Der Komediant

on December 31, 2006 by Tim Cogshell
   In Yiddish, "komediant" means "actor," though a loose translation to "comedian" may not be far off, as is illustrated in "Der Komeidant," the 1999 winner of the Israeli Oscar for Best Documentary. From Ed Sullivan to Carl Reiner, "Will and Grace" to Krusty the Clown, a good deal of what we find funny in American entertainment came through the little known but highly influential Yiddish Theatre. Though a documentary, the film is also a musical-comedy that tells the story of a legendary theatrical family.

   The Bursteins were a popular itinerant stage family during the glory days of the Yiddish theatre. "Der Komediant" tells the bittersweet saga of Pesachke Burstein, a dancing-singing actor/comedian born in a small Jewish town in Poland in the late 19th century, and his family of performers. Drawn to what was considered a scandalous career in acting, 14-year old Pesachke runs away from home to join a traveling troupe of Jewish performers, a choice that would dominate his and his family's lives for decades. On stage, he meets and falls in love with 16-year-old Lillian Lux. Barely escaping Poland during the Nazi invasion in 1939, the couple has twins not long after the war. Mike and Susan (who become Motele and Zisele for their work on stage) are by the age of seven appearing regularly with their parents as the family wanders the globe in search of Jewish communities and the dying language of their work.

   "Der Komediant" uses archival footage and interviews with Yiddish stage veterans (including Fyvush Finkel and Shifra Lerer), to create a sharp and quick documentary that is funny and pithy, while illuminating an era of theatrical comedy that, while past, really isn't.    Starring Pesachke Burstein, Lillian Lux-Burstein, Michael Burstein, Susan Burstein, Fyvush Finkle and Shifra Lerer. Directed by Arnon Goldfinger. Written by Arnon Goldfinger and Oshra Schwartz. Produced by Arnon Goldfinger and Schwartz. A New Yorker release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 85 min.

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