Sunday, January 07, 2018

NYJFF ’18: The Prince and the Dybbuk

Michał Waszyński is often called a mythomaniac, but every new life he created for himself came true. Imagine Frank Abagnale Jr from Catch Me If You Can, transplanted into La Dolce Vita. Yet, he was always haunted by the mystical tragedies of his homeland. In fact, they inspired the film he will always be remembered for, the Yiddish language Polish film adaptation of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk. Even though the man himself converted to Catholicism, his story will still resonate with audiences when Elwira Niewiera & Piotr Rosolowski’s documentary The Prince and the Dybbuk (trailer here) screens during the 2018 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Waszyński was born the son of a poor Jewish blacksmith in Ukraine, but he died as an exiled Polish prince in Italy. It was kind of true too. Evidently, there was some kind of royal title bestowed on him. Of course, the wealthy Contessa he married was real enough, even though he was a closeted homosexual. The path he took to get from point A to point B was convoluted, but it involved stint in the Soviet backed Anders’ Army, as a propaganda filmmaker. Indeed, he was already well known in Poland, largely as a director of light comedy and melodrama, as well as his magnum opus, The Dybbuk.

Through impressionistic readings of his diary entries (shockingly frank, given the content and possible consequences), the film makes a convincing case Waszyński’s affinity for The Dybbuk was rooted in his own unrequited feelings for a classmate. He would never helm another work of the Dybbuk’s caliber again, but he took on producing duties on films throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, notably including the massively over-budget The Fall of the Roman Empire and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa.

Despite the artistically rendered expressionistic interludes, the best part about P&D are some of the conversations they captured, like when Mankiewicz’s wife Rosemary and daughter Alex revisit their memories of the Contessa shoot by nostalgically reading over passages of his diary: “you had dinner at the casino, that must have been lovely—Dad won a million Lira, good for him.” Two fellow Anders’ Army veterans reviewing his service records are also quite droll. Big surprise, Waszyński did not score well when it came to discipline and loyalty.

Frankly, we sort of wish P&D were a more traditional that-happened-and-led-to-this style documentary, because it feels like Niewiera & Rosolowski are glossing over a lot of wonderful high-living. Nevertheless, this is the film they have and it definitely leaves viewers fascinated. Even today, the extent of his social climbing reinvention is remarkable, especially for Old Europe. Highly recommended for fans of 1960s Hollywood/Cinecitta glamour and Freudian analysis, The Prince and the Dybbuk screens this Wednesday afternoon (1/10) and Thursday night (1/11) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.