Directors: Jacob Ben-Ami and Edgar G. Ulmer
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most people who have heard of Edgar Ulmer know him as the director of the no-budget noir classic Detour (1945). But Ulmer, a Jewish emigré from Austria-Hungary, was well known to Jewish audiences for his Yiddish-language films. Many of these films were adapted from the thriving Yiddish theatre scene, with creative teams moving easily between the two worlds. Ulmer’s codirector, Jacob Ben-Ami, cofounded a Yiddish theatre troupe in Odessa, Russia, with playwright Peretz Hirshbein, who had a hit with Green Fields on stage and whose fame was such that he gets top billing in the film’s opening credits. Another Poverty Row effort from Ulmer, Green Fields channels that peculiar Ulmer magic, supported by Ben-Ami’s experience with the play, to elevate this gentle comedy into something more rueful and revealing.
A rabbinic student, Levi Yitskhok (Michael Gorrin), leaves his studies in search of some kind of truth not to be found in his books, including what he calls “better Jews.” This prototypical Wandering Jew walks for many miles, signaled by his figure superimposed on changing landscapes. Eventually, he comes upon a 14-year-old boy, Avrom Yankov (Herschel Bernardi, in his first screen role), who brings him to his parents’ cottage, where he lives with them and his big brother Hersh-Ber (Saul Levine) and older sister Tsine (Helen Beverly). His father and mother, Dovid-Noich (Isidore Cashier) and Rokhl (Anna Appel), are thrilled to have a scholar visit and believe it will bring great honor to their family to be his hosts. Despite being offered a permanent teaching post, the reluctant Levi Yitskhok is not sure this village offers what he is looking for.
Nonetheless, he is persuaded to stay until after the High Holidays. His presence arouses the envy of Dovid-Noich and Rokhl’s neighbors, Elkone (Max Vodnoy) and Gitl (Lea Noemi), who conspire to house the “rebbe” themselves. Soon, the situation is complicated as Elkone and Gitl try to make a match between the rebbe and their daughter, Stera (Dena Drute), who is in love with Hersh-Ber. While the parents bicker and scheme, Tsine mounts a campaign of her own to learn how to read and write and, incidentally, capture Levi Yikskhok’s heart.
The opening, which shows peasants at work in the fields, must have caused pangs of nostalgia in European Jews in the audience who came to America after being forced off their lands. The equivalent of Ozu’s “pillow shots” interrupt the film at various junctures, thus glorifying the beauty and simplicity of rural life. The countryside is a place of health in this film, a place of light, contrasting with the dark synagogue the rebbe left at the beginning of the film, illuminated only by a single candle. Levi Yitskhok literally moves from darkness into light when he leaves, and the obsession the film has with finding the “true Jews” and being a good Jew isn’t one I entirely understand, but affirm as something I heard constantly when I was growing up.
The script and direction contrast the shy asceticism of Levi Yitskhok with rugged rail-splitter Hersh-Ber and the energetic Tsine and Stera, both unabashed flirts who run barefoot all day. Yet, healthful surroundings aren’t a total balm or the only need a Jew has. Dovid-Noich says that when he went to bury his father in an urban cemetery, he didn’t want to return to the countryside. The lack of educational opportunities in rural areas was certainly painful for many Jews—the characters constantly refer to themselves as ignorant—but a greater hardship was eviction from the Pale, discussed in the stories of Sholem Aleichem that formed the basis for Fiddler of the Roof, which broke up Jewish communities and made remnant populations feel isolated and vulnerable.
The overall shooting style and tone put me in mind of Soviet or communist Chinese propaganda showing the joyful, industrious peasant plowing furrows, planting potatoes, and chopping wood. Indeed, the closing shot of the film moves from Tsine and Levi Yitskhok walking past a plow in the foreground to a close-up of the plow itself. Yet these foreground shots are used to greater effect in other ways. For example, Tsine and Rokhl are shown preparing each course of a Sabbath meal at the wood-stoked hearth and taking turns carrying the food to the table in the background where the men are eating. There didn’t seem to be any place settings for the women, so this scene, while quite beautifully lit and a lovely slice of life, shows the unequal gender roles of a traditional Jewish household, an aspect of Jewish life that is reinforced when Tsine gives Levi Yitskhok an unpleasant surprise by showing him that she can write her name on a slate.
The characters in this film derive from familiar Yiddish theatre types—giddy girls, gossiping and contentious wives and their blowhard husbands, and the painfully pious rebbe. The acting tends to be broad, as many of the actors were used to playing to live audiences, and Bernardi, in particular, is physically awkward, his too-long sleeves—no doubt meant to show they were hand-me-downs—giving him a scarecrow-like appearance.
Close-ups and two-shots are used too sparingly, but when they are, they really help the actors deepen their performances. I was particularly struck by Isidore Cashier’s emotional depth when talking about life in the countryside and the easy rapport he shared with Anna Appel that had me believing they were a long-time married couple. Helen Beverly is very appealing, and watching her watch Levi Yitskhok, curious at first, and then with more longing, made for a smooth and believable transition. Michael Gorrin didn’t always seem to know what to do—he walked around the cottage and barnyard in a pointlessly random way and his embarrassed looks were little more than mugging. Dena Drute and Saul Levine had a lot of chemistry, and I enjoyed their robust playing together. It’s a shame they didn’t have more screen time, as Tsine and Levi Yitskhok didn’t make a very riveting couple.
I have to say a word about the score and arrangements of Russian composer, conductor, choral director, and pianist Vladimir Heifetz. Heifetz composed some of the music for Eisenstein’s powerhouse film Battleship Potemkin (1925), the first of only three films he worked on during a very successful classical music career. As with that film, he demonstrates his ability to storytell with music, filling Green Fields with charmingly Jewish melodies and colors for the changing moods of the script—lively and sunny in the countryside, driving when accompanying work scenes, brooding and solemn in the synagogue and during the Sabbath meal. Heifetz’s contributions take Green Fields to a higher, more artistic level.
Green Fields was restored in 1978 by the National Center for Jewish Film, which has made it available on DVD.