Restored Yiddish classics revive days of yore

Edgar G. Ulmer earned a place in the pantheon of Yiddish culture in America — even though he didn’t speak the language.

As storm clouds gathered over Europe’s Jews, the Bohemian-born, Vienna-educated director made a trio of accomplished low-budget films in rural New Jersey with New York Yiddish theater actors.

Those late ’30s black-and-white classics — “Green Fields” (“Grine Felder”), “The Light Ahead” (“Di Klyatshe”) and “American Matchmaker” (“Amerikaner Shadchan”) — were restored by the National Center for Jewish Film a decade or so ago and made the rounds of Jewish film festivals.

They will return to the Bay Area for rare screenings as part of “Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man From Planet B,” a retrospective of the director’s wide-ranging oeuvre, that runs through Saturday, April 2, at the Pacific Film Archive theater on the U.C. Berkeley campus.

“The Light Ahead,” the least known of the three, was scripted by Chaver Paver from his unproduced play, “Fishke der Krumer.” The play, in turn, was adapted from the 19th-century novel of the same name and other writings by Mendele Mokher Sforim.

In a nod to its author, the wisest character in the Jewish village of Glubsk (which translates as “Fools’ Town”) is Mendele the book peddler, warmly and winningly played by Isidore Cashier. He proves a sage counselor and good friend to the lame beggar Fishke (a deferential, endearing David Opatoshu).

Fishke is in love with an earnest blind woman, Hodel (the lovely Helen Beverly), who ekes out a living pulling feathers from chickens. Given their minimal incomes, their prospects of marrying are remote.

Aside from its importance in propelling the story, their relationship serves as a prism through which we view the shtetl’s social hierarchy, as well as the Jewish community’s embrace of both prayer and superstition.

Meanwhile, a debate ensues among the elders over whether to allot Glubsk’s surplus of 100,000 rubles for psalm readers and prayer groups, or a new hospital. Their failure to choose the latter will eventually prove catastrophic when a cholera epidemic breaks out.

“The Light Ahead” has the feel of a fable handed down across the years, and as such its importance grows as the number of Yiddish speakers from that era dwindles.

Although well-shot and fascinatingly acted, the film is best savored as an historical and artistic touchstone rather than as entertainment. The pacing is glacial by today’s standards, thanks to the large number of static, two-person conversations (necessitated by the paucity of the budget).

The film’s optimistic title and the bizarre turn of events that gives Hodel and Fishke an unexpected shot at happiness together, promise the beginning of a modern Jewish way of life removed from the cloistered, closed-minded world of the shtetl.

“The Light Ahead” may celebrate fresh starts, but it’s impossible to see the movie that way today. Even though it was shot in New Jersey with Jewish performers well beyond the reach of the Nazi death machine, the Holocaust shadows every frame.

The filmmaker’s daughter, Arianné Ulmer Cipes, will introduce the April 2 shows of “The Light Ahead” and “American Matchmaker.” Her documentary, “Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen,” will play the San Francisco International Film Festival in April.

“Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man From Planet B” retrospective runs Fridays and Saturdays, through April 2, at Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. “The Light Ahead” screens at 7 p.m., “American Matchmaker” 9:15 p.m. April 2. Tickets: (510) 642-5249 or

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.