In the 1930s, small studios in Warsaw and New York made low-budget movies for an international market of not-quite-assimilated Jews. These films were mostly in Yiddish.
Production costs were low, and the movies tried to have everything. Most of these pictures contain comedy, drama, and people breaking out in song. They were often about young adults leaving and returning to family.
Yiddish cinema basically died in 1940. The New York films lost their oversea audience with the outbreak of World War II. Jewish filmmakers in Warsaw experienced a much more horrible fate.
Kino Lorber is selling a five-disc, ten-feature Blu-ray collection called The Jewish Soul: Ten Classics of Yiddish Cinema. You can also stream the films from Kino Now. The collection contains three great films, and even the bad ones have historical interest. Serge Bromberg’s Lobster Films restored them all. They have been given new English subtitles.
Let’s start with the three gems. Each shares a disc with another, lesser film. We’ll get to those later.
A- The Dybbuk
Michal Waszynski, Poland, 1937
Michal Waszynski, Poland, 1937
The longest film in the collection creates a strange and compelling atmosphere. It’s filled with coincidences, star-crossed lovers, deeply religious Jews, deeply greedy Jews, a magical messenger whose warnings are rarely heeded, and a dybbuk – which is something like a ghost who can possess a living person. You can choose between the complete 123-minute version and the shorter, 99-minute cut, which I haven’t seen.
A Overture to Glory
Max Nosseck, USA, 1940
In this tragedy, a brilliant Cantor is seduced by grand opera, and leaves his wife and child for the big city. As you can guess, that was not a good move. The film contains a lot of beautiful music – both secular and religious. A brilliantly made film considering the budget.
Maurice Schwartz, USA, 1939
In the past 12 months, I’ve seen three movies about Tevye and his daughter Chava, who marries a gentile and breaks her father’s heart. And yes, it’s better than Fiddler on the Roof (by the way, the other film is the silent Broken Barriers). Staying closer to Sholem Aleichem’s original stories, it’s a much more serious story. Ironically, this is one of the few films in this collection where no one sings or dances. The best movie in the set.
The not-so-good, but interesting movies
Of the seven fair-to-bad films, the last four were directed by Joseph (sometimes Josef) Seiden. His films are cheap and rarely original. And yet, they have their moments.
C Mir Kumen On
Aleksander Ford, Poland, 1935-36
This documentary celebrates a rural sanitarium for tubercular children – primarily Jewish and entirely socialist. While officially non-fiction, every scene is clearly staged for the camera. It’s kind of like a Polish kibbutz.
D+ American Matchmaker
Edgar G. Ulmer, USA, 1940
The only film in the set with a director you may know (Ulmer directed the great, low-budget noir Detour). As with so much of his work, this romantic comedy shows its cheapness.
D- The Yiddish King Lear
Harry Thomashefsky, USA, 1935
This horribly shot film is adapted from of a horrible stage play. Everyone overacts. The camera work is wretched – I’ve never seen such bad closeups. The story, set in what I think is pre-revolution Russia, is kind of like Lear, even though there is no king. Spoiler alert: It has a very happy ending.
C Her Second Mother
Joseph Seiden, USA, 1940
A major crime has been committed! The police arrest the innocent heroine on the day she finds out she was adopted. Heavy melodrama! Singing in jail! A comedy relief couple! But don’t worry, there’s an amazing coincidence to save the day. Cheap sets and very bad production, as you’d expect from Joseph Seiden.
C- Motel the Operator
Joseph Seiden, USA, 1939
This one starts as a union drama. Then it becomes a tragedy. Then it jumps 20 years to deal with blackmail and manslaughter. The movie’s best moments are the many exteriors of 1939 New York City.
C- Eli Eli
Joseph Seiden, USA, 1940
By Joseph Seiden’s standards, it’s not that bad. An old couple can’t keep their farm, so their grown son takes the father and the grown daughter takes the mother – and they live cities apart. There’s a very funny clumsy maid, who also does a very good comic dance number with her boyfriend. Probably the best scene in any Joseph Seiden movie.
D- Three Daughters
Joseph Seiden, USA, 1950
The last movie is the worst movie. A decade after the other pictures, Seiden made one without humor, songs, or dancing. It’s just a soap opera of the worst sort.
How These Discs Look
These films were never intended to last. Most of them are in pretty bad condition, and none of the original negatives have survived. But some of them, including the three good ones, look quite presentable.
All the films are pillarboxed for an old-fashioned, narrow aspect ratio.
How It Sounds
All ten films are presented in uncompressed LPCM, 16-bit, 2.0 mono. They probably sound like they did in a 1940 theater. Maybe better.
About the subtitles: The prints used for the restorations already had subtitles, but they weren’t very good. So, new translated subtitles are often displayed over a black or grey rectangle hiding the old ones.
And the Extras
- The small booklet contains articles by film preservationist Serge Bromberg, Allen Lewis Rickman, and Samuel Blumenfeld, along with credits for the films and the discs. Unfortunately, the font is so small that, if you’re my age, reading the book became a chore.
- The Dybbuk commentary by J. Hoberman: He discusses the sins of the various characters, the actor who plays the rabbi (who ages 20 years), and Jewish mysticism. As in most of the commentaries, Hoberman points out that Yiddish Cinema came from Yiddish Theater.
- Overture to Glory commentary by Allen Lewis Rickman: He discusses the separation between Jews and Gentiles and the talented but overlooked director Max Nosseck.
- Tevya commentary by Allen Lewis Rickman: He discusses how the film was made, early 20th century Russian laws about Jews marrying Gentiles, and how Fiddler was designed for non-Jews.
- American Matchmaker
commentary by Eve Sicular: Among other things, she unearths some gay references.
- Her Second Mother commentary by Allen Lewis Rickman: The commentary is better than the movie, and sometimes verges into MST3K territory. More than once, Rickman several times reminds us that “Joseph Seiden wasn’t fussy.”