What's new again: The Dybbuk (1937) | Bleader

What's new again: The Dybbuk (1937)

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Performing the Dance of the Dead
  • Performing the Dance of the Dead
Seeing The Possession last week, which improbably centered on the Jewish folk legend of the dybbuk, made me want to revisit the Polish-shot, Yiddish-language film in which the character received star billing. The Dybbuk (1937) was adapted from a 1914 play by S. Ansky (who had based it on folktales he collected during his ethnographic studies of Jewish shtetlach in Russia and Ukraine) and directed by Michał Waszyński (nee Mosze Waks), a Polish Jew who had apprenticed with F.W. Murnau in Berlin. Waszyński had changed his name and converted to Catholicism by the time he directed the film, but it's still unmistakably the work of a Jewish artist—not only in its inclusion of religious rituals, but in its knowing depictions of Jewish family life, its polar forces of security and guilt.

According to folklore, the dybbuk is not a monster, but a wandering soul with unfinished business on earth; it enters the body of a living woman so as to make its business known. Since many people die with unsatisfied desires, one would think that dybbuks would be a common phenomenon; indeed, the chief rabbi of the village where The Dybbuk takes place confirms this when he has to cast out the spirit at the story's climax. ("My father and grandfather knew how to do this," he says, or something to that effect.) One of the most interesting things about the film is how freely the dead interact with the living. There's another ghost in the story who frequently shows up to proffer advice and guilt-trip the living; he's more irksome than scary, an undead version of Seinfeld's Uncle Leo.

This fluidity between life and death is rendered poetically as well. During the extended wedding ceremony that forms the film's centerpiece, there's a ceremonial "dance of the dead" along with dances of the rich and poor. And the public ceremony takes place, we're reminded, near the grave site of a bride and groom who'd been slaughtered by Cossacks on their wedding day. (Seeing this detail now, it's hard not to think of the three million Polish Jews who would be slaughtered during the Shoah only a few years after the film was made; if The Dybbuk is at all scary, it's as a harbinger of real-life horror.) Not coincidentally, the film's dybbuk first arrives at the wedding. It is the spirit of Channon, the Yeshiva scholar who had wanted to marry the bride, Leah, but was turned away by her father. He refuses to leave until he can claim his beloved.

Channon also happened to be the son of Leah's father's best friend. When the fathers were young men, they pledged that their children would marry if they had offspring of the opposite sex (it sounds convoluted in the movie too). The rejection of Channon is thus an insult to two generations and only can be resolved by a rabbinical court. In contrast to The Possession—or, for that matter, practically every movie about demonic possession—The Dybbuk climaxes with a heated, albeit pragmatic discussion of religious law. It's indicative of Jewish tradition that the chief rabbi first tries to shame the dybbuk into departing. "Don't you think you're overreacting?" he essentially says.

While most ghost stories speak to our fears of the unknown, the tale of the dybbuk speaks to the fear of being confronted for past wrongdoing. A true contemporary adaptation, then, would feel less like The Exorcist than David Fincher's The Game or maybe a dark comedy like Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (in which John Cassavetes plays the dybbuk to Peter Falk's guilt-ridden Jew). Writing about The Possession last week for the Jewish culture website Tablet, J. Hoberman argued that "[the main character's] anxiety and the tension within his broken home would have been immeasurably heightened if his family were confronted with a repressed aspect of their own past." Agreed.

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