Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer wasn’t happy with the musical Barbra Streisand made from his story “Yentl.” Singer, an immigrant Polish Jew, nonetheless permitted director Paul Mazursky to film this 1972 novel. The risk paid off. Mazursky and co-writer Roger Simon may miss a few vital points in exploring this multilayered work, but the spirit of the book is served. This is a stunning film, richly detailed and brilliantly acted.
Set in New York in 1949, the film stars the underrated Ron Silver as Herman Broder, a Polish Jew who escaped the Holocaust because a Gentile peasant, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein), hid him for three years in her family’s hayloft. After the war, a grateful Herman married Yadwiga but took a mistress, Masha, a beautiful survivor of the camps. As played by Lena Olin (she wore the bowler in The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Masha uses her marathon sex bouts with Herman to beat back the specter of death. Olin proves herself a world-class actress, holding nothing back as she traces the arc of Masha’s hazardous mood swings.
Herman, a fatalist, loves Masha, though her passion scares him. He needs control. That’s exactly what he loses when his first wife reappears. Herman was told that Tamara (Anjelica Huston) and their two children had been executed in the camps. But Tamara survived. A visit from Tamara, a seeming ghost, to Yadwiga’s kitchen results in a scene of comic confusion. Huston has never been better, showing how the humor and pain in Tamara are inextricably linked.
Despite the subject matter, Enemies is filled with pungently funny moments. Alan King does a sharp cameo as a go-getting rabbi. But the key to the film’s power is the refusal of the characters to wallow in their tragic past. They don’t need to trade tales of the Holocaust. The horror is there in their dreams, in their eyes, in the set of their jaws. These people must make an effort at life, because without that exertion, despair might take hold. Sadly for some, it does. Mazursky has rendered the struggle of these refugees from hell with a cleareyed compassion that cuts straight to the heart.