The last thing you might expect of a Yiddish film made in Poland in 1924, a film based on the same story as the classic Yiddish melodrama “The Dybbuk,” probably is a happy ending.
But somehow “A Vilna Legend” has one.
“It’s a simple story,” Charles Sokol of Wayne, the film buff who collects such films and shows them at his synagogue, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, said. He doesn’t want to give away the entire plot, which, he said, is not complicated — it’s a short film — but it’s about two dear friends, at first married but childless, who pledge their firstborns to each other, should one be a girl and the other a boy.
Needless to say, the friends have a girl and a boy, and they are pledged to each other — but it doesn’t go well. “It’s a very deep film,” Mr. Sokol said. “A very supernatural film. But everything comes together in the end, because of the intervention of Eliyahu haNavi” — the prophet Elijah — “who appears in the film in human form, in several different guises, depending on who he’s interacting with.”
“A Vilna Legend” stars the Yiddish movie star Ester Rokhl Kaminska and her daughter, the Yiddish movie star Ida Kaminska, as mother and daughter. As far as he knows, Mr. Sokol said, it is the only film in which they played together; “at a minimum, it surely is the only surviving film.”
The film is unusual because of its Jewish theme, Mr. Sokol said. “Because of the anti-Semitism in Poland, the major film companies there — even the Jewish ones — did not produce movies with Jewish themes. They did not want to upset the general population.” The few eastern European films that did have Jewish themes came from the Ukraine, he added; the government there tried to fight anti-Semitism, and sponsored and encouraged such films. But, Mr. Sokol said, that didn’t work.
Of course, films then were silent. It was the intertitles (not subtitles, which came later, and were for translation) that were or were not in Yiddish. When sound came in, things changed. “In 1933, a couple of people in the Yiddish entertainment industry decided to add Yiddish sound and then English subtitles were added,” Mr. Sokol said. “That’s the version of the film we’ll be showing.” There is no attempt at lip-syncing, he added — as is clear when you see the movie — and the voices were not the actors’ own.
“A Vilna Legend,” like many other films in his collection, is available through the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, which restored it. Mr. Sokol has shown many of these films at Temple Emanuel, and plans to show more of them.