The Dybbuk

Pasatiempo - - News - — Michael Abatemarco

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

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