With his 2011 film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, documentarian Joseph Dorman plumbs into something that must be challenging for people in his field: making a Man of Letters whose work has passed into history look relevant and interesting.
The Russian-born Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) is best known for his "Tevye" short stories, which formed the basis for the still revived musical warhorse Fiddler on the Roof. Although the film's packaging and marketing uses Fiddler as its hook, Dorman's documentary deals mostly with the man himself and how his writing served as an escape from the unimaginable pain that his audience - persecuted Eastern European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century - endured.
Laughing in the Darkness sails through Aleichem's eventful life in a typical Ken Burns-like manner, ultilizing a combination of expert commentaries, sepia-toned photography, vintage documentary footage and dramatic readings from the author's work. The film gives a good feel for the despairing atmosphere of late 19th century Russia, as the Jewish population is torn between the traditional, devout lifestyle of the elders and the modern, Yiddish-speaking younger generation. Although Aleichem's ambitions prompted him to marry into a wealthy family, eventually becoming a member of Kiev's Jewish bourgeois, he never lost touch with his humble beginnings and had a gift for capturing the vagaries of lower- and middle-class Jewish life with warmth and humor. Aleichem's decision to write in Yiddish, considered a vulgar language, played a huge part in establishing a voice for a people who hadn't been heard on an international stage before. He edited a Yiddish literary magazine for a time, and helped encourage Yiddish theater in Russia and (after moving to New York City in 1908) the United States.
Sholem Aleichem comprehensively goes into the career highs of the author many have dubbed the Jewish Mark Twain, but the film also doesn't shy away from the melancholy and strife of the period. It delves deeply into Aleichem's fair share of personal problems, including going bankrupt at the age of 31 and a 1908 bout with tuberculosis which left him an invalid. There's also a lot of time devoted to the turbulent, oppressed Russian Jewry of that era, one that was being cruelly eradicated by the Russian oligarchy (be prepared for lots of unsettling photos of mutilated corpses) even as the old ways were dying out. Aleichem's stories, entertaining as they were, also stood tall as a chronicle of a vanishing way of life. As one of the film's speakers observed, he was "trying to paint a portrait of a society at the same time that that society is dissolving."
Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness tells its story well, given its standard format (yep, the Ken Burns Effect gets quite the workout here). Since Aleichem's works relied so heavily on the power of his words, there's a bit of odd dissonance during frequent times the film relies on photography and film to supply the visuals. Portraits of Aleichem himself are fine, it's just a little off-putting when a character's voice is accompanied with images of real Russian Jews from that era (a personal gripe of mine, perhaps?). The director also supplies lively excerpts from Aleichem's stories, performed by actors such as Peter Riegert and Rachel Dratch in comedic Jewish accents. Although they add a lot of vitality to the film, to be honest, the actors' overly mannered tone only serves to remove the viewer from the context of that period. There's also the fact that one literature expert sports two different hair colors at various times throughout the film, but I'm willing to let that one slide.
Overall, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness is a very good example of that rare bird known as the literary documentary (besides the inevitable made-for-PBS stuff, the only other example I can think of is 1997's Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life).
New Video and Docurama bring Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness to DVD in satisfactory shape, with a 16x9 widescreen image that looks generally above-average on the newly filmed segments and excellent in its presentation of photographs and other printed materials. The film also uses a few segments from films (such as 1971's Fiddler on the Roof) presented accordingly with window- and letterboxing.
The sole audio option on this disc is the film's original soundtrack, presented in a simple but clear stereo mix with no surround effects. Don't expect anything mind-blowing, but it serves its function nicely. No subtitles are provided.
In addition to the film's Trailer, two featurettes - Making the Film (7:47) and On Sholem Aleichem (5:28) - supply a bit of background. In the former, director Joseph Dorman discusses the task of communicating a literary life on film. The text-only About Docurama and trailers from the company's other releases (such as Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance) round out the extras.
"Tradition... TRADITION!" If it's not particularly outstanding, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness offers a good, PBS-like overview of a towering figure in Jewish literature. Fans of the profiles of authors Louisa May Alcott and Harper Lee offered recently on TV's American Masters would also enjoy this compelling portrait of the father of Tevye. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.