NEW YORK — There are entire libraries of books that describe “the Old Country,” the Jewish communities in the cities and shtetls of Europe prior to the attempted Nazi genocide. There is far less of it on film, especially primary source documentaries. The percentage of what is easily available is about to shoot up, thanks to a new digital print of “Mir Kumen On (Children Must Laugh).”
This educational film from 1936 (or, to be fair, propaganda film, but more on that in a moment) is one of the precious few surviving movies evoking Jewish life in Poland prior to its poisoning from external, racist forces.
The newly patched-together, cleaned-up print is the work of France’s Lobster Films, Germany’s Deutsche Kinemathek, Poland’s Filmoteka Narodowa, the American film and home video distributor Kino Lorber and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Its first screening was at MoMA’s 14th annual “To Save and Project,” a festival of restored films. (Don’t think they are all such noble picks — the top bill was the ubiquitous horror flick “Night of the Living Dead,” now with a new coat of paint.)
A second screening of “Mir Kumen On” is scheduled for Sunday, November 20, at 1 p.m. (It is programmed with Herbert Kline’s notable “Lights Out in Europe,” an American documentary shot in London and Gdansk in the run-up to the war. Both films are about one hour long.)
But I was there for the first screening a few weeks ago and, let me tell you, even for 4 p.m. on a random Thursday, there was a considerable audience. You can’t keep New York’s Yiddish enthusiasts away from a newfound treasure.
“Mir Kumen On” has great historical, artistic and cultural value today, but at the time its principal purpose was to raise money. Most of the movie, which qualifies as documentary, but not “documentary-style” as we currently conceive of it, is filmed at the Vladimir Medem Sanatorium.
This was, firstly, a clinic in Miedzeszyn outside of Warsaw for children with or at-risk of contracting tuberculosis. It was also an arm of the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia and, as such, its aims were in line with that group’s rhetoric.
Bundists were secular, Bundists were intellectuals, Bundists were not exactly Zionists. And Bundists were, at least from a distance, hard to distinguish from Communists. Moreover, if “Mir Kumen On,” the direct translation of which is “We Are Coming,” is any indication, like the Soviets, Bundists had the knack for producing effective movies.
Heavy on montage, close-ups on faces and eschewing any one protagonist, the one-hour film begins with scenes of children in the city, playful and spirited, but overwhelmed by poverty, pollution and illness. Many of these children board a train.
As a moviegoer I’m conditioned to get my guard up when Jewish kids in black and white films get in a train in Poland
As a moviegoer I’m conditioned to get my guard up when Jewish kids in black and white films get in a train in Poland. Especially when they are headed to a camp. But when they get to the Sanatorium it is, literally, a breath of fresh air.
“The newcomers have arrived!” the other children shout, and an open paradise awaits for the kids brought in from the harsh metropolis. The veterans welcome the greenhorns, show them the ropes, lead them to the showers (another inadvertent morbid signifier) and soon all are singing leftist songs, engaging in optimistic classroom lessons, playing sports, planting crops and putting on performances. In 2016, eight weeks in the Berkshires like this would cost a fortune!
A central set-piece is a talent show, where an adorable girl no more than 11 years old does a comedy song-and-dance act and a boy earnestly reads Walt Whitman in Yiddish. Performance is a big part of the whole film.
Before meals there is a pantomime of the “camp radio news,” which is someone reading aloud with a mock announcer’s voice. A recurring story is of a nearby miners’ strike and, if “Mir Kumen On” could be said to have anything of a plot, it would be the children’s decision to share their good fortune in any small way they can with the picketers’ children.
“Camaraderie!” they shout time and again, and, sure, the movie lays it on a little thick, but if the idea is to get wealthy idealists to dig deep in their purses, mission accomplished.
Naturally, watching the film today is completely different. These teens and pre-teens documented 80 years ago, we know, are all doomed to looming history. The best we can hope for any of them is a terrifying escape to an adopted country or an eventual settlement in the Jewish homeland. An opening card on this new print says that many of the subjects shown in the film later took part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The director of “Mir Kumen On,” Aleksander Ford, had a tragic life of his own. Born Mosze Lifszyc in Kiev in 1908, he cut his teeth on these stagey documentaries in the 1930s and ended up as the head of the Polish People’s Army Film Crew with the Soviets during World War II.
Afterwards, he ran the national film school in Lodz, where he basically defined the Polish cinema. His pupils included two of the most important directors of the 20th century, Andrzej Wadja (who died just a few weeks ago at the age of 90) and Roman Polanski.
In 1968, when Poland’s Communist party had an anti-Semitic sea change, he emigrated to Israel, then later West Germany, Denmark and finally the United States.
He was never able to reassert himself in exile, though he did direct an Israeli-German co-production in 1975, a biopic of Janusz Korcak, the head of a Warsaw orphanage who died at Treblinka.
In 1980, in Florida, Ford died at his own hand.
While I normally tsk at people who talk during movies, I was lucky enough to end up near a group of Yiddish scholars who really knew their stuff. This completed print was something of a dream. “I’ve never seen this bit!” was excitedly murmured multiple times.
As one of the children sang a nursery rhyme, an older woman behind me whispered, “my mother used to sing that to me!”
There was also a little criticism at some of the Yiddish translation.
“That’s not what that really means!” a man fumphered.
“I know,” his friend sighed back, and even though I couldn’t see him I knew he was shrugging with a “whaddyagonnado” on his face. (Fact is you get the same with the subtitles at any movie, but with so few people speaking Yiddish, it feels a little extra important to get everything right.)
At one close-up of a counselor one of the gang behind me piped-up, “Oh, I think that’s Mrs. Kowarski.”
I don’t know if he knew her, or had read about her, or heard stories, or maybe was just telling a private joke. And I may even have the name wrong, as I was jotting notes of what was on the screen, not what the voices behind me were saying.
Naturally, when the movie ended they were gone and I couldn’t follow up. Maybe I imagined it. The whole afternoon felt a bit like a séance anyway.