Judge Bill Gibron does the old softshoe with this poignant memoir of a performing family.
The Bursteins were a name that every Jewish household knew, as famous as the Epstein Brothers Band or Menasha Skulnick. Founded by a man who defied his own family to seek a life as an entertainer, this clan of creative minds traveled the world, spreading the joys of the Hebrew experience by performing traditional songs and plays in the Yiddish tongue. It all started with Pesach'ke, a Polish boy who rose up from nothing to become one of the premier performers of his time (so well thought of was he that he made all the foreign language recordings of Al Jolson's hits for Columbia). He married fellow luminary Lillian Lux, and carefully carved out a niche for his specialized talent around the globe. When his children were born, they were reluctantly brought into the fold. Soon, they were full-fledged costars, stealing their own individual parts of the show.
But as times changed and the lure of tradition was tossed aside for more modern, new world ideals, an act like the Bursteins fell out of favor with the public. Only in isolated areas, where cultural interest was high, did the act have a chance to flourish. Then the children defied the family. The son went off to be a movie star, only reluctantly coming back to the group when his parents began to flounder. The daughter took her insolence one step further—she married a much older man and retired, permanently. By the time Pesach'ke passed on, so had his mythos. There was no longer a clamor for Yiddish vaudeville. And definitely no need for a Komediant.
Komediant is a carefully constructed, wildly entertaining look at the Yiddish theater movement in America, focusing on the first family of this fascinating subgenre of performance—the Bursteins. Following patriarch Pesach'ke's falling out with his Orthodox father and the vagabond life of a traveling minstrel during the First World War, we wander through a kind of walking tour of the immigrant movement in the early part of the 20th century, from the clash of cultures to the brutal anti-Semitism at the hands of a newfound homeland. In between, we are treated to some incredibly touching anecdotes, a good deal of amazing archival footage, and a wealth of old country classics, as much of the material that made the Bursteins famous is offered up to us in staged bits and heartfelt singing.
At the center of the story is son Mike, a proud participant in the family act for many years, and now crucial to the continuing Burstein name. We sense the passion in his voice when he discusses his father's legacy, and marvel as he painstakingly recreates his old routines—and even more ancient plays—for an ever-diminishing constituency of fans. Like a storyteller keeping the secrets of a nearly forgotten civilization, Mike Burstein is the living almanac of the Yiddish theater, and as he starts us down the lane called memory, we meet some terrific, talented folks along the way.
First and foremost is mother Lillian Lux. A true diva if ever a person fit that description, this feisty old broad is out to set the record straight, settle vendettas, and make sure everyone understands how much she and husband Pesach'ke sacrificed to keep the Yiddish traditions alive (she has some particularly unkind words to say about Israel's decision to declare Hebrew its national language). There is talk of Broadway appearances and sold-out concerts, traditional bigotry and a far-too-close call with pre-WWII Nazis (the couple left Poland the day before the invasion by Hitler). Though she still has the chops to back up many of her more ego-inspired claims (we see her working with son Mike and in vintage footage with husband Pesach'ke), there is a hint of delusional sadness in her stories, a real sense of looking back with brazen romanticism at a time and an entertainment that will never be seen again.
Then there is Susan, Mike's fraternal twin sister. Living a life of more or less exile in Israel, she appears to be the family member least interested in the old days of show business and ballyhoo. Yet once her dummy is brought out of a bag, it's like she's up on that greasepaint bicycle again. Dummy, you say? Absolutely. At one point, believe it or not, Susan was the star of the act, a veritable virtuoso of—of all things—ventriloquism. The French, who could have actually cared less for the rest of the Bursteins' act, praised her to no end. No matter what the setting, all they wanted was the little girl (she was about eight or nine at the time) who could throw her voice. Getting a chance to hold "Jerry" in her arms once again brings back a flood of feelings for Susan (as well as the long-forgotten skills—she's quite good), and you can see that, while she tried to leave performing far behind, performing has never ever left her. Her saga has a strange twist or two (she married a much older man to more or less escape her overprotective family), and we don't really get a lot of substance with our sentiment. But the look in her eyes when she sees that pathetic prop is somehow all the information we really need.
A great deal of Komediant plays that way. We learn very little about Pesach'ke beyond the broad strokes in which he is painted. Backstory is limited to what can fit in a paragraph in a voiceover script—literally. We do see some amazing photos from his youth, and witness rare archival film from some of his performances, but even through all these visual cues, he still remains an enigma throughout this documentary. The same can be said for other fascinating elements of the story. The Yiddish Theatrical Alliance—formed to help Jewish actors and singers organize and fight for their rights—has a weird ritualistic nature where people must audition for inclusion, and cliques control large voting blocks. Yet this amazing anomaly is breezed over with nary an eye blink, since it doesn't seem to fit director Arnon Goldfinger's dramatic design. From the random inclusion of Fyvush Finkel (apparently one of the few active performers who was around during Burstein's heyday) to the flippant manner in which some of the more ethnic material is handled, there is a distinct impression of a "hands off" approach to the telling of Pesach'ke's story. There is definitely more to Yiddish theater than this talented man and his family.
Still, one can't help but get caught up in Komediant's sense of adventure. It's the same feeling of discovery one gets with any discussion of a cultural concept that has existed under the mainstream radar for so long. That the Bursteins were able to work consistently for over 60 years seems amazing, and the people and places they've seen carry us along on a special, if slightly superficial, wave of goodwill. It's this wealth of unknown knowledge that keeps you connected to this film, not the routine performances, obscure songs, or individual trivia. If history is written in the faces of its participants, then the people of Komediant have a lot to say. Interesting, only Pesach'ke's clownish features appear timeless. Maybe he was never meant to age. Or maybe, he didn't have very much to say after all.
The presentation by New Yorker Video is very good. Taken from what appears to be a 1.33:1 Israeli TV transfer (this documentary has a PBS-like cultural presentation vibe to its setup), the image is marvelous. Mixing film, video, archival material, and home movie footage, the blending of media works well. There is no flaring or bleeding, and the minor blemishes that appear occasionally obviously exist in the stock elements. While by no means an earth-shattering visual experience, this is still a very good-looking full screen picture. The sound is equally impressive. Offered in a dissonance of differing languages (we hear Hebrew, Yiddish, and some English) and subtitled very well, everything is perfectly understandable and more or less crystal clear with Komediant's sonic situations. Though sometimes, the theatrical interludes can be a bit shrill or distorted, this is again, due to older, non-modern, technological limitation.
As for extras, New Yorker provides a fascinating few. First up is the trailer, which gives us a glimpse at how the film was marketed and sold. Next, there is some rare film of Pesach'ke performing (along with son Mike and wife Lillian) on a South American television show. The material may be lame, but the singing and dancing are energetic and endearing. Finally, we see Mike and pal Bruce Alder deliriously duetting on a pair of Pesach'ke's classic songs. Again, the tunes may seem hambone, but the way they are sold more than makes up for their corny kitsch value.
Any flaws in Komediant's scope can't really be blamed directly on the filmmaking. It is out to tell the story of the Bursteins and the special genre of theater they played for several decades. It's not out to right the wrongs of prejudice, explain away the Holocaust, or condemn individuals who've turned their back on their faith or tradition. Certainly, all those facets are part of Pesach'ke's story. But they are swept aside here to keep matters light and airy. While it may not mandate any larger consideration, Komediant does a delightful service to one particular family, and the culture they helped to craft. And perhaps, there is no greater reward than doing just that.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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