"The Dybbuk" is a page torn from a nightmare. Showing tonight at 6:30 at the AFI Theatre. It is chilling, supernatural romance, a privileged glimpse into the past, a film as rarely seen as it is unique.
Made in Poland in 1933 and based on one of the classic of the Yiddish stage, "The Dybbuk" takes us to the dark side of "Fiddler on the Roof," to a time when wonder rabbis regularly performed prodigious miracles, when spirits of the dead wandered the earth and tampering with the supernatural led inevitably to the most dire results.
Two fathers, best friends, tempt fate by betrothing their unborn children. But one father dies and the other grows rich and forgets his vow, so when the poor orphan son, Channon, and the wealthy daughter, Leah, unknowingly meet and fall in love the father absolutely forbids the match.
Distraught, Channon turns to the mystical science of Kabbalah which "tears your soul away from earth and lifts it to the highest heavens." He even calls on Satan to help him win his love, and after he dies in futile communion with the ultimate evil, he enters Leah's bedy on her wedding day as a dybbuk, a wandering spirit that can find no rest in the other world.
Transferred to the screen, this simple story becomes one of the most haunting, atmospheric films imaginable. It is, as critic Parker Tyler called it in his "Classics of the Foreign Film," "a beautiful anachronism . . . one of the most solemn attestations to the mystic powers of the spirit the imagination has ever purveved to the film reel."
Though the acting is expressionistic and unabashedly theatrical, with even the non-possessed folks looking like they're in a trance, it fits the time and the film perfectly. Even the heavy-lid-ded, sinister representation of fate as The Messenger seems quite natural for an era when the quality of belief was absolute.
When Parker Tyler wrote about "The Dybbuk" in 1962, he noted that no negative print was believed to exist and no 35 mm print was known in the Western Hemisphere. Though the AFI is working in collaboration with the American Jewish Historical Society to painstakingly restore a 35 mm, print, the job is far from finished and the version to be shown tonight is a scratchy, dilapidated 16 mm, print with a faint soundtrack that has definitely seen better days.
Yet because of its distinctive, evocative qualities, we forgive "The Dybbuk" all its trespasses. As a record of a bygone way of life and as a starkly moving drama of doomed love it is very much one of a kind.