The Dybbuk (1937) by Mark R. Leeper (a film retrospective).

December 5, 2021 | By | Reply More

Paydirt! ‘The Dybbuk’, 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 and the strongest memories of the film are beautiful images, some haunting and horrifying. 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 Theatre. 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 Leeper 2021

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Category: Fantasy, Films, MEDIA


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