Now here‘s exotica: a supernatural drama filmed in Poland, on the brink of the Holocaust, entirely in Yiddish, in 1937. You won’t see many like this. Two good friends make a solemn vow that when their as-yet-unborn offspring are grown, they will be wed (assuming they are a son and a daughter). But the mother of Leyele dies in childbirth. The father of Khonnen dies trying to get to his son’s birth and the oath is forgotten. Leyele’s father Sender prospers over the years, while young Khonnen becomes a devout, mystically minded scholar. When the fated couple meet they feel an instant bond, but Sender, unaware of this, sets up his daughter’s marriage to another. In a desperate bid to thwart this union Khonnen tries to summon Satan, but dies in the attempt, and the distraught Leyele, in the middle of a traditional ‘dance with the poor’ before her union with a man she does not love, becomes possessed with Khonnen’s restless spirit. It is left to an ageing Rabbi to try to sort out the rights and wrongs of this mess, in a trial attended by Khonnen’s long-deceased father, and to send Khonnen’s soul to its rightful place in the universe…
All very odd, but those are just the bare bones of the tale. Michal Waszynski’s The Dybbuk is as rich and strange an artefact as any aficionado of fantastic cinema could hope for. It overflows with esoteric rituals, customs and superstitions, some of which seem unfamiliar even to the characters on screen: there’s numerology, bits of Kabbalah, odd bursts of song and poetic turns of phrase, mannered acting, and vaudeville schtick. It is based on a popular play by S. Ansky, which clearly leaned heavily on folklore and fable, and you can still see its roots as a night in the theatre with something for everyone: a little physical and character comedy, a love story, the occasional tune, all manner of unflattering hairstyles and a large helping of tragedy. But seeing the rituals and customs of Judaism acted out on the big screen was apparently a big draw in and of itself. In the first few minutes, the developing narrative is brought to a halt as Sender sings the Song of Songs: ‘Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance, …give me the kisses of your mouth…’
This sets a pattern for a drama that always finds space for poetry and parable (even the wedding has to accommodate the musings of a ‘Wedding Bard’). Most of the film’s best moments are verbal, even in a subtitled translation: Leyele’s lament for ‘unborn children, never mine, lost forever, lost in time’, the churchyard summoning of the dead to trial beginning ‘blameless departed’, and Khonnen’s last, mournful coda, ‘I left your body to return to your soul’.
The filmmaking is pretty creaky in places, a little like an old Universal feature, but with less elaborate sets and more location photography. Camera movement is largely restricted to the odd pan or dolly shot, music is sporadic and the special effects extend only as far as fades, double exposures and dissolves. This doesn’t stop The Dybbuk creating a heady supernatural atmosphere from the start, in which the spiritual and natural worlds blend and overlap. Especially in the figure of a wandering messenger from elsewhere, who, bearded, heavy-lidded and humourless, appears unbidden into this realm to deliver wisdom and warning to the cast, who seem aware, and accepting, of his otherworldliness. We don’t, unfortunately, get a guest appearance from Satan when Khonnen calls him (boo!), which leaves Leyele’s ‘dance with the poor’ as the film’s standout moment of the fantastique, and a great sequence it is too, as her despair and anguish seem to take physical form in a moment of whirling disorientation and delirium, and she finds herself literally dancing with death.
To a decided non-believer, this comes across as a weird little bubble of cinema, both familiar and strange, a film overlaid with real tragedy, created by artists long disappeared, dispersed and destroyed, but one still brimming with life and soul and artistry.