Enemies: A Love Story (1989)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Paul Mazursky

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

If anyone is interested in seeing films that successfully take on the male Jewish persona the Coens have been pursuing humorlessly in their recent films, A Serious Man (2009) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), check out the works of Paul Mazursky. A Brooklyn Jew who changed his first name (Irwin), went to Hollywood, and has spent his career toggling between directing and acting, Mazursky has reflected the times he has lived through in his eight decades of life while maintaining a surprisingly consistent worldview. For Mazursky the screenwriter and director, the world is a disorienting place; his films are filled with people trying to find themselves both physically, following displacement (Harry and Tonto [1974]), and spiritually (Tempest [1982]). His debut feature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) starts in group therapy, moves inexorably to a fumbled foursome, and ends in a parking lot with the title characters staring at each other, still searching for answers.

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Based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies: A Love Story, made exactly 20 years after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, isn’t concerned with parodying the free love/therapy of the ’60s that Mazursky clearly saw through, but it could be considered something of a prequel. Set exactly 20 years before Bob & Carol, Enemies also involves a foursome of sorts, with Polish Jew Herman Broder (Ron Silver) running frantically on the outer edge of his wheel of fortune between three women—his first wife Tamara (Anjelica Huston), returned to him miraculously after eyewitness accounts of her execution at the hands of the Nazis; his second wife Yadwiga (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska), the Broders’ Catholic servant who hid Herman during the war; and Masha (Lena Olin), the concentration camp survivor whose edgy passion and longing for death have Herman helplessly entwined in a torrid affair.

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Like Bob & Carol, this film opens with a therapeutic echo—a dream in which Herman is peering down from a hayloft as German soldiers drag Yadwiga into the barn where he is holed up and beat her to get his hiding place out of her. After Herman awakens from this nightmare in a cold sweat in his Brooklyn apartment, the endless fleeing from his past and himself begins. After rejecting the breakfast simple, trusting Yadwiga has made for him (“your favorite!”), he tells her he will be making a sales trip to Philadelphia to visit some booksellers. Instead, he goes to his real job with Rabbi Lembeck (Alan King), for whom he ghostwrites and does translations of religious texts, avoiding questions about where the rabbi can contact him, and then dashes off to Masha, who lives with her mother (Judith Malina). The three visit for a bit, and then Masha and Herman retreat to her bedroom for the intense sex they both crave as a salve for their battered souls.

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Herman is a man who owes his survival in part to his ability to lie and evade. The truth of his life becomes unavoidable, however, when he comes face to face with Tamara, a woman who knew him well before the war and therefore represents someone to whom he cannot lie successfully. Tamara said she came to see Herman out of curiosity and has no interest in resuming their life together. To her question he confesses that of course he has a mistress—he’s married after all. When Tamara learns he married Yadwiga out of gratitude, she replies drolly, “Couldn’t you have found some other way to thank her?”

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The truth is that Herman needs someone to look after him, and the literally servile Yadwiga fits the bill. When Yadwiga decides to become a Jew so that she can bear his children, she increases the demands on a man whose existential position is described in the game “Wooden Leg.” A woman with the presence of mind to crawl out of a trench of dead bodies after being shot and survive could certainly teach him something about perseverence, but Tamara becomes something like a Greek chorus to Herman’s fracturing life, watching him make the mistakes to which his character is prone and finally offering to become his life manager when she sees him falling down the rabbit hole.

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We expect to feel sympathy for Holocaust survivors, but the genius of novelist Singer, as faithfully translated by Mazursky, is that he created no typical Holocaust survivors; the Holocaust is an important aspect of each life, but it is not the whole of that life. Herman lived in mortal fear during the war years and lost his beloved children, whose picture Mazursky movingly shows Silver kiss tenderly, yet he is the man he was born to be—a weak-willed shlemiel. His “enemy,” as Tamara calls her, is Masha, a strong-willed woman who wants Herman to marry her but who actually lives for her mother. Had she never had a number tattooed on her arm, she would still have the sexual charisma that makes all men fall under her spell, from Rabbi Lembeck to her estranged husband, played by Mazursky himself. Her death wish only amplifies her innate animal magnetism, a characteristic the actress who plays her has in abundance, but she only gets Herman to marry her in a Jewish ceremony when she says she is pregnant. I never once believed she was actually pregnant; her frequent references to already being dead suggested to me that she would never be able to harbor life.

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Although Singer has a sense of the absurd, this film seems to owe its absurdity and sometimes antic humor more to Sholem Aleichem. The curses Herman’s women throw at him as he turns tail and runs have a bit of the Menahem-Mendl/Sheineh-Sheindl bickering to them, and Yadwiga’s burlesque of terror at seeing a ghost when Tamara comes to the apartment suggests Golde’s superstitious nature when Tevye the Milkman relates his manufactured nightmare to her. Mazursky even brings a bit of modern amusement to Herman and Masha’s trip to a Catskills resort, with loud-speaker announcements and fitness classes and other activities happening simultaneously on the grounds that have a whiff of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) about them. There is something cartoonish about Herman; when we see him in the subway looking at the signs that direct travelers to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, each of which contains one of Herman’s women, it’s hard not to imagine Elmer Fudd at a crossroads with contradictory signs directing him to Bugs Bunny’s burrow. The period setting rendered in a soft sepia tone also conjures a certain distance and unreality, the neon lights of Coney Island just a bit too bright and cartoonish.

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Ultimately, Herman is overwhelmed by those he sought out in his neediness and his longing for oblivion, if not annihilation. Having impregnated Yadwiga, he flees from both her and Masha, a woman he said he could not live without, when she suggests a double-suicide in the wake of her mother’s death. Herman, clueless about himself and caught like a fly in a web of pain, never understands any of it. He’s as hopelessly bourgeois as any Mazursky character, sending money to Yadwiga in an unsigned card every week as he evades reality once again. And while Herman isn’t innocent, he is far from guilty of anything but being himself.

My thanks to Amy Brown for asking for a review of this film and for being an enthusiastic Ferdy on Films reader.

  • Amy spoke:
    30th/12/2013 to 4:39 pm

    Marilyn – THANK YOU for your thoughtful, heartfelt comments. I knew I’d get some great contextual information from a Ferdy On Films critique. It’s funny – the other day, I looked up Mazursky on Wikipedia and saw to my surprise that he’d directed “Bob & Carol…” but I never would have thought to make the thematic link between that movie and this one! I will have to see some of his other films.

    I saw this film more than 20 years ago when it first came out. At that point, I identified strongly with Masha – lots of relationship Drama with a capital D going on in my life! However, I felt then (and still do) that it was a unique and sympathetic portrait of a lost soul, bravely acted and well written.

    So glad you included a screenshot of Masha’s gaze into the mirror near the end of the film. What an offbeat (and courageous, to my mind) way to portray and film that character at that point in the story. I’ve never seen anything like it since.

    Watching the film again for the first time in a long time the other night, Herman’s dilemma was much clearer and more poignant to me: for someone for whom the wolf always seems to be at the door in every situation, commitment to anything is just about impossible. As he confesses to Masha that he was afraid of God if he were to kill himself, Mazursky includes a “Guernica”-like light bulb overhead, to his left. There’s no real light of faith of any kind in this man’s life. In some ways I felt sorrier for him at the end than I did for Masha, who at least could make a choice of some kind.

    Wikipedia also told me that Mazursky got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame a few weeks ago. Well deserved.

    I could go on and on but I’ll wrap it up. I’m looking forward to more great criticism in the New Year.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/12/2013 to 8:55 pm

    Hi Amy and thanks for keeping up your end of the bargain and adding some great comments to this consideration of Enemies: A Love Story. Lena Olin is a great actress who I have admired for many years; she’s just wonderful in this. I find so many breakthroughs of pathos, small moments like Herman kissing the picture, Masha looking in the mirror, Yadwiga’s sadness at Herman’s affair, and Tamara trying to get Herman to face up to his life. I think there is a good balance of humor and seriousness, though other esteemed critics have thought otherwise from what I’ve read. Herman’s compliant and dependent nature becomes almost tragic in the wake of his experiences during WWII, and I agree with Tamara that Masha was his enemy, wanting to take him on her trip to destruction. I didn’t exactly feel sorry for Masha, but my heart went out to her more because it must have been torture to be alive, remaining only for her mother’s sake.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    2nd/01/2014 to 1:42 pm

    “Although Singer has a sense of the absurd, this film seems to owe its absurdity and sometimes antic humor more to Sholem Aleichem. ”

    Interesting observation. Marilyn, I will confess that I dismissed this film way back when I saw it in theaters in 1989, but as I have not seen it since I am unable to provide anything of depth connected to that indifference. The subject and idea are certainly in my wheelhouse, and I am a big fan of the short stories of Nobel prize winning Isaac Bashevis Singer, especially “The Spinoza of Market Street” and “A Friend of Kafka.” I recall some of the drama being ho-hum. What I did remember about ENEMIES in a positive vein were the performances by Lena Olin, Angelica Huston and Ron Silver. But I think this film does deserve another look-see.

    As always this is a wonderful and motivational review in response to the noble request by a big fan of the film.

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