This is the second Yiddish film made by actor/director Joseph Green, and, seemingly encouraged by the success of "Yidl mitn fidl" with Yiddish stage star Molly Picon, "Der Purimspiler" is a product of incresed confidence and skill. There is a visible increase in budget, as the Picon film was shot on location at an actual Polish shtetl, while this was filmed, from what I have been able to tell, on a constructed shtetl set built on a farm outside Warsaw, with additional footage shot in Kazimierz.
It's not a lavish film by any means, but it includes a circus parade and a beer hall concert, and both are marvelous and more advanced than the threadbare scenery and cramped settings of the earlier film. The camerawork is looser and more contemporary as well, featuring frequent moving camera shots that follow the characters as they move through the set.
The story itself is both delightful and melancholy, featuring a subdued, heartbreaking performance by Zygmunt Turkow, a playwright, stage actor, and the founder of several highly regarded theaters. He plays Getzel, an itinerant worker with the bindle and stick of a hobo, the ill-fitting clothes of a screen comic, and a face that looks Liam Neeson fashioned from a scarecrow. He wears a constant, timid, worried smile, and his performance is so subtle that he often communicates heartbreak just by letting the smile fade. He's also the titular Purimspiler -- a performer at Purim holiday events -- and has some talent for stage magic.
He wanders into a small Jewish village in a manner that is almost dreamlike, entering through an orchard on the end of town where a bevy of maidens dressed in Galitzianer folk costumes and Princess Leia side buns pick apples, all singing something that sound like the welcoming music to Oz. One, in particular, sings counterpoint to the others, seeming delighted by herself, and delighted by everything. This is Miriam Kressyn, one of the great actresses of Yiddish stage, who possessed an operatic singing voice and an almost explosive sense of bonhomie. Compared to Turkow's smile, hers is almost manic, and she throws herself through each scene with mannerisms that are obviously borrowed from the stage, but seems expressionistic in this film. She's an overlarge figure of youthful zest, and Getzel falls for her immediately.
He also goes to work for a local shoemaker who labors in dire poverty. There is a Yiddish expression, "ale shusters geyen borves," that means "all shoemakers go barefoot," and this film sometimes seems to be a dramatization of this. The shoemaker and his father are both comic characters -- every comic character in this film looks like Popeye with a stringy beard, including an actual sailor who shows up at the end of the movie -- and the shoemaker's father will sometimes wander into the scene with his own broken shoes and a pleading look on his face, only to be chased out.
But it's a happy poverty, and Turkow is happy mooning quietly after the shoemaker's daughter but never telling her, which is honestly for the best, as she regards him with the same sexless affection she might have for an older brother. This can't continue for long, and doesn't. First a circus comes to town, bringing with it a cheerful performer named Dick, and he's played by Hymie Jacobson, and it's just about certain Miriam Kressyn will end up with him, as she was actually married to him at the time. He invites her to the circus (Turkow follows and is humiliated by a stage magician), and he woos her in the moonlight, although it doesn't go as well as he hopes. Frightened by a barking dog, he leaps into a tree, and when she laughs and asks him how he doesn't know that barking dogs don't bite, he says the most Jewish thing in the film: "I know. But does the dog know?"
Worse still, the shoemaker inherits a fortune and immediately becomes unbearably nouveau riche, which, if you're Jewish and look like Popeye with a beard, apparently means hanging outside the synagogue with men in black tops hats and sharing snuff. He also starts making plans to marry off his daughter, and not to some fly-by-night showman. It all culminates during a Purim party where Turkow has a very bad reaction to the shoemaker trying to foist his daughter off on the idiotic son of a local rich man. Turkow has been hired to perform, but instead he has a bit of a nervous breakdown, tearing off his mask and alternating between laughing and shouting at the shoemaker, telling him he'll never be anything more than a shoemaker.
He and Kressyn run off together, and Kressyn meets Hymie Jacobson again, who is now doing a little vaudeville act where he sings jazzy songs and dances strange little hopping dances that culminate in him pogoing in place. It quickly becomes obvious that Turkow is a third wheel, and a heartsick one. It all ends on an ambiguous note as Turkow slinks off the way he came, through the apple orchard, and the camera gives one last look at his confused, unhappy face.
I thought the film was simply lovely. It unspools like a fable, pausing frequently to give it's character a chance to do little bits of comic business or just to sing a little -- this isn't really a musical, even though sometimes an orchestra will well up, but instead just a world where people will sing when they feel like it, and sometimes the orchestra does not bother. It's a sad world too, but not an unhappy one -- people mostly seem wryly perplexed by their misfortunes, even Turkow, who does not have the bearing of a man who can handle much heartbreak.The film never lingers on emotional pain, even though it all seems to build around Turkow's unease and sadness.
There's also something very Jewish about that. Sadness is just another part of the experience of this world, just a daily companion. It's confusing, but, then, a lot of things are confusing, even things that are supposed to be happy, like fortunes and holiday parties. We may not understand it, we may not like it, but we bear it, and we move on.