The Dybbuk

| September 26, 2011

The Dybbuk is a made for TV film adaptation of a classic Jewish folktale. The story is about a young Jewish man, Sender (Theodore Bikel) who loves a young Jewish woman, Leah (Carol Lawrence) but her father arranges her marriage with another man. The grief of this causes Sender to die, but his spirit passes into the body of his beloved on her wedding day. Rabbi Azrael (Ludwig Donath), who serves as our narrator through the beginning of the film, is charged with the task of exercising Sender’s Dybbuk (sometimes defined as a malicious spirit or demon who possesses the living) from Leah’s body.
Director Sidney Lumet is arguably one of the best directors of all time. With films like 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, he had amassed an amazing resume of work by the time of his death this past April. In an introduction on The Dybbuk a young Sidney Lumet tells us that he remembers watching a production of The Dybbuk on stage featuring his father. He says that it was his earliest exposure to Jewish drama and has since always had a special significance for him. Lumet’s love of the play comes through well in this film version, but it’s too easy for the play to fall into a boring pattern and lose its audience’s attention.
The film raises some really interesting philosophical questions. It might help if the viewer is somewhat familiar with the traditions and superstitions of the Jewish faith, but not a necessity. A discussion early on between Sender and a Jewish elder, where the two men talk about the inherent holiness in all things – even Satan and sin – is particularly interesting. Also, when Sender possesses his love, presumably taking away her own will and voice and replacing it with his own, the audience is left to question if the woman actually wants him there. This question is answered later, but hearing their two voices come out of her mouth as he angrily refuses to leave her body is rather disturbing. The whole idea of a Dybbuk, or even a demon possession and the blatantly forced intimacy between the possessed and the possessor is uniquely presented here and genuinely fascinating to watch between these two lovers. This is where Carol Lawrence’s portrayal of Leah breaks away from anyone else in the cast.
Overall the film is neither notably good nor bad. It seems to simply exist in front of the audience while leaving no lasting impression.
The DVD itself has no special features to speak of, but the DVD does come with an impressive booklet as an insert. The booklet is 12 pages long and contains a couple of short analytical essays about the story of The Dybbuk, as well as some insight into Sidney Lumet and The Play of the Week series which brought the play to television screens in 1960.

About the Author:

Joe Sanders Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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