The meaning of “born in a trunk” has rarely been as affectingly presented onscreen as in Arnon Goldfinger and Oshra Schwartz’s “The Komediant.” Elegantly constructed, deceptively complex docu is the saga of an American Yiddish theater family’s adventures across the 20th century, from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to Broadway.Pic reveals the rewards and lasting pain experienced by a clan practicing an art form that they intuitively know is dying. Distrib New Yorker should endeavor to break its disheartening habit of late and endeavor to play pic beyond the confines of Manhattan, since it contains great appeal not only to Jewish auds but to fans of theater and high-quality docu filmmaking as well. As history, pic has added value in ancillary play.
With real cleverness and aplomb, director Goldfinger intros the late patriarch of the Burstein family, Pesach’ke Burstein, as a young boy eager to run away from his Orthodox parents and join the circus and theater. Pesach’ke’s wife, Lillian Lux — who is still alive and very much kicking — describes his rebellious boyhood as Goldfinger inserts clips from early sound-era Yiddish films.Pesach’ke joined wandering troupes, like modern equivalents of the players in “The Seventh Seal,” before being recruited by impresario Boris Tomashefsky for New York’s Nora Bayes Theater in 1923.
Though he arrived after Pesach’ke burst upon the scene, helping to transform U.S. Yiddish theater, actor Fivush Finkel, with help from Yiddish vet Shifra Lerer, vividly and even caustically describes the boisterous scene along New York’s Second Avenue of that era, which included a battalion of venues and the highly regimented Hebrew Actors Union, a cliquish group with the chutzpah to reject Stella Adler as a member.
Pesach’ke’s fame grew with such singles as “Zedele Meines” (the Yiddish version of Al Jolson’s hit, “Sonny Boy”) for Columbia and his well-known talent for whistling like a bird. Although she was two decades younger, Lillian fell in love with Pesach’ke when she joined his touring company. Their endless travels took them from Uruguay (where they married) to Poland, where they barely escaped the invading Nazis — a story told here in an account as gripping as any dramatized version could be.
Up until the birth of the couple’s twins in 1945, “The Komediant” is a generally whimsical valentine to the old-school theater life. But with the entry of son Mike Burstyn and daughter Susan Burstein, the film’s story transforms into a more bitter than sweet memoir.
Goldfinger pointedly films Lillian, Mike and Susan separately. Cinematically, the montage of recollections creates a humorous effect, as when Lillian is amazed to hear that Susan’s account of some incidents utterly contradicts her own. Mike easily fit in with the traveling theater atmosphere, and at first, so did Susan, who achieved early fame as the youngest world-class ventriloquist in showbiz. (In a priceless moment, Susan extracts her long-dormant Jerry Mahoney puppet out of a bag, saying it’s “like pulling out a corpse,” and proceeds to re-create her act.)
Eventually, the years of growing up in hotel rooms and the Yiddish theater circuit got to Susan, who married an older man when she was 18. For her, the defining moment of her life with her family was when they made her wait until midnight to get married, so they could finish their night’s performance.
Coming just short of depicting her upbringing as a type of child abuse, Susan describes experiences that are in stark, almost tragic, contrast to Mike’s. But even Mike, who achieved stardom in the hit Israeli musical pic “The Two Kuni Lemls,” eventually had to part ways with his folks and leave the Yiddish stage behind for the movies, TV and Broadway. He knew the old ways offered no future for a young thesp in the ’60s. (A vintage clip of Mike singing songs from “Hair” in his Kuni Leml outfit perfectly captures his dilemma.)
The range of Goldfinger’s coverage and research is astonishing: Images of Lillian and Mike walking through the ruins of an abandoned Catskills hotel and marvelous archival footage, such as clips of life in early Israel. Pic deservedly won Israeli best docu award in 1999.