I had never heard of Michał Waszyński until watching The Prince and the Dybbuk. I have no idea how I would have reacted to the film if I had. Waszyński directed over 50 films in Poland and Italy between 1929 and 1949. This includes The Dybbuk, which seems to often be described as one of the best and most historically significant Jewish films of all time.

Waszyński was born Mosze Waks in Ukraine in 1904 and fled to Poland during World War I. After changing his name and converting to Catholicism, he quickly became Poland’s most prolific filmmaker and would eventually count the likes of Sophia Loren and Orson Welles among his friends. Known more for his larger than life personality and impeccable manners (many knew him as The Polish Prince) than for his self-disclosure, Waszyński had some secrets. He rarely talked about his past and no one who knew him seemed to know where he came from.

Through interviews with his peers and clips from some of his films, The Prince and the Dybbuk seems to suggest that Waszyński was haunted by feelings of survivor’s guilt after the genocide in his home country, and that these feelings showed up in several of his films. Filmmakers Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosolowski also seem to suggest that the conflict between his religious traditions and his secret, but also not-so-secret, homosexual lifestyle weighed on him too.

I can easily imagine someone who is a fan of the director being truly fascinated, particularly when excerpts from Waszyński’s journals are read over haunting imagery, by The Prince and the Dybbuk.

As someone who went in unfamiliar with Waszyński’s life, films, and reputation, I found long stretches of this documentary to be hard to follow. I can’t even promise that everything I’ve told you so far is 100% accurate. The filmmakers devote a lot of time to searching for clues on the director’s background. The details and significance of this search often escaped me.

Which brings me to The Prince and the Dybbuk‘s biggest problem. Niewiera and Rosolowski don’t do justify Waszyński as a documentary subject. I still am not sure I understand exactly what made him so serious. Furthermore, no filmmakers or historians are interviewed to place his films in context or explain to people who haven’t seen them what made them so fascinating.

Or maybe Michał Waszyński needs no introduction. I would not expect a film about Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock to waste much time to justifying its subject and it’s entirely possible that many would say the same about Waszyński. I am quite sure, however, that The Prince and the Dybbuk will struggle to hold the attention of audiences who don’t already have an interest in the life and works of its subject.

Screens:
Thursday, May 3, 9:15 PM, Isabel Bader Theatre

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