‘The tragedy,” American author Joshua Rubenstein once noted, “is that so many great Soviet Jewish figures have been forgotten and eclipsed. They are remembered only for their deaths.”
One could apply such a description to Solomon Mikhoels, the brilliant Russian actor and director. Longtime leader of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (known as Goset), Mikhoels became a champion both of Russian Jews and the Soviet government in the treacherous years separating the World Wars. Today, Mikhoels is remembered mostly for the manner in which he died — betrayed, in 1943, by Joseph Stalin’s antisemitic purges, despite years of service (ostensible and otherwise) to communism.
Mikhoels’s murder also signaled the death of Jewish theater in the USSR, an indication that while Mikhoels’s livelihood rested on the bond uniting performer and audience, his life depended on the government’s regard for that audience. But it is the life of this theater — a vibrant and vital organism that offered a pioneering platform for expressionism and design onstage — that is getting overdue attention in New York this season.
In conjunction with the ongoing exhibit at the Jewish Museum, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-49, the New York Jewish Film Festival (January 14-29) will present a two-film tribute to Mikhoels in the form of 1925’s “Jewish Luck” and 1932’s “The Return of Nathan Becker.” Both films offer mesmerizing peeks into early Soviet life. Taken together, they trace, in the span of only seven years, a real-life narrative from a hopeful era to a terrifying one.
But the films are most striking for their record of a tragically forgotten performer imbued, like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, with that rare combination of folly and nobility.
“Mikhoels was an incredibly magnetic personality,” said Jeffrey Veidlinger, author of “The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage” (Indiana University Press, 2006). “If you think about it, that a theater director, of all people, would become the leader of the Jewish community is telling.”
Not that Mikhoels asked for that mantle. Prior to 1929, when he assumed directorship of Goset following the defection of the theater’s founder, Alexandr Granovsky, Mikhoels was an actor who simply wanted to portray Jewish life onstage. In 1921, Goset’s maiden production under the aegis of the new communist regime combined three short plays from the Menakhem Mendl stories, by famed Russian- and Yiddish-language author Sholom Aleichem. The writer’s folk tales (including the original “Tevye” cycle, which would become “Fiddler on the Roof”) rebuked the decrepit shtetl life and echoed Bolshevik decrees on abandoning the indignities of tsarist Russia. As Mikhoels himself once put it, they revealed “the bankruptcy of the old world, when many still believed that everything was in good working order.”
For a brief window, the goals of Russian Jews and those of their new overseers appeared, incredibly, to be aligned. In 1925, the Soviet government commissioned Granovsky and his company to make a film that would encourage Russian Jews to abandon the “old-world” shtetl mentality and embrace modern Soviet ideals. As Veidlinger notes in his book, “Minority languages and national forms were expected to become thin veils, subtly concealing the prototypical New Soviet Man who would educate the masses from behind a visage familiar to his audience.”
Granovsky’s silent film, “Jewish Luck,” also based on Sholom Aleichem’s texts, became the first permanent document of this hopeful (and ultimately doomed) alliance and was an immediate success, thanks mostly to the mischievous allure of its star.
“What’s most apparent in the film is just the playfulness of it,” said Aviva Weintraub, associate curator of the New York Jewish Film Festival and director of the Jewish Museum. “Yet it’s hard to look at it without a sense of it presaging destruction.”
Mikhoels’s Mendl is the Old World version of an ambulance chaser: In a fruitless bid to sell insurance, he chases a coffin down the dusty arteries of his shtetl and urges the widower to buy life insurance for the sake of his children. “Be a decent father,” Mendl implores. By the end of “Jewish Luck,” when the enterprising Mendl finds spectacular failure as a matchmaker and skulks off, alone, the filmmakers’ condemnation of the life he represents is clear.
Jewish audiences, however, initially found other things to admire about the film. Besides its progressive use of light and shadow and its artful movement of the camera, “Jewish Luck” offers a flickering memory of home.
Mikhoels and company “were trying to give this negative portrayal of the shtetl, but the reality is that many of the people in the audience were just happy to see a picture of the shtetl,” Veidlinger said. “They looked back on it with nostalgia.”
It would have been difficult not to. Mikhoels’s Mendl is undeniably endearing in his futile quest for dignity and money, flitting among the walking ghosts and stray dogs of his impoverished village. Mikhoels’s highly animated style of acting, which accentuated his darting eyes and nimble frame, transformed Mendl from a literary device into a charming underdog in search of fulfillment.
But even if Mendl became something of a romantic figure, the movie’s larger message was plain: “Don’t worry. It’s okay to be Jewish in the Soviet Union.” For a number of years — though it must have seemed as hard to believe then as it does today — this proclamation was almost true. For Russian-Jewish artists, including Mikhoels, Chagall, Granovsky, and the writers Isaac Babel and Peretz Markish, Russia’s upheaval had become an unlikely opportunity to earn the support of a sympathetic power structure by expressing Jewish culture.
Perhaps that is why “Jewish Luck” is more artfully executed than “The Return of Nathan Becker,” which tells the story of a Russian bricklayer who returns home to an industrial utopia after 28 years of capitalist training in America. By the time this subtitled talkie was released, Hitler was on the rise, America was in decline and Stalin was much less concerned about his minority populations.
This was not the time for artistic license; it was the time to go to battle for the Soviet machine, and the popular Mikhoels would be placed on the front lines. As Nathan’s father, a lovable relic of the shtetl and an advocate of Soviet progress, the charismatic Mikhoels lent a needed sense of humanity to this unambiguous story of communist superiority. The film’s inert framing and facile symbolism, though never less than watchable, lack the vivacity found in “Jewish Luck.”
Unlike Granovsky, though, Mikhoels generally believed in the communist future, and if things weren’t looking as bright on the streets of Moscow as they were in “The Return of Nathan Becker,” well, he still had his theater company.
“Mikhoels was playing a big balancing act,” Veidlinger said. “On one hand, he was trying to instill pride in the Jewish past. On the other hand, he was doing what he needed to do to be an artist in the Soviet Union.”
But as life began to deteriorate for Soviet Jews in the 1930s, Mikhoels recognized that film, with its mass audience and permanence, was not the place for veiled political dissent. That occurred, instead, on the local stage, where Mikhoels’s legend truly endures. Goset’s 1935 production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is widely regarded as the actor’s shining moment, not least for its subversive associations of Lear, the Fool and Stalin. Government censors didn’t get it, but Mikhoels’s audience understood. That was all that mattered.
Matthew Oshinsky is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.
Chagall All Around:
The Mikhoels films are presented as part of the exhibition ‘Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949,’ which runs November 9 - March 22 at The Jewish Museum. As well as Wullschlager’s recent ‘Chagall: A Biography,’ the Museum of Biblical Art is presenting a Chagall series including a lecture on ‘Chagall’s Biblical Imagination’ (January 15, 6:30 - 7.30pm) by Jean Bloch Rosensaft, and one of a series of concerts, ‘Hearing the Sacred: From the Middle Ages to the 21st Century’ where Trio Eos will perform a program of sacred repertoire composed by contemporaries of Marc Chagall such as Gounod, Durufle, Poulenc, and Britten (January 17, 2009 3:00pm – 4:00pm).