- Early Cinema
- World War I and After
- Yiddish Talkies
- Post–World War II Period
- After Communism
- APPENDIX: JEWISH FILM PERSONALITIES
- Arkatov, Aleksandr
- Bojm, Henryk
- Elek, Judit
- German, Aleksei
- Goskind, Shaul
- Kadár, Ján
- Munk, Andrzej
- Norstein, Iurii
- Room, Abram
- Roshal’, Grigorii
- Shub, Esfir
- Szabó, Istvan
- Waszyński, Michał
- Weiss, Jiří
- Suggested Reading
Perhaps because the birth of cinema in the late nineteenth century coincides with the migration of Jews from the Pale of Settlement to the cities of Eastern Europe, newly urbanized Jews were prominent in the development of Eastern European cinema—if only intermittently as Jewish artists addressing Jewish themes or a Jewish public.
While motion picture technology was first exported to Eastern Europe around the turn of the twentieth century, limited production did not begin for another decade. Not until 1911, when A. M. Smolenskii’s “singing” troupe was reported touring the Pale of Settlement, providing silent movies with live Yiddish-language accompaniment—a hybrid form known in Russian as kino-deklamatsiia (talking pictures)—does the record show indigenous motion picture entertainment aimed at a Russian Jewish audience. The same year, Pathé Frères’ Moscow released the highly popular L’khaym (To Life), a bucolic tragedy of shtetl life, while Jewish producer Aleksander Hertz, who left Pathé in 1910 to found Poland’s first indigenous production company, Sfinks, adapted Eliza Orzeszkowa’s Meir Ezofewicz, in which an idealistic young Jew revolts against clerical constraints to join the struggle for Polish freedom.
Anecdotal information suggests that many of Russia’s pioneer movie exhibitors and distributors were Jews; Jewish entrepreneurs were even more prominent in the early Polish and Hungarian cinemas. Between 1911 and 1913, approximately one-third of all Polish films were of Yiddish plays. The Siła firm, owned by Warsaw exhibitor Mordka Towbin, filmed a number of productions staged by the Kaminski troupe—as did its successor Kosmofilm, Poland’s most important production company before World War I, founded by Towbin’s onetime partner Samuel Ginzberg and film-lab owner Henryk Finkelstein. Interest in the Yiddish stage extended to more established studios: in 1912, Pathé Frères Moscow adapted Sholem Asch’s Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance) and Moscow Gaumont produced Jacob Gordin’s Mirele Efros. In Riga, another center of Jewish filmmaking, the S. Mintus Company released at least seven productions made with Yiddish theatrical troupes.
The most widely distributed Jewish film, however, was produced by the Mizrakh company in Odessa: Zhizn’ evreev v Palestine (The Life of Jews in Palestine) had its world premiere at the Eleventh Zionist Congress in Vienna before playing some 30 separate engagements throughout Europe and Russia; its extraordinary success inspired similar feature-length documentaries produced in Poland, one by Kosmofilm, and in Czechoslovakia.
World War I and After
Although World War I disrupted film production in the Russian Empire, Hungarian cinema boomed while French, Italian, and American imports were unavailable. Hungarian Jews deeply involved in the nation’s cultural life—particularly the nascent motion picture industry—included Mihály Kertész (later Michael Curtiz), who directed the first Hungarian feature film, and Sandor Korda (Alexander Korda), the leading Hungarian producer.
Lili Liliana in Der dibek (The Dybbuk), directed by Michał Waszyński, Poland, 1937. (YIVO)
Several Jewish-themed films were produced during this period, all with literary antecedents: Adolf Mérei’s Simon Judit (Judith Simon; 1915), based on the nineteenth-century ballad by Jewish poet József Kiss; Korda’s Lyon Lea (1915), adapted from Sándor Bródy’s play (later filmed in the United States as Surrender); Jenö Illés’ Szulamit (1916) from Avrom Goldfadn’s Yiddish operetta; Kertesz’s Az árendás zsidó (The Jewish Tenant Farmer; 1917), from the folk drama by Szidor Bator, and Béla Balogh’s Israel (1918), from Henry Bernstein’s play. Korda, Kertesz, and Balogh were all involved in the nationalized film industry of the short-lived Council Republic, and all three left Hungary after it fell in 1918.
After the overthrow of the tsar in 1917, Mizrakh contributed to a brief revival in Russia of Jewish-themed pictures that included a dramatic reconstruction of the Beilis blood libel case, a film version of Evgenii Chirikov’s play Evrei (Jews), and several adaptations from Yiddish literature directed by Aleksandr Arkatov. The October revolution and ensuing Civil War again disrupted Russian filmmaking, although several short propaganda films produced in 1919 by the Mos-Kino-Komitet were specifically directed at Jewish audiences.
Polish film production did not return to prewar levels until the early 1920s. In 1921, Sfinks released Tajemnice Nalewek (Secrets of the Nalewki), which exposed poverty in Warsaw’s Jewish district. Śmierć za życie (Death Instead of Life; 1924) told the tale of a Jewish innkeeper’s son who, thanks to the friendship of a Polish prince, blossomed into a great national poet. More significant were the three movies produced by Leo Forbert, the owner of Warsaw’s largest photo lab, between 1924 and 1929. Tkies kaf (The Handshake), the first and most successful, starred Ester-Rokhl Kaminska and her daughter Ida; it was followed in 1925 by Jeden z 36 (One of the 36) and an ambitious, ill-fated adaptation of Yosef Opatoshu’s novel Poylishe velder (The Polish Woods; 1929).
The new Soviet film industry made the most programmatic attempt to develop a credible Jewish cinema. In 1925, a year after the state motion picture agency Sovkino was established, the Soviet Union’s two major Jewish theaters were involved in film production. Aleksandr Granovskii, the founder of the Moscow GOSET, directed Solomon Mikhoels in Evreiskoe schast’e (Yidishe glikn; Jewish Luck), which drew on Sholem Aleichem’s Menakhem Mendl stories and featured inter-titles written by Isaac Babel, while Sovkino invited members of the Hebrew-language Habimah to appear in the adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s novel Der mabl (The Deluge).
Subsequent Jewish-themed films were made under the auspices of the Ukrainian national studio VUFKU. These included two projects developed by Babel—Benia Krik (1926), based on his stories of Odessa’s Jewish underworld, and Bluzhdaiushchie zvezdy (Wandering Stars; 1927), from Sholem Aleichem’s novel of the Yiddish theater Blonzhende shtern. Sholem Aleichem’s work also provided the theme for Grigorii Gricher-Cherikover’s Skvoz slezy (Through Tears; 1928). Given the substantial Jewish population of Ukrainian cities, VUFKU’s commitment to these films was as much commercial as political. Such productions were made through 1930, becoming increasingly tendentious in their emphasis on social divisions and their idealization of Jewish collective farmers. In addition, Sovkino produced several features between 1929 and 1931 in the service of an official campaign against antisemitism. At the same time, Grigorii Roshal’, who directed a politically risky film about the Bundist hero Hirsh Lekert, was unique in his attempt to portray specifically Jewish revolutionary heroism.
From the silent period through World War II, a significant number of Soviet directors were Jews. In addition to Roshal’, these include Mark Donskoi, Fridrikh Ermler, Iosif Kheifits, Grigorii Kozintsev, Iurii Raizman, Mikhail Romm, Abram Room, Esfir Shub, Leonid Trauberg, and Dziga Vertov. Also prominent were screenwriter Natan Zarkhi (whose scripts include those for V. I. Pudovkin’s silent classics Mat’ (Mother) and Konets Sankt-Peterburga (The End of St. Petersburg), film composer Isaak Dunaevskii, and documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen. Sergei Eisenstein, the most celebrated and influential Soviet director, was of Jewish descent; although his mother was Russian Orthodox and his German Jewish paternal grandfather had been baptized, the director was considered by many to be a Jew and, during World War II, served as a spokesman for the Jewish Anti-Fascist League.
As Soviet policies regarding national minorities shifted in the early 1930s, Jewish themes disappeared altogether, with the remarkable exception of Mikhail Dubson’s 1935 Granitsa (Border); the 1936 Iskateli schast’ia (Seekers of Happiness), which marked the opening of Birobidzhan to foreign settlers; and two antifascist features, Professor Mamlok (1938) and Sem’ia Oppengeim (The Family Oppenheim; 1939).
Shooting the film Freylekhe kabtsonim (Jolly Paupers), starring Zygmunt Turkow, his daughter Ruth Turkow, Shimon Dzigan, and Yisroel Shumacher, Poland, 1937. (YIVO)
The first sound film made by the Belorussian studio Belgoskino, a short subject released in 1931, featured traditional Belorussian, Polish, and Yiddish songs. In 1932, the studio went a step further with Nosn Beker fort aheym (The Return of Nathan Becker), the first—and, only—Soviet Yiddish talking picture, written by Perets Markish and starring Mikhoels.
Yiddish talkies had been produced in the United States as early as 1929; although these were distributed in Poland, the first Polish productions were not made until 1935. The melodrama Al khet (I Have Sinned) directed by Aleksander Marten, and Mir kumen on (We’re On Our Way), a feature documentary by Aleksander Ford on the Vladimir Medem Sanatorium for tubercular children, were both produced by Shaul Goskind, co-owner of the Warsaw film laboratory, Sektor. In 1936, the Polish-born Yiddish actor Joseph Green returned to make Yidl mitn fidl (Yiddle with a Fiddle), the first of four Yiddish talkies, all of which featured American stars but were produced with Polish supporting players and technicians. One of the three top-grossing Polish movies of 1936, Yidl was the first international Yiddish hit—released throughout Western Europe as well as South Africa, Australia, and (dubbed into Hebrew) Palestine.
Poland’s nascent Yiddish cinema benefited from changes in the national film policy. As the ticket tax was reduced on Polish films and increased for foreign ones, output rose dramatically. Four of the 23 Polish films made in 1937 were Yiddish talkies: Green’s Der purimshpiler (The Jester), Freylekhe kabtsonim (Jolly Paupers), starring the popular comedians Dzigan and Shumacher, a sound remake of Tkies kaf, and Der dibek (The Dybbuk), directed by Michał Waszyński. The latter two were produced by major studios, Leo-Film and Sfinx, and shown with Polish subtitles in the principal Warsaw cinemas. A final three Yiddish talkies were produced in 1938, two by Green (Mamele [Little Mother] and A brivele der mamen [A Little Letter to Mother]) and Marten’s On a heym (Without a Home).
Yiddish talkies were not only comparable to those of the Polish mainstream but were produced by the same people. Indeed, the most successful Yiddish talkies were directed by established industry figures, including Waszyński, Ford, Henryk Szaro, Jan Nowina-Przybina, Leon Trystan, and Konrad Tom (all, save Nowina-Przybina, Jews), while Marten was a refugee from the German film industry. As the Polish movie industries received Jewish émigrés, however, Hungary’s newly restrictive laws, implemented in 1938, prevented Jews—highly represented as filmmakers—from working. These included the industry’s three leading directors, István Székely, Béla Gaál, and Viktor Gertler, as well as the popular comedian Gyula Kabos, whose character humor was understood as typically Jewish.
Post–World War II Period
Yiddish-language cinema, which depended on two markets—one in America, the other in Poland—was dealt a serious blow by the outbreak of World War II and a fatal one by the murder of Polish Jewry. Nevertheless, beginning in 1946, Shaul Goskind produced a series of Yiddish newsreels on postwar Jewish life. According to Goskind’s director Natan Gross, these short documentaries, screened as special shows attended almost entirely by Jews, were the first films made in Poland after the war.
In 1947 and 1948, Gross and Goskind made two ambitious features, Mir lebn-geblibene (We the Living Remnant) and Undzere kinder (Our Children). Neither would be shown in Poland although two movies released in 1948 did address the fate of Polish Jewry: Wanda Jakubowska’s Ostatni etap (The Last Stage; 1948) based on her own experiences in Auschwitz, and Aleksander Ford’s Ulica graniczna (Border Street; 1948). Ulica graniczna, which has as its climax the Warsaw ghetto uprising, was held for release for over a year; so was the most notable Czechoslovakian representation of the Holocaust, Alfred Radok’s 1948 Daleká cesta (Distant Journey), which focuses on a Jewish doctor who briefly forestalls her deportation to Terezín by marrying a gentile colleague. These films were victims of the upsurge of government antisemitism within the Soviet Union. Among Soviet directors, Trauberg and Vertov were particular targets of the anticosmopolitan campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s, as was Sergei Iuktevich who, like Eisenstein, was identified as a Jew. (Eisenstein was under attack when he died in 1948.) The cosmopolitans were accused of promoting an international cinema culture and of “groveling” before Western films. Virtually all Jewish directors were stigmatized; some, including Kozintsev, Romm, and Room, compensated by making egregiously conformist and anti-Western movies.
Jewish themes were slow to reemerge on the Soviet screen. In 1966, Mikhail Kulik struggled in vain to make a movie about the Vilna ghetto. Aleksandr Askol’dov’s 1967 Kommisar, which drew on Jewish authors Isaac Babel and Vasilii Grossman as well as the shtetl films of the 1920s, was banned for more than two decades.
While many of the leading Polish directors of the 1950s were Jews—Ford, Jerzy Hoffman, Janusz Morgenstern, Andrzej Munk, and Roman Polanski among them—few movies featured Jewish protagonists. The two exceptions were both lavish period pieces, Wojciech Has’s 1974 adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium pod klepsydra (Sanatorium under the Hourglass) and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1981 Austeria. Andrzej Wajda, a gentile, was the only major Polish director to consistently represent Polish Jews, notably in his Warsaw ghetto dramas, Samson (1961), Korczak (1990), and Wielki tydzien (Holy Week; 1995).
In the mid-1960s, Daleká cesta was rediscovered by the Czech “new wave” and the persecution of Czech Jews used as a metaphor for the postwar fate of the Czech nation. After directing Transport z raje (Transport from Paradise; 1963) from Arnošt Lustig’s Terezín novel, Zbyněk Brynych universalized the plight of a Jewish family under the Nazis in . . . a páty jezdec je Strach ( . . . The Fifth Horseman Is Fear; 1964). Jan Němec’s Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night; 1965), based on Lustig’s story of two Jewish boys who escape from a transport, similarly aspired to universalized Jewish themes. The tendency’s most celebrated example, Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street; 1965) by Jan Kadár and Elmar Klos, starring Ida Kaminska, won an Academy Award for best foreign feature; further instances are Antonin Moskalyk’s 1967 adaptation of Lustig’s Dita Saxová and Juraj Herz’s Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator of Corpses; 1968). As if to validate their larger antitotalitarian readings, all of these were shelved and/or vilified in Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion.
Unlike Poland or Czechoslovakia, Hungary produced no postwar representation of Jewish wartime suffering, although the fate of Hungarian Jewry was acknowledged in a number of movies, including Félix Máriássy’s 1955 Budapesti tavasz (Springtime in Budapest) and János Herskó’s 1963 Párbsezéd (Dialogue). A few discreetly Jewish characters appeared in the work of István Szabó and Sándor Simó but Jews were as underrepresented on the screen as they were prominent behind the camera. Indeed, the lead in introducing Jewish subject matter was taken by gentiles. Miklós Jancsó, whose extended family included Yiddish-speaking Transylvanian Jews, made a number of poetic documentaries meditating on the destruction of Jewish life in Hungary. Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Karbay’s Jób lázadása (The Revolt of Job; 1983) was the first Hungarian movie to center on the wartime deportation of the Jews.
Beginning in the mid-1980s and gaining momentum with the dissolution of Communism, Jews repopulated the East European cinema, albeit almost entirely as historical figures. Juraj Herz, who had been deported to Ravensbruck as a child, directed a second Holocaust feature Zastihla mì noc (Night Caught Up with Me; 1986). Veteran filmmaker Karel Kachyňa made three pictures on the history of Czech Jews: Smrt krásnych srnců (The Death of the Beautiful Roebuck; 1986), based on the autobiographical novella by Jewish journalist Ota Pavel; Poslední motýl (The Last Butterfly; 1990), about Jewish children in Terezín; and Hanele (1999), adapted from the novella by Ivan Olbracht. The drama of sheltering a Jew during the Nazi occupation, a theme previously treated in Budapesti tavasz and by Czech director Jiří Weiss in his Romeo, Julie a tma (Romeo, Juliet and Darkness; 1959), returned in Wajda’s Wielki tydzień, Jan Hrebejk’s Musíme si pomahat (Divided We Fall; 2000), and Jan-Jakub Kolski’s Daleko od okna (Far from the Window; 2000).
In Hungary, a late twentieth-century resurgence of Jewish subject matter was largely associated with Jewish filmmakers. Gyula Gazdag’s 1985 Auschwitz documentary Társasutszás (Package Tour) was followed by Tutajosok (Memoirs of a River; 1989), in which Judit Elek addressed the taboo subject of the Tiszaeszlár trial. Andras Jeles dramatized the Jewish deportations in Senkiföldje (Why Wasn’t He There; 1993); Herskó returned to Hungary in 1995 to make the documentary A Kenyereslány Balladája (The Ballad of the Bread Girl), in which he revisited the sites where he had been sent as a Jewish slave-laborer. A related trend involves the reworking of amateur 16mm movies shot by Hungarian Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, most notably in the movies made by video artist Pétér Forgacs.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought a brief flurry of adaptations from Babel and Sholem Aleichem—three versions of Babel’s Benia Krik stories were released in 1990. There have also been a number of largely undistinguished documentaries on the Soviet Yiddish culture of the 1920s and 1930s and its post–World War II destruction but no sustained examination of Russian, Ukrainian, or Soviet Jewish life.
APPENDIX: JEWISH FILM PERSONALITIES
(1889–1961), film director. Russia’s first maker of Jewish films, Arkatov (Mogilevskii) was initially employed by Pathé Frères Moscow; later he directed a quartet of literary adaptations in Odessa: Kantonisti
(Cantonists; 1917), based on Grigorii Bogrov
’s novel Zapiski evreia
(Notes of a Jew); Der blutiker shpas
(The Bloody Oath; 1917) and Ven Ikh Bin Rotshild
(If I Were Rothschild; 1918), both adapted from Sholem Aleichem’s stories; and Orupgeloste oygen
(Downcast Eyes) from Y. L. Peretz
. After directing for the Mos-Kino-Komitet, Arkatov came to the United States where his career was confined largely to industrial films.
(Yekhiel; 1890s–1944?), screenwriter. The catalytic figure in Poland’s silent Jewish cinema, Bojm rebelled against but drew upon his Hasidic upbringing, writing three screenplays for producer Leo Forbert in the 1920s. A fourth, adapted from Sholem Asch
’s Motke ganev,
was never realized. Bojm was also a photojournalist for the Jewish press. He died in the Warsaw Ghetto.
(1937– ), director. An original member of Hungary’s experimental Béla Balázs
Studio, Elek was rooted in documentary but had an international hit with her first feature Sziget a Szárazföldön
(The Lady From Constantinople; 1969). After exploring a traumatic experience in Hungarian Jewish history with Tutajosok
(Memoirs of a River; 1989), she recounted a Jewish girl’s coming of age in the early 1950s in Ébredés
(Awakening; 1994), and has since produced documentary portraits of Elie Wiesel (1995) and Holocaust survivor Ernö Fisch (1999).
(1938– ), director. German, son of Stalin-era writer Yuri German, was the most highly regarded filmmaker who emerged in the late Soviet period despite the fact that (or because) virtually all his features were shelved. German’s masterpiece Moy drug Ivan Lapshin
(My Friend Ivan Lapshin; completed in 1982 but not shown for three years) used one of his father’s novels to comment on the illusions of the 1930s; his even more atmospheric postcommunist follow-up, Khrustalyov, mashinu!
(Khrustalyov, My Car!; 1998), is a frenzied phantasmagorical account of Stalin’s final days from the perspective of a military doctor whose family, like the filmmaker’s, is part Jewish.
(1907–2003), producer. A key figure in Polish Jewish film culture, Goskind founded the Yiddish film journal Film velt
in 1928, operated a Warsaw film lab throughout the 1930s and produced the first Polish Yiddish talkie, Al khet
(1935). In the late 1930s, he and his brother Yitshak documented Jewish life in Poland with a series of brief newsreels; Goskind revived his production company after World War II, making Yiddish documentaries and features before immigrating to Israel in 1950.
(1918–1979), director. Born in Hungary but raised in Czechoslovakia, Kadár had his film studies interrupted by World War II and survived several Nazi concentration camps. After liberation, he collaborated with Elmar Klos on a number of documentaries and features, including Obchod na korze
(The Shop on Main Street; 1965). Kadár left Czechoslovakia in 1968; his subsequent films included Angel Levine
(1970), made in the United States from the story by Bernard Malamud.
(1921–1961), director. One of the most talented members of the Polish new wave, Munk graduated from high school the summer World War II broke out; he fought in the underground and, after the war, enrolled in the Łódź
film school. Munk’s features are characterized by their ironic, formally adventurous treatment of Polish history. He died in a car crash while shooting Pasażerka
(Passenger), an account of concentration camp survivors.
(1941– ), animator. Deeply influenced by the art of the Soviet avant-garde and the writings of Sergei Eisenstein, Norstein emerged in the 1970s as one of the world’s most innovative makers of animated films. His independence resulted in numerous clashes with the Communist cultural authorities although he has since been recognized among Russia’s leading artists.
(1894–1976), director. Room had worked at a Vilna Yiddish theater, as well as with V. I. Meyerhold, before directing the 1925 short Evrei na zemle
(Jews on the Land), from a script by Vladimir Mayakovsky and Viktor Shklovskii
. His second feature, Tret’ia mesch
chanskaia (translated as Bed and Sofa; 1927), also by Shklovskii, is a classic comedy; Room directed the first Soviet sound feature, Plan velikikh rabot
(Plan for Great Works; 1930). Political difficulties in the early 1930s made him increasingly conformist.
(1899–1983), director. A onetime Habimah
stage manager, Roshal’ broke into filmmaking in the late 1920s. His 1928 Ego prevoskhoditel’stvo
(His Excellency) adapted the story of Bundist hero Hirsh Lekert
; Chelovek iz mestechka
(A Man from the Shtetl), made for VUFKU in 1930, was another evocation of Jewish revolutionary martyrdom. Roshal’s career spanned 40 years; among his many literary adaptations was Sem’ia Oppengeim
(The Family Oppenheim; 1939), from Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel, with Solomon Mikhoels
as a persecuted German Jew.
(1894–1959), editor. An associate of Soviet avant-garde artists, Shub was hired in 1922 to recut and retitle foreign films for Soviet consumption. With Padenie dinastii Romanovykh
(Fall of the Romanov Dynasty; 1927), Shub invented a new form of documentary that took newsreel footage as its raw material. Her other compilation films concerned the Spanish Civil War and the history of Soviet cinema.
(1938– ), director. Szabó is Hungary’s most internationally renowned filmmaker, having won an Academy Award for his 1981 Mephisto.
The son of a Budapest doctor, he experienced as a child the wartime suffering of the city’s Jews. Many of his movies have autobiographical elements, including Apa
(Father; 1966), Tüzoltó utca 25
(25 Fireman Street; 1973), and Bizalom
(Confidence; 1979); the epic Sunshine
(2000) refracts the story of twentieth-century Hungary through three generations of Budapest Jews.
(1904–1965), director. Born in Volhynia, Waszyński (Wachs) went to Warsaw in the late 1920s by way of Berlin. In addition to Der dibek,
he directed 40 films during the 1930s, working in almost every genre—melodramas, musicals, romantic fantasies, farces, military films, and adventure films. Waszyński survived the war in the Soviet Union, then settled in Italy where, among other activities, he assisted Orson Welles. His Variety
obituary lists him as Prince Michael Waszynski.
(1913–2004), director and screenwriter. The son of a Jewish industrialist, Weiss was an established social documentarian when he left Prague
for London in 1938; after World War II he became one of Czechoslovakia’s leading filmmakers. His 1959 Romeo, Julie a tma
(Romeo, Juliet and Darkness), in which a Jewish girl is sheltered by a Czech schoolmate, was an international success. Weiss left Czechoslovakia in 1968 but returned in 1989 to film the quasi-autobiographical Martha und Ich
(Martha and I).