Dybbuks and Holocaust laughs

A look at some of the year’s under-the-radar Jewish films.

MARTIN LANDAU (left) and Christopher Plummer in ‘Remember.’ (photo credit: COLLIDER)
MARTIN LANDAU (left) and Christopher Plummer in ‘Remember.’
(photo credit: COLLIDER)
From a Polish wedding ceremony haunted by a dybbuk to a Holocaust survivor suffering from dementia seeking revenge, here is a taste of some of the more obscure Jewish-related films released over the past year.
In 2015, 42-year-old Polish director Marcin Wrona’s horror movie Demon made its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
A few days later, he was found hanging in the bathroom of a hotel in Gdynia, Poland. His tragic death made headlines around the world. And, as a result, generated a morbid sense of curiosity about his final film.
The Polish-Israeli co-production, written by Wrona and Pawel Maslona and based on Piotr Rowicki’s play Adherance, is a modern take on one of the most famous figures of Jewish folklore, the dybbuk. Newly arrived from England to marry his fiancée Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiran) has been given her family’s ramshackle country house in rural Poland.
Shortly before the wedding, the groom-to-be discovers skeletal remains in the family’s backyard. Despite initially brushing off the macabre discovery, Piotr begins to suspect something sinister is afoot when he sees flashes of a dead woman lurking around the wedding. As Piotr begins acting erratically, the guests believe at first that he’s suffering epileptic attacks, but it is quickly diagnosed as possession by a Jewish demon known as a dybbuk.
In a recent interview with Moviemaker Magazine, Olga Szymanska – producer of the film and wife of the late director – said that “in the past there were lots of Jewish people in Poland, even more than in other countries in Europe. There was a very strong connection between Jews and Poles until World War II. We thought it would be good to remind people how close we were, and our legends and Jewish legends have a lot in common. We thought it would be time to remind people of the dybbuk, because it’s been a long time since the Hassidic version of Romeo and Juliet talked about this – that was the first play that dealt with dybbuk. We thought it would be good to make a modern version of it.”
Critics have already compared Wrona’s Demon to fellow countryman Roman Polanski’s early work in films like Repulsion and The Tenant.
“This could be, quite possibly, the Jewiest movie ever made” said director Jeff Beana at the Sundance Film Festival screening of his latest film, Joshy. The strange statement stems from the fact that the entire cast of the film, aside from two people, are Jewish.
The film’s titular Joshy is played by Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley), who’s set to marry Rachel (Alison Brie). Tragedy strikes, however, and the wedding is canceled. Four months later, Joshy’s small crew of friends (Nick Kroll, Adam Pally, Alex Ross Perry and Brett Gelman) elect to celebrate his bachelor party, just as they had intended before the incident occurred. So what was supposed to be a no-stress weekend for a few friends to get together over beers and board games turns into an increasingly raucous extravaganza of drugs, hot-tub hopping, strippers and more. The talented cast also includes Lisa Edelstein, Lauren Weedman, Aubrey Plaza and Paul Reiser.
“It’s no coincidence that most of the guys in the movie are coming from a sort of Jewish perspective, which is a culture [that] sort of prides itself on overcoming tragedy and finding humor despite what horror and degradations have been visited upon them for years. I think it’s not a super strange thing to find,” said Beana in a recent interview with Inverse Magazine.
The Last Laugh
Can the Holocaust be funny? That’s the query at the heart of Ferne Pearlstein’s provocative documentary The Last Laugh.
Plenty of different perspectives are offered, from Mel Brooks (“Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no. Anything I could do to deflate Germans... ANYTHING... I did! Hitler was always funny!”) to Sarah Silverman, from the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman to writer Etgar Keret. It also features 91-year-old Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor whose whole family was murdered and whose sister was experimented on by Josef Mengele. Yet despite her experiences of such intense evil, the vibrant Firestone believes that if you can’t have a laugh – even at the Holocaust – then the Nazis may as well have won.
“Humor kept me going after the Holocaust,” says Firestone. “Without humor, I don’t think I would have lived this long.”
The documentary is filled with vintage clips from films such as The Great Dictator and To Be or Not to Be, a Bugs Bunny cartoon and Jerry Lewis’ notorious and never-seen film The Day the Clown Cried, in which he played a circus clown imprisoned in a concentration camp.
In Atom Egoyan’s Remember, 85-year-old Oscar-winning actor Christopher Plummer plays Zev, a dementia-stricken resident of a Jewish home for the aged. Zev and his best friend Max (Martin Landau) make a pact to dedicate their remaining days to resolving unfinished business: tracking down and exacting revenge on the Nazi commandant responsible for killing their families during the war.
Unquestioningly following the instructions in the crucial letter, which he has to remind himself to read Memento- style, Zev steals away in the dead of night and embarks on a sort of road trip that sees him meet and interrogate four men (Bruno Ganz, Heinz Lieven, Dean Norris and Jurgen Prochnow) in his quest to locate the architect of his family’s murder.
“It’s an examination between the loss of memory through age but also the loss of memory through trauma. Because we understand that what’s really fueling this story is not memory loss, Alzheimer’s, it’s trauma, and we begin to understand the full depth of the story as the journey progresses.
It seems very simple at the beginning and then it becomes more and more loaded with the ghosts of history,” Egoyan told Reuters in an interview.
“The curiosity is still there, isn’t it?” Plummer said in an interview with Time magazine, referring to audiences who keep turning out for movies about the Holocaust.
“A dreaded attraction, but it draws people in. [But] it can be overdone, and I thought that this had a different angle to it –it wasn’t the story of Nazis and concentration camps.”
Premiering at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Remember won mixed reviews, with Variety praising Plummer’s performance but describing it as a “state-hopping Nazihunt mystery that puts a creditably sincere spin on material that is silly at best.”