You can't watch the Yiddish Film Festival without reflecting on what was to come and what was lost
Watching Molly Picon in the 1923 Yiddish silent film East and West and then in 1938's Mamele is like watching a history of film. Both are part of the Yiddish Film Festival on in Cape Town. In 'East and West' cameras don't move, actors do. So there are times when the action takes place just a little too far off centre. Subtitles projected on to a black screen break up the action. It all feels delightfully quaint.
When one character is thinking of another, his or her image appears surrealistically superimposed. Actors and their characters are introduced when they first appear and the subtitles are flashed on to the screen for far longer than they are in today's foreign films. Also leaps in the plot are unbelievable by today's standards. In the end you just can't step away from being a watcher. But that's also part of the charm.
East and West is the earliest surviving film of Picon. Born in the United States in 1898, she was taken to Europe by her husband Jacob Kalich to improve her Yiddish. This she would use in the Yiddish talking movies of the 1930s and 1940s.
In East and West, she plays Molly, the flighty young daughter of Mr Brown (formerly Brownstein), who left his native Eastern Europe to make it big in America. Molly and her father journey back to the old land for a family wedding. Old and new, east and west, rub up against each other.
Molly doesn't wear a scarf or have missing teeth like others back home. She wears pretty dresses and gets up to all sorts of mischief, such as making the wedding singers dance to jazz and devouring a whole chicken on Yom Kippur instead of fasting and praying. One of the most delightful scenes comes at the dinner table when the extended family sits down for noodle soup, described as "a luxury which is music to the ears". Molly is coquettish and pulls faces, particularly at Jacob, a young Talmudic scholar who has joined the household. Through her flighty actions she finds herself married to him, and that's the beginning of some unhappiness.
When East and West was released, it was as popular as Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, and outplayed it for months.
Mamele ('Mommy' in English) is like leaping forward decades. Not only are we into the era of talkies, but film-making had also progressed enormously. The camera tracks the characters and you hear the Yiddish language, a rich, earthy combination of Hebrew and German.
Picon is the mamele, Havche, taking care of her brood of siblings and a father. Their mother died a few years before and Havche promised to take care of the family. It's Poland in the 1930s. Girls work in factories, money is tight and the extended family lives in a flat so close to their neighbours that their arguments can be overheard.
There's a poignancy in watching this movie - you know that within a few years this would end. The war and its attendant horrors lie ahead.
Mamele is a look at a lost world and poses the question: why should a young girl sacrifice her life for a promise, and for a clearly ungrateful family? A sub-plot veers off into gangsterism, and we see gangsters in suits, smoking cigarettes, doing deals.
Picon breaks into song, singing of Havche's unhappiness, and, yes, once more there are plot elements that stretch the modern imagination.
Why put on a Yiddish film festival after all these years, and what's its appeal? Sharon Riva, the director of the National Centre for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, has overseen many successful festivals in places such as New York, Sydney, Helsinki and Sao Paulo. She says that the audiences are mixed, with many older but also some young people seeking a glimpse of a lost world.
"We just premiered a new [film] restoration in Jerusalem, with the youngest [audience member] two months old; [there was also] a Hassidic Jew in full dress and many people in their 20s and 30s seeking knowledge of the richness of a culture that was destroyed before its time. These films capture the diverse world of Yiddish theatre, music, comedy and life, and the richness of the culture."
Veronica Belling, a researcher at the Jewish Studies Library at the University of Cape Town, agrees: "Yiddish film is an offspring of the Yiddish theatre, and it inherits its themes and its flamboyant acting styles. "The films explore two distinct worlds - the old world of the shtetl of the eastern European Jews, just as they are poised to leave for the new world, for America, to create new lives away from religious persecution. This is where their drama and their poignancy lie. We see this most movingly in the movie Tevya that opens the festival."
Tevya (US, 1939) is based on Sholem Aleichem's play about Khave, a dairyman's daughter, who falls in love with the son a Ukrainian peasant.
Eight films are being screened, including American Matchmaker, with Leo Fuchs, described as the "Yiddish Fred Astaire". In this 1940 musical comedy, Fuchs plays Nat Silver, a debonair American whose eighth engagement goes awry.
Great Cantors of the Golden Age is a recent compilation that combines highlights from Yiddish film-maker Joseph Seiden's 1931 film, The Voice of Israel, and cantors from the 1910s to the 1940s. Greenfields (US, 1937) is Peretz Hirshbein's classic play adapted by Edgar Ulmer and is one of the most critically acclaimed of the Yiddish talkies.
The restoration of these films is complicated, Riva says. "We search the world for extant prints and negatives and then piece the films back together, scene by scene - usually working with nitrate prints from which we make a new safety negative, then create a new translation in English, produce a separate 35mm subtitle track and then generate new 35mm prints from which we make DVDs. The process can take a year and costs between $60 00 [R470 000] and $100 000 each."
Belling adds: "These films are a must for film boffs, as well as for people who just want to be entertained ? they have gained appeal simply because of their historical context."
The festival is at the Labia Theatre in Cape Town until Thursday, when it opens at Johannesburg's Hyde Park Nu Metro theatre and runs until August 28. For more information on Yiddish films go to http://www.jewishfilm/. org
Published in Sunday Life, The Sunday Independent, August 17 2008