The Dybbuk (1937) is perhaps the best-known Yiddish movie. Filmed in Warsaw and in rural Poland before World War II, it is based on a play by Sholom Ansky. It is a ghost story on two levels: a classic folktale about love that extends beyond the grave, and a film made in and of a world that was about to be obliterated by the Nazi invaders.
Two men, dear friends, make an agreement on Hoshana Rabbah that their unborn children will marry, if one is a boy and the other a girl. One man is lost at sea before his son is born. The other is stricken with grief upon hearing that his wife has died giving birth to a girl. The pledge is forgotten, but 18 years later, the young man and woman find that they are inexplicably drawn to one another. The father has other plans for his daughter by now: he wants her to marry a rich man. The tragedy proceeds on not entirely predictable lines.
The Dybbuk is striking in its cinematography and its (for its time) unusual film techniques. Set in the 19th century, it has an otherworldly feel. While its “special effects” were simple, the filmmakers managed to produce a film that is both enchanting and spooky.
Some viewers may find it distracting that the film is in Yiddish and only some lines have subtitles. The subtitles are artfully done, giving us just enough to follow what’s going on while allowing the music of Yiddish and the vivid body language of the actors to tell the story. At first I found this kind of captioning frustrating (“what are they saying?”) but eventually I came to appreciate the fact that I was watching the movie, not the titles at the bottom of the screen.
The Dybbuk records a place and a culture that were about to disappear. Within seven years, most of the actors would find their way to the United States as refugees. One of the actors, Ajzyk Samberg, would die in the Poniatowa concentration camp in 1943. The cantor whose voice gives the synagogue services great power and veracity, Chazzan Gershon Sirota, would die with his entire family in the Warsaw Ghetto in the same year. Kazimierz, the little village in eastern Poland where much of the movie was made was declared officially “free of Jews” by the Nazis in 1942. The villagers who served as extras in the film disappeared into the maw of the Holocaust.
On a happier note, the two romantic leads, Leon Liebgold and Lili Liliana, married in real life and moved to the U.S. Liebgold was interviewed shortly before his death for a NY Times article about the restoration and re-issue of the film in 1989.
This is a film about that great Jewish topic, the power of words. Two friends make a foolish pact in violation of Jewish law. The rest of the film follows the unhappy results of those careless words. Words are key, again and again: it is by means of words that the young yeshiva student comes to ruin, discovering the secret codes (gematria) hidden in the names of his beloved, his father, and his own name. The words of the wedding ceremony hold a power that is almost electric in the film. The power of words is used for exorcism, for karet [excommunication], and for teaching via storytelling are all on display.
The film also gives a priceless opportunity to witness an authentic Hoshana Rabba service and to hear chazzanut by Cantor Sirota. Whatever your feelings about ghost stories, this is a rare chance to visit a Hasidic rabbi’s court in the vanished world of prewar Polish Jewry.