Furniture, vital in everyday life, hardly ever plays a large role in art. Henry James’s “The Spoils of Poynton” comes to mind, in which the characters’ inner lives are manifested in their dreadful fight over inherited furnishings, as do stories by Anzia Yezierska, in which the meager possessions of immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side come to symbolize both their survival and their salvation. But for the most part, as in much of our lives, tables, chairs, sofas, bureaus, cabinets and the like are taken for granted in art, imbued with little meaning.
In “Divan,” a lovely, funny and terrifically moving documentary by Pearl Gluck, the eponymous piece of furniture — a couch upon which several famous 19th- and 20th-century Hungarian rabbis slept — becomes not just a connection to a historical past, but an ironic, and at times contentious, symbol of family fealty and difference. In its 71 minutes, Gluck gives us not just a tale of high family drama, but a serious meditation on the nature of history, memory, betrayal and the significance and insignificance of furniture.
Gluck, who began making “Divan” in 1996 at the age of 27, was born to a chasidic family in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. Her parents divorced when a she was in her early teens; her four brothers stayed with her father in Brooklyn, and she went to live with her mother in Manhattan, where they attended a liberal synagogue. While most of the women in her father’s community were married by the time they turned 18 and never pursued higher education, Gluck went to Brandeis University, got her doctorate, became a filmmaker and stayed single. When her father voiced a desire for her to marry and move back to the insular world of Borough Park, Gluck searched for a compromise that would repair family schisms but allow her to continue the life she had been leading. In 1996 she was awarded a Fulbright to collect oral histories of Yiddish-speakers in Hungary, where her parents still had many relatives, and, before she left, her father gave her a video camera. He asked her, in lieu of returning to Brooklyn, to bring back from Hungary a family heirloom: the divan upon which the famous Kossonye rebbes rested.
While the narrative backbone of “Divan” is Gluck’s quest for the couch — a large, high-backed, cushioned, wooden structure closer to what we today might more likely call an upholstered bench — her story is actually a journey to the past to find a way to live in the future. Gluck has structured the film around two trips to Hungary: The first is her search for the divan and her quest to meet, for the first time, her parents’ relatives who survived the Holocaust; the second is a pilgrimage she takes with her father a year later to visit the burial sites of the founders of chasidism (“twenty grave sites, thousands of miles, seven days”). It is on this frame (to stretch the metaphor thin) that Gluck adds the cloth textures and the cushions of interviews with friends — women and men who left chasidic communities and are now in the process of creating lives that fuse aspects of their past with interests that sustain their current spiritual and psychic growth.
This is a lot of complicated and emotionally charged material for just over an hour, and Gluck’s intelligence and subtlety as a filmmaker allow her to pull it off without either condescending toward her father or compromising her own
vision, feelings and opinions. There are moving moments here — including a scene in which Gluck visits a memorial commemorating many of her relatives who were murdered at Auschwitz — but she often keeps the tone on the light side. At first this feels odd, and you wonder if she doesn’t understand the somber complexity of her own material. But as the film progresses, this contrasting tonality becomes increasingly powerful. Halfway through the film, when Gluck realizes that she may not be able to retrieve the divan because her more Orthodox relatives don’t approve of her secularism, we viscerally feel her sense of betrayal. Later, in various scenes — when she is asked by chasidic men to cover her arms in a public place while speaking to them, tie back her unruly hair in their presence and not use the video camera — Gluck’s sorrow in attempting to bring together two divergent pieces of her heritage and life become palpable. In many ways, “Divan” is intended as a peace offering to her father, yet he will not allow himself to be shown in the film.
The genius of “Divan” is that Gluck has managed, in both her life and the film, to find creative ways to bridge her past and present. Watching it inevitably brings to mind Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s recent documentary “Trembling Before G-d,” in which his subjects are in spiritual and psychological agony over what they feel is their expulsion from their communities. The power of DuBowski’s film stems from the raw, unhealed and apparently irreconcilable pain of spiritual and sexual difference. (Interestingly, while none of the friends interviewed in “Divan” are identified on film as lesbian or gay, many of the issues they speak of as being problematic for their families — remaining unmarried, not having children — are resonant of the subjects in “Trembling” as well.)
While the excruciation of watching “Trembling Before G-d” was unrelieved, Gluck struggles to find common ground and a sense of solace that do not involve compromise. She never really gets her father to accept her completely, and she remains angry at all of the attempts to deprive her of her past, but at the film’s conclusion her father travels from Borough Park to her Manhattan apartment to work with her on editing this film. It is a bittersweet, semi-comfortable coda to complicated lives and complicated journeys. While her original plan to deliver the family’s venerable divan to her father becomes increasingly problematic and entangled, she does deliver this exquisite, often disturbing, but touching film to both him and us.