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By Phil Hall | April 12, 2005

The most famous and accessible film of the Yiddish-language cinema, “The Dybbuk” is also of value as the first motion picture to incorporate an exorcism into its plot. While many contemporary audiences may find difficulties in the film’s stylized production and heavily theatrical acting, “The Dybbuk” nonetheless offers an unusual and compelling treat.

Based on the Yiddish stage classic “Between Two Worlds” by Sholom Ansky, “The Dybbuk” is rooted in a promise made by two young Yeshiva students, Sender and Nisan, whose respective wives are due to give birth. The men vow the betrothal of their children if one is born a boy and the other a girl. And, as luck would have it, this occurs. Alas, there is tragedy: Sender’s wife dies after giving birth to the girl while Nisan drowns in a storm as he crosses a lake to get to his wife as she delivers a boy.

Years later, Sender is a wealthy merchant who spends more time counting his money than appreciating his daugher Leah. The site of the older Jewish merchant obsessed with money might seem a bit stereotypical, but in this context it is meant to show the particular character’s warped priorities. A young Yeshiva student named Channon arrives in the village and Leah falls in love with him. Channon is equally smitten, but Sender does not consider a marriage to be appropriate given that Channon is poor. Sender arranges a marriage for Leah to another young man, but then discovers too late Channon is Nisan’s son and that his promise of years ago has been corrupted.

Channon, whose scholastic focus is the Kabbalah, invokes satanic spells to win the power and funds that can help him gain Leah. But he is in way over his yarmulke and he perishes while creating the spells. During the wedding of Leah and her betrothed, Channon’s spirit takes up residence in her body. A rabbi who is well-versed in exorcism is called to evict Channon’s spirit from Leah, but the results are not what anyone expected.

“The Dybbuk” was shot in Poland, mostly in a Warsaw studio but also on locations in the countryside. Although the budget for this film was reportedly very high (by the standards of Yiddish cinema), it seems like a B-Movie, especially in the terribly special effects involving a mysterious messenger who appears to drop grave comments before vanishing into thin air. Scenes tend to plod on too long and the editing is often slovenly. Director Michael Waszynski obviously had problems getting the cast (actors from the Yiddish theater in America and Europe) to tone down their performances for the film medium. Too often the actors are declaiming and emoting so grandly that it seems they forgot they were playing to a camera and not a packed theater.

But time has given “The Dybbuk” a tragic poignancy. The film records the life and culture of Polish Jewry in the years prior to the Nazi invasion, which took place two years after the movie was made (many of those involved in the film’s creation perished in the Holocaust, although the romantic leads Leon Liebgold and Lili Liliana left for America after the filming was over). With its careful and rich presentation of religious ceremonies and social protocol, it offers what was literally the last look at a civilization which was nearly made extinct shortly after the production concluded.

Yet the film has one truly stunning sequence which will hypnotize anyone who comes to it: during Leah’s wedding, a man in death’s make-up abruptly appears and engages her in a sensual dance. It is a brief but jolting moment in which the film’s theatrical roots grow strong: the sight of the nubile young bride swaying happily in the death-man’s grasp achieves a greater chill than any multi-million-dollar CGI effect. For that moment alone, “The Dybbuk” needs to be experienced.

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