Man Without a World, The: Eleanor Antin’s Tale of Jewish Shtetl

In her feature debut, The Man Without a World, Eleanor Antin evokes the lost culture of the Jewish shtetl in a humorous and elegiac, but decidedly unsentimental, manner.

Set in 1928,  her silent movie is both an act of invention and discovery. The movie successfully recreates the life and culture of a Polish shtetl, and at the same time provides commentary on them.

The Man Without a World doesn’t romanticize the rich social and artistic milieu that disappeared from the world completely with the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. Antin’s work is not nostalgic in the way that the stage and film musical, Fiddler on the Roof, was. She deals with the shtetl in a darker mode, using the vocabulary of silent films, which were at their height at the time of the film’s story.

The filmmaker is aware of the strangeness of making a silent film, in black and white, in this highly sophisticated electronic age. “Silent films are richer visually,” Antin explained at a press conference, “they are more poetic, they have more symbolic contents.”

Antin, who also wrote the script, works with a familiar gallery of types and recognizable rituals of Jewish life. The protagonist is Zevi (Pier Marton), a bohemian Yiddish poet, who is the son of an ailing mother, and the brother of Sooreleh (Anna Henriques), a mad girl who lost her speech after a brutal rape. Zevi is torn romantically between Rukheleh (Christine Berry), a virtuous good woman whom he ends up marrying, and a seductive gypsy dancer (played by Antin). At the end, after an inner struggle over deserting the shtetl and its lifestyle, Zevi leaves for Warsaw, the Big City.

Antin conveys the exhilaration as well as pathos of everyday life in the shtetl, where Jews were not allowed to own their businesses. The viewers get a good grasp on Jewish norms, values, and superstitions; there is an interesting sequence depicting an exorcism of the dybbuk (demon). Antin takes a life-cycle approach to the shtetl’s communal existence, dealing with such rituals as birth and death. The movie’s center piece is the wedding, with all the extensive preparations and ceremonies that are involved. But it is not surprising that the narrative’s most frequent locale is the cemetery.

The Man Without a World is, of course, critical of anti-semitism in Poland, a country described as “the most beloved of the Angel of Death.” What the film fails to fully capture, however, is the shtetl’s vibrant intellectual life, with its numerous factions of Zionists, anarchists, socialists, traditionalists, bohemians, artists, and gypsies. The whole film is infused with a modernist and feminist sensibility. Antin at once reconstructs and deconstructs the conventions of famous Yiddish plays and films of the l920s (The Golem, The Dybbuk) Imposed on a well-known structure, the contemporary dialogue often produces comic results. In a nicely handled scene, a pair of female anarchists sneer at the bribed Polish policeman. One woman says, “Look at that bourgeois pig. Let’s blow him up.” To which her friends comments, “This is no time for self-expression.”

Influenced by Fellini, Antin also uses the circus as a metaphor for life. Many of the film’s stories are set on stage, with a good deal of playfulness in their performance. The film is appropriately dark, effectively using Expressionist lighting–a style that was in vogue in the l920s.

The Man Without a World is a personal movie for Antin, a feminist performance artist and professor of visual arts at University of California, San Diego. She made the film as a tribute to her childhood (a daughter of Russian communists, Antin grew up during the Cold War) and her mother, an actress in the Yiddish theater, now afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.

The film’s title can be applied to any of the characters. It can describe the alienated bohemian, the outcast scholar, the gypsies–and probably the filmmaker herself. It is a testament to the overall power of The Man Without a World that the world it evokes can be enjoyed and appreciated on both emotional and intellectual levels.