Judaism — both as religion and as a culture — has a particularly rich literature of the fantastic, but filmmakers have seldom tapped into it. The most notable exception undoubtedly is Michal Waszynski’s 1937 film version of S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk.” Arguably the best Yiddish-language feature film, “The Dybbuk” is one of several vintage films sporting new restorations that will be screened in this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival. (It will be shown on Jan. 14 and 17.) It is definitely unlike any other Yiddish film ever.
Waszynski was, despite his name, a Ukrainian Jew (originally named Wachs), a journeyman director who worked steadily in the Polish film industry in the ’20s and ’30s. Whether it was the multi layered Ansky text or some dybbuk of his own that possessed him during the shooting of the film, this is his one utterly unforgettable work; it is a strange, hypnotic compound of German expressionism, Jewish tragedy and an undefinable fog compounded of graveyard dust, mystical texts and a little old-fashioned hokum.
The plot is probably familiar by now: Sender and Nisn are friends from their yeshiva days and now that they are both rising young men in their communities, with their first children on the way, they pledge that if their children are a boy and a girl the pair will be betrothed. But Nisn dies the night his son is born, just as Sender’s wife dies giving birth to Leah, their daughter. Nisn’s son, Khanan, turns up in Sender’s town, an indigent but brilliant yeshiva student who has begun dabbling in the darker mysteries of Kabbalah. When the prosperous Sender makes a profitable match for his daughter, the infatuated Khanan dies. But his spirit comes back to claim his promised bride by inhabiting her body. Overseeing all of this is a solemn mendicant with a lantern, clearly the prophet Elijah.
Waszynski approaches this material with a straight face. The acting styles range widely from the early-silent-movie hysterics of Leah’s aunt (Dina Halpern) to the eerie sleepwalker drones of Lili Liliana’s Leah and Leon Leibgold’s Khanan. But Waszynski subsumes all the disparities into a weirdly satisfying funeral rhythm, using a nervously prowling camera to emphasize the self-involvement of all the members of this supposed community. The film rises to an early climax with the genuinely unsettling dance of the bride with a harbinger of death, but peaks once more with a deeply disturbing exorcism by a rabbinical court and a deeply pessimistic ending. The result reminds one of Carl Dreyer’s “Vampyr” or Jacques Tourneur’s luminous “I Walked with a Zombie,” two films that seem truly haunted.
Waszynski’s own story is as complex and mysterious as his masterpiece. A new Polish documentary, “The Prince and the Dybbuk” (it screens Jan. 11) tries to untangle the many strands of his biography, which includes claims of Polish nobility, work in ’50s and ’60s Rome that included a stint on Orson Welles’ endless production of “Othello” and his veritable adoption by a prominent Italian Catholic family, in whose cemetery plot he is interred.
Piotr Rosolowski and Elwira Niewiera tell this story deftly, braiding together interviews with people who knew him as Wachs, Waszynski and other names, revealing his propensity for mythmaking, his wildly excessive spending and opulent lifestyle and his hidden sex life. No one who has seen “The Dybbuk” will be shocked to find that its director was gay; the homoerotic subtext in the relationship between the two yeshiva students is poignant and fairly transparent. Regardless of his other secrets, the greatest mystery of Waszynski’s life remains the brilliance of his one and only Yiddish film.
Rome plays a significant part in several other films in this year’s festival. “Iom Romi” is a charming half-hour film that explores a single day in the city’s Jewish community. Valerio Ciriaci had a sumptuously sunny spring day for his filming, and the rich diversity of the city and its Jewish culture makes for a fetching, if somewhat slender, example of an almost forgotten genre of non fiction film, the city symphony.
Unfortunately, “Let Yourself Go,” a broad farce directed by Francesco Amato, does very little to add to the portrait of Jewish Rome. The redoubtable Italian actor Toni Servillo struggles to hold together this thin little farrago about a misanthropic psychiatrist who is going through an extended mid-life crisis. He lives and works in an apartment adjoining his ex-wife’s flat, obviously still smitten with her. In an ill-judged attempt to revitalize himself at his doctor’s urging, he starts working with a personal trainer (Veronica Echegui) half his age. She inveigles him to become part of her scatter-brained personal life, including her relationship with a none-too-bright jewel thief. The result could have been an amusing if underbaked comedy if someone cut 15 minutes out of it; at 98 minutes it is sluggish, strained and shrill.
“Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Got to Be Me,” one of the many documentaries in this year’s festival, is part of the PBS “American Masters” series and, despite Sam Pollard’s best directorial efforts, it is redolent of public TV at its blandest. Pollard treats Davis’ chaotic life with appropriate seriousness and makes a convincing case for his subject as a source of multiple breakthroughs in the thickets of American racism and anti-Semitism. He doesn’t shy away from difficult questions like Davis’relationship with the rest of the Rat Pack or his philandering and drug and alcohol problems. But there is a certain sameness to the film’s rhythms that only becomes apparent — and a problem — when Pollard has to wrap things up in the last 20 minutes.
The New York Jewish Film Festival runs through Jan. 23, presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Screenings take place at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.). For information go to filmlinc.org/festivals/new-york-jewish-film-festival/.