• The National Center for Jewish Film, Brandeis University
  • Green Fields, codirected by Edgar G. Ulmer in 1937, screens from 35-millimeter on Sunday at 7 PM.

On Sunday at 7 PM Doc Films kicks off the season’s most esoteric retrospective, a ten-film series of Yiddish-language films made between 1937 and 1940. Wittily titled “Schmaltzywood,” the series focuses exclusively on U.S. productions, although Yiddish-language films were made in about a half-dozen countries, including Russia, Germany, and Poland. (The Dybbuk, one of the most popular Yiddish films in the years covered by the Doc series, was a Polish production.) These films generally have more in common with each other than they do with other films from the countries where they were produced, as they drew on the much of the same source material. In fact several of the movies playing in “Schmaltzywood” take place in countries other than the U.S. Green Fields, screening this Sunday, is set in an eastern European farming community, and Overture to Glory, which concludes the series on December 7, takes place in Warsaw. Like the Yiddish-language theater that directly preceded it, Yiddish cinema might be described a national art movement without a nation.

Considering how little American-produced Yiddish films factor into discussions of American movie history, the movies in this series might as well have come from a different country. And yet at least two films playing this fall—Two Sisters and Motl the Operator—concern the assimilation of Jewish immigrants into American life (had this series covered a lengthier period, the programmers might have included the 1932 Sholem Asch adaptation Uncle Moses), and three of them were directed or codirected by a recognizable Hollywood filmmaker, Edgar G. Ulmer. Best known for the classic noir Detour, the Austrian emigre (and sometime assistant director to F.W. Murnau) Ulmer made four Yiddish-language films on the east coast during a period of self-imposed exile from Hollywood. Green Fields, the first of these productions, became one of the most successful Yiddish films ever made.

Shot over five days for $8,000 (about one-third as much as the producers had hoped), Green Fields was filmed almost entirely outdoors—a rare accomplishment for 1937. The film is considered to be one of the most formally accomplished in the Yiddish-language canon. According to J. Hoberman’s critical history Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds, Ulmer’s subsequent Yiddish production, The Singing Blacksmith (screening at Doc on Sunday 10/19), comes “closer than Green Fields to the expressionistic noirs and thrillers Ulmer would make in Hollywood during the 1940s.” The film differs from most other Yiddish-language films in that it places little emphasis on religious life. Indeed the 1906 stage play on which it’s based was “one of the first Yiddish plays to offer a psychological study of physical passion,” as the title character finds himself tempted by his neighbor’s wife.

Beneath the sensual pleasures on display, there’s a dark subtext to the “Schmaltzywood” series. The period covered by the series, of course, comes just before the onset of the Holocaust, making these films documents of a cultural tradition that would be decimated within years of their release.