Dybbuk, The (1937): Michał Waszyński’s Powerful Yiddish Language Fantasy Drama

Michał Waszyński directed The Dybbuk, a Yiddish-language dramatic fantasy, based on the play of the same name by S. Ansky.

In 1914, S. Ansky wrote The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds, a play relating the story of a young bride possessed by a dybbuk – a malicious possessing spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person – on the eve of her wedding.

A seminal play in the history of Jewish theatre, The Dybbuk played an important role in the development of Yiddish theatre and theatre in Israel.

The play was based on years of research by Ansky, who traveled between Jewish shtetls in Russia and Ukraine, documenting folk beliefs and stories of the Hassidic Jews.

The film, with some changes in the plot structure, starred Lili Liliana [de] as Leah, Leon Liebgold as Hannan (Channon, in the English-language subtitles), and Abraham Morewski [de] as Rabbi Azrael ben Hodos.

The film adds an additional act to the play, which shows the close friendship of Sender and Nisn as young men.

Besides the language of the film itself, the movie is noted among historians for the striking scene of Leah’s wedding, which is shot in the German Expressionist style.

The film is generally considered one of the finest in the Yiddish language.

It was shot on location in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland, and in Feniks Film Studio in Warsaw.

Two best friends, Nisan and Sender, living in a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, jointly vow that their children their will eventually marry, against the advice of a mysterious and sinister traveler who warns against binding future generations.

Sender’s wife dies giving birth to their daughter Lea, and Nisan drowns in a storm at the moment his wife gives birth to their son Chanan.

Sender becomes a rich but miserly rabbi in the shtetl of Britnitz. One day, Chanan arrives there as a poor yeshiva student.

Both men are unaware of their connection, while Sender offers Chanan hospitality.

Lea and Chanan fall in love. However, realizing that Sender will not agree to marriage because of his poor position, Chanan obsessively studies the Kabbalah and attempts to practice magic to improve his position.

When he hears that Sender has arranged Lea’s marriage to a rich man’s son, he calls on Satan to help him. He’s struck dead, but returns as a dybbuk, a restless spirit, who possesses Lea.

The ceremony is postponed, and Sender calls on the assistance of Ezeriel, a wise and powerful rabbi in nearby Miropol.

Ezeriel exorcises the dybbuk, but Lea offers her soul to Chanan and dies as the mysterious stranger blows out a candle.

Abraham Morewski [de] as Rabbi Ezeriel ben Hodos
Ajzyk Samberg [de] as Meszulach, the messenger
Mojżesz Lipman [pl] as Sender Brynicer ben Henie
Lili Liliana [de] as Lea – Sender’s daughter
Leon Liebgold as Chanan ben Nisan
Dina Halpern as Aunt Frade
Max Bozyk [de] (billed: Maks Bozyk) as Nute, Sender’s friend
M. Messinger as Menasze, the prospective groom
Gerszon Lemberger [pl] as Nisan ben Rifke
Samuel Bronecki as Nachman, Menasze’s father
Samuel Landau [de] as Zalman, matchmaker
Abraham Kurc [de] as Michael
Judith Berg as Dancer
Symcha Fostel [pl]
Zisze Kac [pl] as Mendel