29th 12 - 2013 | 3 comments »

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.


24th 07 - 2011 | 4 comments »

Singing in the Dark (1956)

Director: Max Nosseck

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the annals of American independent filmmaking, there is little that is as rare and distinct as A.N.O. Productions’ Singing in the Dark. The production company initials are taken from the last names of the three principals who decided that 1956 America needed a real post-WWII Jewish movie—Joey Adams, Max Nosseck, and Moishe Oysher. These three star-struck Jews had comfortable, but fairly marginal careers in show business, and the experiences of each would find their way into the structure of this somewhat confused, but fascinating film that was only the second American film to have a Holocaust survivor at its center.

Adams (nee Abramowitz), who produced and stars in Singing in the Dark, was a writer and comedian who worked in vaudeville, the Borscht Belt circuit, and nightclubs, and attained some notoriety in New York for his “Strictly for Laughs” column in the New York Post. Nosseck, a German director who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, spent most of his career on Poverty Row making crime films—Dillinger (1945), for Monogram Pictures, is perhaps his best-known film. Last, but certainly not least, Oysher was one of the first celebrity cantors, unkosher in his hambone inclinations toward the stage and screen and jazzy inflections of cantorial repertoire; despite his desire for a big Hollywood career, he mainly recorded and toured, one foot in the secular and one in the sacred, and labored in Yiddish films, including one directed by a landsman well-known to cinephiles—Edgar G. Ulmer. Singing in the Dark is his only English-language film.

So what would you expect from a team like this? A lot of singing, a lot of Jewish-style humor, and some American-style gangsters to please the larger American public. What you’ll also recognize, particularly if you are Jewish, is a certain kind of feeling about Jewishness that I have not found in any other Holocaust-related film I’ve seen. These Jews don’t feel sorry for themselves. They may need help, but they accept it like normal people, not like supreme victims. And Oysher’s survivor is filled with a kind of generosity that cheers people up and attracts them to him; he is the personification of a benevolent god that Jews did not forsake even when they were so forsaken themselves.

The film begins in Germany. Stock footage shows the mass arrests and terrors of Nazism in a frenzied montage. Eventually we see a line of Jews being told to go left or right by a concentration camp guard. A man goes one way, the way toward life, and must watch his mother move toward death. His struggles to reach her earn him a beatdown off camera.

The film flashes forward to the end of the war. An American aid worker, Ruth (Phyllis Hill), is processing refugees who want to go to the United States. When she asks one man about himself, he stands quietly and shakes his head. Another man who was with him in a concentration camp says the man has no memory of who he is, and he and his fellow prisoners called him Leo. Ruth gives Leo an understanding look and says she’ll sort it out. The next scene shows a ship sailing toward New York. Leo and Ruth, now his girlfriend, step onto American soil together.

Leo gets a job as a desk clerk at a second-rate hotel with a failing nightclub called Luli’s Gypsy Paradise. Luli (Kay Medford) is seeing Joey Napoleon (Adams), a third-rate comic with a weakness for gambling. Joey, always hard up for money and owing a tough bookie named Biff Lamont (Lawrence Tierney, who also played the lead in Nosseck’s Dillinger) a lot of money, evades two of Lamont’s muscle men (Mickey Knox and Dave Starr) by telling them Leo is a millionaire and will pay off the debt. When they insist on getting Joey’s story confirmed, Joey tears Leo away from a dinner at the nightclub with Ruth and her uncle (Henry Sharp), a psychiatrist who has been helping Leo try to regain his memory. Leo, nervous about lying to the two thugs, starts drinking for the first time in his life. Lo and behold, he discovers he has a great singing voice that he can unleash when drunk. Joey, seeing a gold mine, signs on as Leo’s agent with a handshake and a quickly scrawled contract.

Leo becomes a headliner at Luli’s, garners rave reviews, and starts packing in the customers. Lamont demands that Joey hand over his napkin contract with Leo to square the debt, and then becomes worried that Leo, who is making progress with his amnesia, will stop singing if he learns the truth. Lamont plots to have Leo conked on the head to erase whatever he’s learned, but in an odd twist of circumstances, Lamont is mugged by his own enforcer (hilariously played by Abe Simon), and Leo, accidentally hit on the head by Joey, remembers everything.

The cheap and ugly sets and silly, threadbare plot certainly make this film far from a masterpiece. The vaudeville shtick, for example, Al Kelly doing his very impressive gibberish routine to the befuddlement of everyone in the film, as well as the audience, offers a bit of Marx Brothers anarchy. Joey Adams isn’t very funny, though I liked his banter with Medford, at her best as a hardbitten dame. Hill has little to do but gaze admiringly at Oysher while he sings and be a prim and proper girlfriend and wife as befits the characteristic prudishness of Jewish audiences.

Singing in the Dark is well worth seeing, however, for the singing and moving performance of Moishe Oysher. The film seems built around his nightclub performances of popular music, which are entertaining, if rather badly served by the cheap surroundings and limited camera work, and his flickering memories. In one powerful scene, Leo lays on the psychiatrist’s couch after receiving sodium pentathol, his eyes closed, his forehead beaded with perspiration, and tears welling in the corners of his eyes. He relates a memory of walking with his father to a place alit with candles, and a blackout takes us to this place, and an outline of a cantor (Oysher playing his own father) standing in the bima and singing a prayer Leo translates as one of peace. Leo remembers that he also sang in the same place for his proud parents, and how “they” came, took him away, and how he never saw his parents again. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this scene.

Scenes such as this, as well as an early one of Leo wandering through a bombed-out temple, were filmed on location in Berlin in the soon-to-be-razed Levetzow Synagogue by none other than Boris Kaufman, who filmed On the Waterfront and who only rarely gets a chance to stretch his skills in this film. Seeing this grand ruin, used as a Nazi deportation center during the war, powerfully and economically sums up the destruction of European Jewry. The temple’s fate under Allied bombs seems a fitting one for a place so defiled that it was a blessing to be put out of its misery.

It is only at the end of the film that the darkness lifts enough for Leo to see the Star of David on the wall of the great building and remember that his name is David and that he was a cantor. When he gives up show business to return to his sacred work with the happiness of knowing who he is, he seems serene, untroubled by his harrowing experiences. While this is rather simplistic, and out of step with Oysher’s real career that toggled between the theatre and the synagogue, I felt rather exhilarated to see a Holocaust survivor find comfort in the one thing that made him a target for annihilation. It has always seemed such a paradox to me that centuries of persecution and murder had not turned Jews away from their beliefs long ago, but this film offers a glimpse of how life-sustaining those beliefs could be. I’m not a believer myself, but I rejoice in the beauty of Jewry this dedicated group of filmmakers unself-consciously revealed to the world.


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