Yidl Mitn Fiddl ("Little Jew With Fiddle", 1936.
Directors, Joseph Green and Nowina Przybylski.
Starring Molly Picon, the megastar of Second Avenue Jewish theater in New York.
On multiple viewings of "Yidl Mitn Fidl", Green's undisputed masterpiece of the four films he made, one's attention is drawn to its wealth of visual and compositional treasures, while admiration for the novice filmmaker Green (and his professional collaborator, Nowina-Przybylski to be sure!) can only grow. - A field of Monet haystacks followed a few moments later by a shot of Monet-like water lilies on the Moon-lit river, incredible shots of wind swept leaves and back-lit clouds, punctuated by a bolt of lighting - the visualization of Picon's stormy discovery of her budding love for Froyml as she sings "Oh Mama, Am I in Love"; pictorial countryside compositions worthy of a landscape painter a montage of Kazimierz rooftops reminiscent of Ozu's evocation of a Japanese shtetl in "Tokyo Story" - group compositions of the four shabbily clad singers that could have come from Flemish genre painters, an extended wedding dance sequence that is a small film in itself, and the memorable first collaboration of the competing buskers, or street singers, where the courtyard dwellers first close their windows one after another to shut out the cacophony, while even a stray dog howls his disapproval, segueing into the harmonious coming together of their music as Picon strikes up a haunting melody on solo violin -- and then the reopening of the windows, one by one, with a montage of knowing nods and approving smiles -- "Aha, this is more like it", followed by a hail of coins from the upper stories. This scene alone, depicting the first public success of the new little "Filharmonia", is one of the most eloquent, purely cinematic sequences in the entire Yiddish cannon. brilliant!
Another amazing section of this unique film, is the freudian, or perhaps, Jungian dream sequence (although it was probably not intended to be psychoanalytic as such) in which we see the Itke's dilemma, in love with a man but committed to maintaining her masquerade as a boy. The lapse-time photography fading her alternately in an out of boyish garb and frilly feminine attire, all set to exhilarating music, is state of the art for the time. The conception of these scenes, so lyrically conveying her frustration, from which she awakens clutching a cat, predates by a decade serious postwar Hollywood films with Freudian iconography. The entire film is, in fact, modernist to the hilt for an ethnic musical comedy made on a relatively modest budget. Even the musical numbers are not typical klezmer fare but seem to owe more to jazz-age influences than Second Avenue schmaltz, and the overall musical soundtrack with its clever commentary on the action is quite exceptional. From this single film it is clear that Green had a vision, albeit one that formed as he went along, of a type of Jewish film that would eventually transcend the bounds of ethnicity.
An interesting documentary aspect of the film, the first Yiddish talkie to be shot completely on location in Poland, is the portrait it provides of the traditional Jewish country town of Kazimierz on the Vistula as it looked in 1936 - not to be confused with the Jewish district of the city of Cracow, which is also called Kazimierz. There was no need at the time to paint phony street signs in Yiddish - they were already there. Kazimirez is also seen in a number of other Yiddish films where shtetl atmosphere is needed but Green and Przybylski's poetic evocation of the town from the opening shots of the hilltop castle, the tiled rooftops, and the central market place, stand apart. Today "Kazimierz na Wisle" is still a popular summer resort - minus the Jews. In present day Polish films, the Kazimierz locale is still used to evoke the ghost of lost Polish Jewry as, for example, in Wojciech Has' 1975 masterpiece "Sanitarium Under the Hourglass" or in the more recent "Two Moons" (Dwa Ksiezice),1992.
Also to be seen are a few glimpses of Warsaw as it looked before the barbaric German destruction of the city in 1944, a montage of the streetcars, the monuments, and the Old City as they appeared just before the war. As an historical document, aside from its primary entertainment value, "Yidl" is, in passing, a portrait of everyday Jewish life in Poland just three years before the German invasion wiped it away. If one were to be limited to a single film in this exceptional series, this is the one not to miss. A combination of pure joy and historical significance.