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Gothic Yiddish Plague meets TB Screen Crusade


Edgar Ulmer, the prolific and peripatetic cinema director spent much of his career as an exile, first from Europe and then from Hollywood. He is lately famous for his shtetl dystopia פישקע דער קרומער (Fishke the Lame, released under the English title The Light Ahead), the third of his four Yiddish films. His glory days included various production roles for F.W. Murnau, collaboration with Billy Wilder and other Berlin wunderkinder on Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, 1929), and stints with theater icons Rudolf Schildkraut and Max Reinhardt. His lone studio feature, the 1934 The Black Cat, produced before his fall from grace, was a haunted gothic allegory replete with Art Deco sets and expressionistic effects, the first motion picture to cast Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff together. For actors’ timing, Ulmer conducted using a symphonic baton.

By the mid-1930s he was a full-time freelancer, and among his work for hire projects were various public health-themed projects including a series of film shorts commissioned by the National Tuberculosis Association. The TB films’ overlap with his Yiddish output sprinkles disease vectors throughout the Fishke screenplay. In Ulmer’s world, even a scant pot of chicken soup becomes a subtle scene of horror; sunflower seeds may sow impending doom; and a moonlit swim becomes a death sentence.

In the eerie erev shabbes dinner table scene from Fishke, the danger signifiers of sharing noodles from a communal dish amplify through both sight and non-verbal sound. Closeups reveal spoons converging on the soup pot and then returning for the dread double-dip; nuanced, foreboding music cues accompany camera as it zooms in and deliberately back again.

The 1939 Yiddish Fishke, based on writings by the enlightenment-minded 19th-century classic Yiddish author Mendele Moykher Sforim, culminates in a mageyfe-khasene (plague wedding), set in the midnight cemetery of Glubsk, a frighteningly backward shtetl whose name literally means “Foolsville.” Scenes of superstitious desperation unfold after an ignored series of dire warnings leave the town stricken by a cholera outbreak – modern medicine and public hygiene having been neglected by traditional makhers in charge.

The erev shabbes chicken soup scene from Fishke der krumer [The Light Ahead] (1939)

Some Ulmer scholarship argues that the engulfing cholera in Fishke symbolizes the imminent threat of Nazism. Between the date of the production wrap and the film’s release, Hitler had invaded Poland. Still, on many levels it seems that the epidemic in this story is just that. And while cholera and tuberculosis are very different communicable scourges, mutual influences abound between this Yiddish feature and Ulmer’s TB films, co-sponsored variously by, among others, the National Urban League, Works Progress Administration (WPA), Veteran’s Administration, US Office of Indian Affairs, and Tuskegee Institute.

Working with interconnected crews and cast, Ulmer and screenwriter-spouse Shirley Castle Ulmer (sometimes billed as Sherle Castle) pioneered independent cinema before “indies” really existed. Aspiring to some higher purpose and expression even in the most bare-bones industrial projects, Ulmer’s macabre lighting effects and set design in Fishke and even some of the minimal-budget TB shorts harken back to his German Expressionist roots.

Once dubbed “The Shtetl of Dr. Caligari” by the Village Voice, Fishke was not merely creepy. It was also distributed as both די קליאַטשע (The Mare), a nod to the literary work of Mendele, and, in more optimistic American terms as The Light Ahead. It dealt with dignity as well as ignorance. On the one hand there is the struggle to bring science to bear upon impending epidemic; on the other is the love story of an indigent couple who are wed as the kholerye (cholera) bride and groom. They in turn choose to escape from a stigmatized fate, and leave their benighted birthplace for the progressive city of Odessa, with its promise of medical miracles. The secret way out for disabled Fishke and his beloved, beautiful blind Hodl is provided by the character Mendele himself with his horse-drawn book wagon.

The film’s more hopeful-sounding English title corresponds in tone to the didacticism of Ulmer’s half-dozen TB Association shorts, which also share so many of the Yiddish movie’s contagion motifs. By contrast, Ulmer’s first Yiddish film גרינע פעלדער (Green Fields, 1937) was a box-office hit full of sun-drenched optimism, depicting a yeshive bokher departing from dim study hall to find fellow yidn in the bucolic Eastern European countryside, all filmed in summer apple orchards of New Jersey. Fishke likewise begins with sweeping New Jersey–as-Eastern Europe rural vistas and Reb Mendele’s meditation on the sweetness of nature, but he and his cart-horse encounter close-minded, cynical forces as soon as they approach the gloom of Glubsk.

Of Ulmer’s six TB shorts, three were filmed on-location among targeted specific “minority” audience communities of Tuskegee, Alabama; San Antonio, Texas; and Window Rock, Arizona. These pieces featured richly ornamented local music and dance despite bare-bones B&W production values. Their relevance and resonance in 2020 is crushing, as each one emphasized the unique vulnerability of impoverished, hard-working communities of color to the ravages of a deadly, highly-infectious respiratory disease.

Let My People Live (1938), the 15-minute short devoted to African Americans, opens with an introductory warning to Tuskegee students about their particular susceptibility to TB: “The reason is, the great majority of our homes are poor, and our work is hard, and we don’t have money to get treated when we should….It can be cured, but only if treatment is started soon enough.” While antibiotics only became available as a direct cure several years later, the TB Association and partners aimed for numerous public health goals via show and tell. Let My People Live also likely helped propel Ulmer’s 1939 nearly feature-length quasi-musical Moon Over Harlem.

His Mexican-American based Cloud in the Sky, made in the same year as Fishke and Moon Over Harlem, has near-exact lines as in the Yiddish movie. The Texas-based picture, filmed in both Spanish and English, has a soliloquy that triple-tasks. The Catholic padre tells Consuelo (whose name means “Consolation”) that while the church may console her, “God has made us to understand and to know. He has given us intelligence. He has given us science.” Or as Mendele puts it, in mameloshn, “God created Man and gave him wisdom. מיט חכמה און וויסנשאַפט דאַרף מען לעבן אויף דער וועלט.”

Native Americans are the focus of Ulmer’s Another to Conquer (1941), notable for its footage of sacred ritual dances. The protagonist traditional Navajo elder is at first scornful of an infected young man who goes away for TB sanatorium treatment, calling him lazy since his symptoms have not yet worsened. Once he sees another “strong” family member cough up blood and collapse while working a community sheep dip, then the stark truth of medical diagnosis gets through to the tough old patriarch. He even commits himself to a sanatorium to stop the spread.

Let My People Live (1938)
Cloud in the Sky (1939)
Another to Conquer (1941)

By comparison, the scoffing Orthodox council in Fishke never listens when confronted by Mendele and others advocating to fund a hospital in their town that “פאַרמאָגט ניט איין דאָקטער (has not a single doctor)” and to clean garbage from the streets and pestilence from the river, which is “פול מיט עיפּוש (teeming with stench/plague).” The frum leader replies stubbornly: “God is my healer. I won’t give you a cent.” Even once cholera hits full force, Mendele’s exhortations still fall on deaf ears.

In the scripted world of the National Tuberculosis Association, the poor are sponsored for treatment because “all people in an enlightened community know that tuberculosis is not only a personal misfortune but that it threatens every household. TB knows no lines of race, religion or social status, so people gladly support a sanatorium knowing that thereby their own children will be protected.”

In Fishke, Mendele, representing Ulmer’s own morality stance, shows compassion for the shtetl’s afflicted and underprivileged — as seen also in the tuberculosis vignettes (though with an overall air of condescension, typical of “noble savage” period pieces). And while in Ulmer’s TB films it is the African American pastor, Catholic priest, and Navajo elder who wisely bring the public health message home, in Fishke Jewish religious authorities are corrupt self-dealers who refuse to support scientific advances or allot resources for prevention even in the face of catastrophic evidence. Even some of the proste yidn are not onboard in time to save themselves: Hodl’s best friend Gitl leads a group of meydlekh taking a forbidden dip in the river on erev shabbes, mocking “foolish Fishke” when he arrives finding them already splashing away. Too late to keep them safe from danger as they bathe in the pestilence, he cries out: “אין טייַך איז אַ סכּנה – כאָלעריע (There’s danger in the river — cholera, as Reb Mendl told us)!” Etiology is swift. Rebellious Gitl is soon burning with fever and dies the very next day.

Each film’s idiom is an educator, reiterating that early detection and treatment are essential to improve chances of recovery (skin test and X-rays were available), that people can unknowingly spread the disease (as viewers both see and hear), and that folk remedies and patent medicines are of no use (pharmaceutical cures were not yet developed). Poignant separation scenes show family members being sent away for rest and isolation in sanatorium, from which perhaps only some will return. The TB Association, funded in part by donations to Christmas Seals and Easter Seals, made access to these places of both healing and exile affordable to all.

Good nutrition, proper sanitation, fresh air, and strict bed rest were provided to give patients’ lungs a chance to heal themselves. And some were indeed cured this way, even in the pre-antibiotic years. My own Viennese-born mother, Lilian Sicular, spent well over a year of her young childhood in several tuberculosis sanatoria in the Swiss Alps before her family’s escape from Europe.

Photo, provided courtesy of Lilian Sicular, showing Lilian seated (child TB sanatorium patient) & her older sister Anita (visiting sanatorium) standing, 1939.

Let My People Live is graced with a soundtrack of spirituals sung by the Tuskegee Choir, including “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” as a young man’s bus carries him home to his dying mother. Dialogue dispels the idea that tuberculosis is inherited or inevitable within families, rejecting, too, the notion that “roots, herbs, and teas” can help fight “consumption.” Ulmer’s finale here is Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, Western classical music signaling the triumph of Western medicine.

As a Moravian-born, German-speaking Jew who grew up in Vienna attending a Habsburg-era Jesuit school, Ulmer’s adolescent experience might have drawn him to this subject. His father served and died in the Austro-Hungarian army during the Great War, but of infection rather than in battle. The teenaged Edgar was self-reportedly traumatized for life by being sent to identify the body.

Cautionary scenes of silent disease transmission recur throughout Cloud in the Sky (named for the appearance of a tubercular spot on an x-rayed lung). Fleeting shots of infected spread include a daughter in denial who cleans dishes by merely wiping down utensils, rather than washing the flatware, and who plants a kiss on her father’s forehead. Later on, her worried old widower dad explains to a habitually spitting family friend that expectoration is both disgusting and dangerous. Fortunately, after calling out this “rotten” act, he has a helpful booklet to share with the ignorant offender.

Similarly in Fishke der Krumer, Fishke and his romantic rival, Getsel Ganef, engage in a seed-spitting contest, but there is no instructive resolution of this behavior. Fishke also shows our title character sharing saliva with his chaste love interest, first in bites from the same apple and, later, as Fishke and Hodl swap kissed pinkies in a lovers’ vow.

Cloud in the Sky contains authentic if clichéd musical repertoire, starting with a Mexican hat dance and finishing with a stilted serenade of “Cielito Lindo” (coopted in my childhood as the Frito Bandito song), played outside the window for a young woman still lying in bed as her release date finally approaches. As to Fishke, unlike the TB films where music and dance occur in the context of joyous celebration or proud ritual, here the wedding scenes are a stressed nightmare that include a mix of folklore and cheap fakery, joining together realistically-choreographed dance sequences at the unhappy simkhe with onscreen “musicians” who only pretend to play their instruments. Actual klezmer tunes are piped onto the soundtrack from commercial 78s.

Ulmer continued directing TB films throughout 1940, including a procedural training film, Diagnostic Procedures in Tuberculosis, for medical professionals, complete with bargain basement Bauhaus-style geometric chiaroscuro for visual interest in bland office backdrops.

Yet another illustrates a fictional young couple’s odyssey of diagnosis and treatment from health department contact tracing, to the ultimate social distancing of an indefinite sanatorium stay (this film’s scarcely-reassuring title, They Do Come Back), followed by reassignment to less strenuous jobs upon their return to society and families.

Finally there’s the odd semi-animated gem, Goodbye Mr. Germ, starring a wackily wise lab-coated human with Dr. Doolittle propensity who learns to talk with the tubercular bacillus under his microscope. Goofy live-action sequences feature our benign mad scientist amongst his menagerie as well as hyper-stereotypic wife and kids. Low-budget / grim-humor script bonus: Edgar Ulmer directs a morbid in-joke in a sequence describing “dear little Edgar,” a boy infected by none other than his asymptomatic Aunt Matilda with her tea tray.

Ulmer also made an oblique yet unmistakable “disease” reference, as well as two remarkable in-jokes, in the fascinating 1940 feature אַמעריקאַנער שדכן (Americaner Schadchen [sic], or American Matchmaker), his fourth and final Yiddish film, and the only one set in his own place and time: New York City. The handsome, successful yet somehow unmarriageable title character Nat Silver of Manhattan’s swank Central Park West assumes the identity of Nat Gold for the Bronx’s bustling Grand Concourse. The sophisticated quasi-screwball comedy’s subtext is not communicable illness, but rather a tendency seen as inherited “mishpokhe feler” — a permanent-bachelor condition that “runs in the family,” taboo to mention directly, yet diagnosed in dialogue by both Nat’s own mother and his would-be girlfriend.

The film contains numerous in-references, including “Original Story” credited to “G. Heimo,” none other than Edgar Ulmer’s openly gay, European-born cousin Gustav Heimo (or as in his credit for Production Manager, Gustav Horowitz).

For my research on the Yiddish Celluloid Closet, I interviewed Shirley Castle Ulmer who revealed in 1995 that beloved “Uncle Gus” was in fact the basis of the movie’s Old World “Uncle Shaya” matchmaker character, a character role also played by leading man Leo Fuchs. His evasive thoroughly modern matchmaker guise is variously described as “artistic” and “musical” — both contemporary euphemisms for homosexuality — as well as being repeatedly associated both on-camera and on-soundtrack with all manner of feygele tropes. According to Shirley, this lighthearted approach to a forbidden subject reflects Ulmer’s pattern of sympathizing with outsider figures or social outcasts.

Diagnostic Procedures in Tuberculosis (1940)
They Do Come Back (1940)
Goodbye Mr. Germ (1940)
Americaner Schadchen (1940)

One final link between Ulmer’s last Yiddish film and his canon of actual contagion comes in a fleeting yet unmistakable inside joke harking all the way back to his 1933 hygiene feature Damaged Lives, a Canadian government-backed cautionary tale of venereal disease in high society circles. I had already been lecturing on the Yiddish Celluloid Closet for almost a decade when I caught a screening of this rarity, and was astonished to hear a word-for-word line quote. In the VD film it came in original posh accent rather than what turns out to be a seven-year-later Yinglish punch line for its Americaner Schadchen takeoff. The line echoes across movies: “I’ve eaten pickles and radishes, and I’m afraid it’ll harm the baby.” The 1940 quip is delivered over the phone to Nat Silver’s iconoclastic sister Elvie — portrayed by none other than Anna Guskin, earlier cast in Fishke as Hodl’s best friend Gitl whose Shabbes-defying fatal swim party became her doom. The actress was also daughter of Hebrew Actors Union head Reuben Guskin, and is listed as an Assistant Director for Matchmaker as well as Fishke (sharing A.D. credit with Wolf Mercur, who played villainous Getsel Ganef spitting seeds alongside Fishke, then a hilariously manic PR flack for his publicity-shy matchmaker boss, where Wolf/William also earned screen mention for lyrics). Unlike the Ulmers, these actor/crew members actually spoke Yiddish. Notably though, this swan song Yiddish film for Ulmer, made once WWII was already raging in Europe, contains idiomatic American Yinglish aplenty, uncharacteristic in the earlier heyday of international distribution, but perhaps a reflection of the recently-vanished export market for Yiddish movies.

The years 1940 and 1941 marked the respective dates of Ulmer’s last films in Yiddish and public health genres, wrapping up prior to Pearl Harbor. The war, so utterly calamitous for European Jewry, hit the Yiddish-speaking world especially hard. Meanwhile, military objectives in the US helped speed cooperation in bringing penicillin into widespread use, making both tuberculosis and venereal disease medically manageable for the masses by the mid-1940s. Edgar Ulmer moved on to a postwar career that included the classical music feature Carnegie Hall and his iconic film noir Detour. Back in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he had directed his first TB film, a now-notorious classified medical study in a separate “public health” division had begun in 1932 (the year prior to Ulmer’s Canadian VD film Damaged Lives). The now-notorious “Tuskegee Experiment” continued to let unsuspecting African Americans go untreated for syphilis over the course of forty years, despite the antibiotic cure widely available about a decade into the study. This real-life horror story only ended due to public disclosure in 1972, the same year as Ulmer’s death.

An earlier version of this post appeared in July 2020 in The Forward.