of the messenger are eerie, and the movie features compelling dance performances, choreographed by Judith Berg. It also contains some of the earliest depictions of exorcism in the history of cinema.
Director Michał Waszyn´ski was a celebrated filmmaker in Poland, but this movie is not without its weaknesses. The pacing is clunky, the dialogue unnatural, and the acting, like the acting in German Expressionist films, is of a grandiose sort more suited to the stage. The high contrasts often make the subtitles difficult to read. That said, the film deserves to be considered in context. It is now intact, due to the preservation efforts of the National Center for Jewish Film. The Dybbuk was shot on location in a Polish shtetl, where villagers were employed as extras. Within two years, Germany invaded Poland, and many in the cast and crew did not survive the Holocaust (Waszyn´ski died in 1965).
Curse of the wedding planners: Lili Liliana