New Yorker Films // 1994 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // December 12th, 2008
You cannot understand klezmer without being a Jew.
Klezmer, Jewish folk and dance music, enjoyed a long tradition in Poland, where it originated, until WWII. With the Nazi occupation, the Polish Jews were transferred to camps, never to return, taking their liltingly sad and beautifully energetic music with them. The tradition has been restarted in young American Jewish musicians, but the original teachings have gone. The Last Klezmer shows us the delightful and eccentric Leopold Kozlowski, 69 years old, the last man to have been trained in that original tradition. His personality and dedication to the art of klezmer alone would have made a fine documentary, but his journey in this documentary amounts to much more.
We meet Leopold in his classroom, where he teaches young students his art. He's a fine pianist and, with his vivacious personality, he seems like a thrill to learn from. The music means everything to him and he takes very seriously both the music itself and how it relates to the history and soul of the Jews. At the same time, however, he is never self-serious and is utterly effusive about how emotional and beautiful the music is. There is no doubt how much he adores what he does. Leopold grew up in a musical family; his father led a travelling klezmer band that both he and his brother were in. When we find out why the group could not continue, the story really starts. Like Eastern European Jews of all walks of life, the family fell victim to the Nazis. Mom and Dad were shot dead and the two brothers were moved into camps. Luckily for them, they were allowed to continue playing but, when the writing on the wall came clear and they knew their fate, they changed their circumstances. After a harrowing escape into the forest, the brothers joined the partisan resistance. His brother died in the struggle, but Leopold fought on until the Soviet army liberated them. All of a sudden, he was it: the last klezmer.
Now, 50 years later, Leopold journeys with director Yale Strom back to the places of his youth to revisit all those old memories both joyous and painful. Leopold's wish in this venture, as a symbolic gesture, to lay a candle at the death sites of his family members. Along the way, he reconnects with one of his fellow concentration camp inmates, who joins in the travels and adds invaluable insight to the story and support to Leopold in what becomes, for him, an extremely emotional experience, which leaves him both elated and devastated. On one hand, visiting the daughter of his first piano teacher is beautiful nostalgia, but visiting the site of the camp, while helping to exorcise 50-year-old demons, is abject horror.
Such is the beauty of The Last Klezmer. Leopold Kozlowski knows the heights of joy and the depths of despair, embracing both at once as a part of him. He is a delight and an example of how one can lead a happy life. Yale Stroud has done excellent work; he tells a compelling, emotionally resonant story that, at the same time, gives proper respect to the music and culture of the Jews outside of this singular example.
The image and sound are both sub-par on this release from New Yorker Films. They've never been known for their pristine transfers, but it's very disappointing in this case. The Last Klezmer was released in 1994 and looks every one of those 14 years. Shot on video with no restoration, the flesh tones look terrible, often blindingly bright. Given this is a documentary, at least ostensibly, about music, the sound is the bigger disappointment. There is no clarity and it does a disservice to the beauty of klezmer. For extras, we have 18 minutes of deleted footage. It's much the same as what is on the main feature, and it's easy to see why the scenes were excised, but they are equally compelling to what was left in.
Kozlowski is a unique, delightful figure; the music he makes is utterly
gorgeous and fun; the film is quite well done. Though there are problems with
the disc, The Last Klezmer is definitely not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Polish)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted scenes