Dybbuk is Michał Waszyński’s drama from 1937, often considered the best Yiddish film in the history of cinema. It is an adaptation of a play by S. Ansky of the same name.
Thanks to its large Jewish community and relatively low production costs, Poland's interwar period brought about the most films in the Yiddish language in all of Europe. Jewish films, created in big numbers, especially in the second half of the 1930s, were often distributed abroad. Comedies and musicals such as Yiddle with Her Fiddle (1936) gained great popularity but producers quickly noticed that traditional beliefs and Hasidic culture could also be attractive material for cinema. The best work of the so-called mystical school is Dybbuk – an adaptation of the renowned 1914 play written by S. Ansky (real name Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport). It was somewhat a surprise that Michał Waszyński became the project's director. He did have Jewish roots but he was also completely assimilated and mostly shot entertainment films at the time. However, the Polish artist managed to suggestively deliver the world of Jewish folklore and direct a film which became a great success with both Jewish viewers and non-Jewish audiences.
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S. Ansky's original drama text was based on the legend of the Dybbuk – a ghost who cannot find respite in the afterlife and enters a living person's body. Unlike the original work, Waszyński's story begins long before the possession and depicts events prior to the ones in the play. At the beginning of the film, Nisan (Gerzszon Lemberger) and Sender (Mojżesz Lipman), two close friends, swear to God that if one of them gets a daughter and the other one gets a son, they will arrange a marriage for their children in the future. Not long after that, Nisan dies during a violent thunderstorm and, over the years, the promise becomes completely forgotten. Eighteen years later, Sender, who has managed to amass a great fortune, wants to marry his daughter Lea (Lili Liliana) to a good husband. He rejects the proposal of Chonen (Leon Liebgold) – a hardworking student who came to the city to study Kabballah and became infatuated with the girl (who returned his affection). The boy, who – as it turns out – is the son of the deceased Nisan, decides to prevent the marriage from happening and – making use of his esoteric knowledge – summons evil spirits.
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Dybbuk possesses the characteristics of a morality play – the creators warn against materialism, disloyalty, and greed. Surely, the tragedy could have been avoided if it was not for Sender, the stereotypical 'cunning Jew', who, despite his ostentatious piety, spends most of his time counting money. However, the morality subplots are only secondary in the film – the most important part of the story is Chonen's and Lea's love for each other. The forbidden feelings of the infatuated pair stand against not only their families but also against the laws of life. Such love is the most prominent manifestation of spirituality in the religious and conservative Jewish community.
The classic tale of great love would not have been as successful if it was not deeply rooted in folklore. The rituals of the Hassids, divine service in the synagogue and the exorcisms performed by the tzaddik are not merely supplementary to the plot – they are key elements of the film. It is worth mentioning that some parts of Dybbuk were filmed in Kazimierz Dolny and some of the songs were performed by Gershon Sirota – the worldwide-known cantor of the Great Synagogue in Warsaw. At the same time, it was rightly noticed that the film has a lot in common with the Polish romanticism movement. The Jewish shtetl, which includes the grave of the newly-weds killed some years ago and the nearby cemetery, is a reality at the crossroads of two worlds – that of life and death. Fatalism, the theme of love being more powerful than death and the 'poetry of graves' are also characteristic of Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady ('The Forefather’s Eve') among other works of the romanticist movement. Most importantly, Waszyński is able to create a romanticist atmosphere through artistic means, for example, when Lea, just before her possession, dons a snow-white wedding gown with characters in black in the background and resembles a spectre.
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pre-war jewish cinema
Dybbuk, as a film infused with the atmosphere of passing and death, gained new meanings following the Holocaust and, nowadays, it is sometimes read as a symbol of the fate of the Polish Jews. Moreover, the legend adapted by Ansky was later interpreted again many times: the drama was staged by Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Warlikowski among other artists and Agnieszka Holland directed an excellent television drama based on the text in 1999. Even though the pre-war version of Dybbuk is not completely successful in terms of its narrative, it remains unique not only to Polish but also to the global Jewish-themed cinema. The adaptation of Ansky's drama is also a very important piece in Michał Waszyński's rich body of work. After all, it is not a coincidence that the 2017 document about Waszyński, directed by Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski, is titled The Prince and the Dybbuk.
Dybbuk / Dybuk (Der Dibuk), Poland 1937. Director: Michał Waszyński. Screenplay: Andrzej Marek, Alter Kacyzne. Cinematography: Albert Wywerka. Music: Henryk Kon. Scenography: Jacek Rotmil, Stefan Norris. Starring: Leon Liebgold (Chanan), Lili Liliana (Lea, Sender's daughter), Mojżesz Lipman (Sender), Ajzyk Samberg (Meszulach), Abram Morewski (Cadyk Azriel from Miropoa), Gerszon Lemberge (Nisan), and others.
Production: Warszawskie Biuro Kinematograficzne Feniks.
Black & white, 100 minutes.
Originally written in Polish by Robert Birkholc, Sep 2018, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Sep 2018
The Prince and the Dybbuk – Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosołowski