Sidney M. Goldin, a pioneering filmmaker in the Yiddish market, created a costume melodrama in Austria with all the trimmings and a genuine Yiddish stage pedigree. An extraordinarily interesting picture, especially when compared with Hollywood productions that follow a similar theme.
After some fits and starts, it looked like the Yiddish language film industry had found its legs in the 1920s. Hot off the hit that was East and West starring Molly Picon, producer and director Sidney M. Goldin joined forces with another star of the American Yiddish stage, Maurice Schwartz. Schwartz is probably best remembered for co-writing, directing and starring in the title role of the 1939 Yiddish language film Tevya (he had earlier starred in the stage version as well), which was based on the same Sholem Aleichem stories as Fiddler on the Roof. In Yizkor, however, he was cast as the hot young hunk.
Yizkor was based on a play of the same name (alternative spellings taken into account) by Harry Sekler and it’s a humdinger of a variation on the old story of Joseph vs. Madam Potiphar complete with a castle, a hunchback and a horrible death for a healthy chunk of the main cast. (If you think that’s a spoiler, you should see what’s written for the plot synopsis on the back of the DVD cover. Actually, the title is a heckuva giveaway because Yizkor is a memorial service and calling a movie by this title can be imperfectly compared to calling a film Funeral Dirge in English. We’re not in for flowers and gumdrops, is my point.)
The story takes place in Volhynia but was shot in Austria and the production takes full advantage of both the architecture and the countryside. If you’re familiar with your scripture, the plot should be fairly obvious but in case you’re not, here’s the lowdown. Leybke (Schwartz) is a nice Jewish kid raised by a Christian godmother. He becomes a guardsman for Count Zsaky (Oscar Beregi), the local poohbah whose daughter Helene (Dagny Servals) is, to put it kindly, a nymphomaniac.
Helene takes one look at Leybke and decides she wants to embrace a kosher diet but he only has eyes for his fiancée, Kreyndl (Betty Reve). After a couple of attempts to wrestle Leybke into submission, Helene accuses him of trying to assault her and her father immediately slams him in prison.
Leybke’s friends arrange for his escape, he marries Kreyndl and takes her on the run with him but the Count is not finished. He takes ten men from the Jewish community hostage and vows to imprison them until Leybke is found.
Will the Count and Countess win? Will Leybke surrender himself? Watch Yizkor to find out.
Now, it’s pretty obvious that the theme of the picture is that non-Jewish authorities may seem friendly enough (the Count ceremonially kisses the Torah at one point) but things can get very nasty very quickly the moment there is an excuse for anti-Semitism. And, given the upcoming real world events… Yeah, fair enough.
The secondary theme is that Jewish people cannot have their cake and eat it too. Assimilation comes at a price and once that price is called in, only the community can protect them. This is an interesting contrast to the few Jewish-themed films being made in Hollywood, which pushed the idea that assimilation with continued cultural appreciation was both possible and desirable. Whether or not this works out in the real world is beyond the scope of this review but it is interesting to watch something like His People, a major Hollywood release that sings the praises of assimilation and has one of its male leads court an Irish girl, with the story of Yizkor.
East and West, mentioned earlier, also has a theme of assimilation. Molly Picon plays an American girl who returns to the old country and accidentally marries a yeshiva student, real-life hubby Yonkel Kalich, who then proceeds to secularize himself in order to win her love. That film is light and bouncy with Picon merrily breaking every possible rule. It’s not as extreme as His People (Kalich was neither Irish nor Catholic after all) but there is a definite message of changing the old shtetl ways to move forward in life.
Yizkor runs in the dead opposite direction with the hero living on the edge of Jewish culture with a Christian foster mother and best friend. However, these characters are portrayed in a positive light and do their best to protect Leybke as his situation becomes more and more precarious. They are simply powerless in the face of a vindictive despot.
The picture ends with a title card that is a bit of a gut punch considering the time and place of the production. I can imagine you could hear a pin drop whenever this is screened post-WWII.
I wouldn’t say Yizkor is the easiest movie to get into, especially since it has a rather slow start and relies on a rather extreme form of melodrama. However, I was helped along by the documentary The Thomashefskys, the brainchild of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and a tribute to his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, legends of the Yiddish stage. The Yiddish theater was a raucous and the audience was enthusiastic and everyone got into the spirit of the thing when a melodrama was playing. Women in the audience passed their shawls to the on-stage Jews exiled to Siberia and screamed that the accusations against the hero were a lie.
With this information in mind, you can see how Yizkor would be better appreciated with a loud and interested audience. I’m not saying this is the Rocky Horror Picture Show but you kind of get the idea. You’re supposed to boo the Count and Countess and cheer for Leybke and weep for Kreyndl. To do any less is to fail to show appreciation. I have absolutely no doubt that motion picture audiences at Yizkor would have been just as thunderous as theatergoers.
The Yiddish theater is no more and your average viewer is going to assume that they should be polite and concentrate when the actual idea is to curse the villains in your best salty Yiddish. I didn’t have an audience to help me but I did my best, shaking my fist at all the right passages and applauding heroism where appropriate. I highly recommend doing this if you see Yizkor, it improves the experience considerably. In fact, I think The Thomashefkys and Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods by Michael Wex should be sold as a three-part set along with Yizkor. (I highly recommend Wex’s audiobook because nothing beats hearing Yiddish from a native speaker.)
All this being said, while Yizkor did well in Europe, it was not a hit in America. It received mixed reviews and belly-flopped in the Lower East Side. Perhaps it spent too much time establishing Jewish culture and thus preaching to the choir. Perhaps bad distribution, the bane of many an independent production, was to blame.
The direction is bare bones without any particular fireworks compared to similar productions of the time but Goldin does make the most of his Austrian filming locations and costumes and in general, the picture looks more expensive than it probably was.
Besides Schwartz, the cast does include some interesting names. Oscar Berengi, who plays the Count, was a Hungarian veteran of the Yiddish stage and you may recognize him as Professor Baum in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. (His namesake son enjoyed a career as a character actor and memorably played a gleeful SS veteran opposite Joseph Schildkraut in the Twilight Zone episode Deaths-head Revisited.)
Fritz Strassny has a small part as a scribe and you might remember him as Conrad Veidt’s father in The Hands of Orlac. Strassny was murdered in the Holocaust.
Maurice Schwartz handles the heavy pathos well but he’s in no danger of toppling Rudolph Valentino from his Great Lover throne. But then again, if the point of the story is that he’s just a nice guy who stumbles into the web of a hungry, hungry countess, I suppose that’s a forgivable issue. Dagny Servals vamps up a storm as the Countess and seems to be having fun chewing on both the scenery and Mr. Schwartz’s neck. It’s campy but it works. We’re dealing with extremes here, remember. (Spoiler) The Countess poisons herself in the end because her last ditch attempt to seduce him fails. (See, people aren’t generally in the mood for love when their neighbors have been taken hostage and they are forced to surrender and submit to torture. They’re weird that way.)
Stories based on Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, as well as the adventures of Esther, were pretty common in Yiddish theater, from what I can tell, and pitted the observant Jewish characters against the wiles of the lawless and the lusty. (I think I found a name for my soap opera.) Tragedy was a fact of life at the time and this was reflected in the contents of the plays. Pogroms, revolution and decaying empires in Central and Eastern Europe had sent Jewish citizens fleeing to Western Europe and North America, among other places, where they faced more oppression. And so (spoiler) the ending in which Leybke is buried alive by the Count would have been considered reasonably par for the course. The scene is not graphic in the least—we only really know what is happening because of title cards—but it’s certainly a gruesome way for a hero to go.
More recent events would surely have been on the minds of the filmmakers. (Schwartz reportedly changed plot elements in Tevya when he heard that Germany had invaded Poland.) In France, the Dreyfus Affair had ignited political opinions and showcased the depths of Western European anti-Semitism in the 1890s. If you are unfamiliar with the events, a young Jewish captain, one Alfred Dreyfus, was accused and convicted of espionage on the flimsiest of evidence while the real (non-Jewish) culprit was allowed to skip off. Like Leybke, Dreyfus enjoyed the prestige of a military position but that was no help at all once the chips were down. (18,000 Jewish soldiers were awarded the Iron Cross for their service to Germany in the First World War. History repeats.)
There are obvious parallels between Yizkor and the infamously awful American production Surrender. Both feature a non-Jewish noble making an aggressive pass at a Jewish character. Surrender was based on the old theatrical warhorse Lea Lyon and when it was adapted for the screen, more than a little of Yizkor-style plotting bled onto it. Ivan Mosjoukine’s Cossack prince threatens to kill every single person in Mary Philbin’s village if she doesn’t sleep with him. He is the hero.
Now, I obviously had several issues with this and I go deeper in my review but suffice to say, I found it interesting that the greatest threat issued by the villains in Yizkor was to imprison ten adult men from Leybke’s village in his place. Not that this was exactly a nice thing to do but I think the Count would probably have told Mosjoukine’s character to tone it down in Surrender before, you know, burning tiny tots alive.
For all its melodrama, Yizkor at least has some amount of logical escalation in its peril and that’s more than can be said for Surrender. We start with Leybke merely imprisoned but attempts by his friends to help him backfire spectacularly and end in tragedy.
The question of assimilation and, to a varying degree, anti-Semitism were similarly addressed in recent German language cinema with Der Ritualmord (1919), Der Golum (1920), Die Gezeichneten (1922), The City Without Jews (1924) and The Ancient Law (1923). Der Ritualmord is a lost film but apparently debunked the myths behind Blood Libel and presented a romance between a Russian Christian and a Jewish woman as positive, a romantic pairing that was repeated in Die Gezeichneten. Der Golum, of course, took a considerably more negative view and it is entirely possible that elements of Yizkor may be considered a response. (Goldin clearly paid attention to the local cinema as East and West owes much of its style to the Ossi Oswalda films made by Ernst Lubitsch.)
I have seen some modern reviews of Yizkor complain that the Jewish characters are treated like victims while their attackers are shown to be mustache-twirling villains. Considering what happened in Europe just a few years later, I think we can give the filmmakers a pass, hmm? I mean, especially in light of that fact that at least one member of the cast was actually murdered in the Holocaust. There is a time and a place to remove one’s film critic hat and “plot of movie made before actual genocide that warned of actual genocide” seems to be one of them. Yes, it’s melodramatic but that’s kind of the point.
Yizkor isn’t a perfect film or a great film but it is an interesting film and a time capsule of attitudes and beliefs in the Jewish community before the Holocaust. Definitely worth checking out.
Where can I see it?
Yizkor was released on DVD by the National Center for Jewish Film with translated title cards. This version has no musical score.