The “Jewish Exorcist Film” That’s Not Currently in Theaters: The Dybbuk, 1937

September 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

If you’re still in the mood for fuzzy cuddlies after my last post on Margaret Wise Brown’s “The Color Kittens,” then this post isn’t exactly for you. I’m taking a turn back to folklore land, and celebrating the release of Sam Raimi’s The Possession—which is being commonly referred to as “The Jewish Exorcist” by sharing with you what was actually the first “Jewish Exorcist” film—and before that, what you might call the definitive “Jewish Exorcist” play.

In case you need a Possession refresher, here:

If nothing else here on the Train, I do like to talk about how everything has its predecessor. Is The Possession a descendant of The Exorcist? In the world of film, no doubt. Is it a more direct offspring of Jason Haxton’s nonfiction book The Dibbuk Box, describing the strange events surrounding a wine cabinet that made the Ebay rounds after being owned by a Polish Holocaust survivor? Oh, yes (and you should definitely check out the link, and the book, if you like a good story). But let’s take the two main elements of this family tree—films about possession and the Jewish folkloric figure of the dybbuk—and go where the twain did meet before, shall we?

It’s time to talk about The Dybbuk.

Itim Theatre Ensemble’s production of “the Dybbuk” in Tel Aviv

Originally written by S. Ansky (a pseudonym for Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport) in 1914, The Dybbuk or, Between Two Worlds is a seminal piece of Jewish theatre. It is most commonly performed in Yiddish, the language in which it was originally written. Ansky himself was a scholar of Jewish culture and folklore, and had spent many years traveling and visiting rural Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine collecting stories, songs, and folk beliefs, which he wove into his writing.

Though the first professional production of The Dybbuk occurred after Ansky’s death in 1920 (isn’t that just always the way? Death, you jerk), the play was, and continues to be, a defining piece of Yiddish theatre—though some critics have noted that it’s not exactly a typical Yiddish play, which, during the heyday of Yiddish theater in the early 20th Century, were often satirical revues (if you need a modern reference, look to Eugene Levy singing “Bubbe Made a Kitshke” in Waiting for Guffman. Cheesy, yes, fictional, yes, but pretty spot on), or symbolic depictions of religious stories, often featuring masks (especially for the holiday of Purim). In the smaller subset of Yiddish theatre described as expressionistic, however, The Dybbuk is king.

The National Theatre of Israel’s production

Though the play has been performed all over the globe, one of the most lasting versions in the cultural memory is the 1937 film, directed by Michal Waszynski. The film was shot in Kazimierz, Poland, which was a historically Jewish area of Krakow from—get this—the late 13th Century until, you guessed it, World War II. Crazy. Why? According to Leon Leibgold, the man who played the lead in the film, in a NYTimes article in 1989, members of the Jewish community in Kazimiertz were invited to participate as extras. Which means that what you see when you watch The Dybbuk is essentially last generation of Jewish people to call that area of Krakow theirs, without the horrifying shadow that the Holocaust cast over such European origin places. Just one more reason why this film, The Dybbuk, is such an important piece of Yiddish, Jewish, and pre-WWII film. Let’s dive in.

The story is about an ill-fated couple, Leah and Channon (played by Lili Liliana and Leon Leibgold, which cannot be their real god-given names, but who ended up married to each other, aww). Years ago, their fathers promised each other that the two would marry. Now grown up, they are in love. But Leah’s father, Sender, reneges on his promise, and promises Leah to a wealthier man (isn’t that just always the way? Dads, you jerks). Channon, who believes that Leah is his predestined bride, goes to extreme lengths to win her back. And, like you do, he ends up dabbling in mysticism and promises his soul to powers of darkness if it means possessing Leah as his bride. Cue untimely death.

Leah, on her wedding day, carries out the traditional duty of going to graveyard and inviting the souls of all the dear departed to come and dance at her wedding (yes, that’s a thing. respect your dead, folks). At Channon’s grave, she pauses, and instead of just inviting him to wedding, invites him into her body. BECAUSE WHY NOT, what could go wrong.

I joke, but this is actually a pretty powerful scene. Here’s Lili Liliana in the graveyard in the film, invoking Channon’s spirit, and mourning for the children that the two would never have.

And natch, her calling to Channon works like gangbusters. During the wedding, Leah seems to enter a trance. She and the townspeople perform an incredibly expressionistic dance—the Dance of Death, after which Leah is presented to her husband-to-be, only to open her mouth and say, in Channon’s voice, “You are not my bridegroom!” This scene (clip below) is the most iconic of the film. When people who know The Dybbuk think about the film, this is the image that floats in front of their eyes. Or, in more common parlance, Google image search “The Dybbuk film 1937.” This, the woman dressed as Death and Leah dancing, in a trance, as the villagers writhe around her, is what you’ll see (in fact, you already did, I put it at the beginning of the post. But watch the clip anyway, because it’s awesome, ok?)

The play and the film end with the village elders trying to exorcise Leah, only to have it revealed, via yet another dybbuk, Channon’s father, that Sender (Leah’s father) didn’t make good on his promise. Bad juju all around. After this reveal, the nature of Leah’s possession is cast in an almost righteous light, since everyone present now knows that Channon and Leah were indeed predestined to be together. The elders and rabbis beg the dybbuk for Leah’s release, and in one final, beautiful scene, Leah appeals to her bridegroom, Channon, and elegantly, ecstatically, dies.

What’s interesting about the progression of the dybbuk myth in the last century, given a comparison between this iconic film and Sam Raimi’s new horror flick (which looks awesome, BTW, let’s all go see it together), is the nature of the possession. In The Possession, it’s pretty damn clear that the dybbuk, the spirit inhabiting the body of a living person, is a harmful presence. All you really need to see is Sam Raimi’s name to know that. But in The Dybbuk, the possessive ghost is almost overshadowed by the debate over who “belongs” to whom, and the notion of two people being linked across the void of death—and thus, not fearing death. Just listen to Leah’s pleading in the final scene (at the 8 minute mark, followed by a really great, ahead-of-its-time camera pan). Romeo and Juliet, with ghosts. Beautiful.

Hana Rovina in a production from the 1920’s

Perhaps it’s this notion of a dybbuk—what is now most commonly defined as a harmful spirit—as a predestined, otherworldly lover instead of a malevolent force that has made The Dybbuk one of the most enduring pieces of Jewish and Yiddish Theatre. Written, performed, and filmed in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, the play is not only about longing, love, and stepping your toes over the line of darkness in and of itself, but has become a symbol of something lost and dearly loved. As I mentioned before, the town in which The Dybbuk was partly filmed (it was also filmed, in part, in a studio in Warsaw), was a predominantly Jewish—if not purely Jewish—town, and had been for 600 years before the Holocaust. Just as it’s nearly impossible to imagine such towns in Eastern Europe without the shadow of the Holocaust coloring our view of them, it’s equally difficult to “read” films and plays such as The Dybbuk without our read being colored by the events that would follow their vibrant entrance into the world of Jewish literature and cinema. Can we read the loss and devotion between the two main characters of The Dybbuk, while watching the film or a production of the play today, without considering the loss experienced by the Jewish people as a whole in the 20th Century? Our experience of Jewish cinema, literature, and drama is different from the experience that pre-WWII readers and vieweers would have had in deeply untangle-able ways. It’s little wonder that plays and films such as Yidl with a Fiddle have been largely forgotten while The Dybbuk, despite its being a-typical of the Yiddish theatrical tradition from which it was born, has endured, and been reinvented in such ingenious productions such as the dance-heavy version put on by Itim Ensemble in Tel Aviv, or the Israel National Theater’s production, which mixed puppetry and live action. It will be interesting, I think, to see how The Possession fits into the narrative of Jewish film, and whether its malevolent dybbuk will have as much to say about humanity as the other-wordly presence in this little film from 1937.

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