This paper was written for Janet Bergstrom’s Research Methods & Resources in Film & Television course (FTV 200) in December 2014. It incorporates archival research into a comparative analysis of two films that present vastly different interpretations of the mythical figure of the “Wandering Jew.” I delivered a presentation based on my research for this paper at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center as part of its Sunday Symposium education program in October 2015.
The myth of the Wandering Jew has existed for centuries. Although there are different variations of the myth, the narrative is generally consistent: a Jew wronged or insulted Jesus shortly before the latter’s crucifixion. As punishment, the Jew was cursed to wander the world eternally until Jesus’s second coming. Nineteenth-century artist Gustave Doré immortalized the image of the Wandering Jew in a series of paintings, and the mythical figure had numerous incarnations in literature and theater. Naturally, the archetype extended to the medium of cinema as well. Although the myth itself is essentially antisemitic, it has been manifested in various ways, not always necessarily negative in their attitudes toward Jews. Patricia Erens discusses the Wandering Jew as a movie character archetype in her book The Jew in American Cinema. According to Erens, the Wandering Jew has carried multiple connotations, from sinner to historical metaphor to “bogey man.”1 In this essay, I discuss two films, both entitled The Wandering Jew and made in 1933, that reflect the Wandering Jew archetype in significantly different ways. One is a British production, directed by Maurice Elvey; the other, an American film in the Yiddish language, directed by George Roland. Coming from quite different backgrounds at a time significant in modern Jewish history, the histories of both films, from initial reception to later repurposing, and the ways they use the Wandering Jew figure illustrate a pivotal point in time for Jews in cinema in terms of their onscreen depiction as well as their identity as an audience. My focus herein is limited to the films’ histories in the United States, with particular emphasis on the American Jewish community.
The year 1933 was one of the last to see Jews directly depicted on mainstream American movie screens. Sound film was becoming ubiquitous, and the Production Code was gaining strength. Both of these factored in “the disappearance of Jews qua Jews,” according to Thomas Doherty’s phrasing.2 Of course, the other major development of 1933 affecting Jewry was Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany, which marked the beginning of the antisemitic Nazi government.
“With the coming of sound the Jew is largely equated with George Sidney who spoke broken English” in American films, writes Erens. “It is no wonder that the Jewish community objected to such portrayals and was thus to some degree responsible for the disappearance of the Jew on the screen.”3 The Production Code stipulated fair representation of nationalities and races, and the desire to avoid Jewish stereotypes helped to make explicit screen depictions of Jews rare. Doherty traces the narrative of the vanishing “Jews qua Jews” through four films that played in American cinemas between 1933 and 1935. Two of these films were the 1933 productions entitled The Wandering Jew.4
The Wandering Jew legend had been adapted for the cinema multiple times before Elvey’s 1933 version; prior versions included Georges Méliès’s 1904 short film Le juif errant. More directly, Elvey’s film was based on a play by E. Temple Thurston that drew on the legend. Elvey himself had directed a silent film adaptation of that play in 1923. The original British release of the film ran 110 minutes;5 the version I was able to view only runs 78 minutes, and its source is unknown. I must disclose, then, that my analysis of the film itself is limited to the material extant in the shorter version.
Elvey’s film of 1933 presents the myth in a straightforward chronology. The title character is Matathias, played by Conrad Veidt. In the beginning of the film, Matathias’s married lover, Judith, is gravely ill and calls for “the Nazarene” to heal her. Matathias asks Jesus, soon to be crucified, what to do; Jesus responds that returning Judith to her husband will cure her. Incensed at the thought of relinquishing Judith, Matathias denounces Jesus as a charlatan and spits on him. Jesus then tells him, “I will not wait for you, but you shall wait for me until I come to you again.” Matathias realizes that he has thus been cursed with immortality, forbidden to die until Jesus forgives him for his sin.
The following segments of the film depict the Jew’s sojourns as time passes. In 1150, during the First Crusade, he takes the guise of a mysterious knight, seducing a lady who becomes dismayed when she discovers his identity (“To think that mine have touched these lips that spat on Christ!”). In 1290 he is a merchant in Palermo, Sicily. After the death of his young son, his wife joins a convent, bringing herself closer to the salvation that continues to elude him. Although he is upset to lose her to the source of his misery, he nonetheless lets her go.
The final segment of the film takes place in 1560 in Seville, during the Spanish Inquisition. The Jew is now a kind doctor who treats the poor and outcasts of society. One outcast he treats is a prostitute, Olalla (Peggy Ashcroft), whom he helps to redeem. The Inquisitors use Olalla in order to condemn the doctor; in particular, a comment he makes to her criticizing the Inquisition as un-Christ-like (“It would go hard with Christ to know his own if he should come again”) draws their wrath. At his trial, the doctor denounces the Inquisition’s brutality. “The spirit of your Christ is nearer to my heart as I stand here, a Jew, than ever it could be to you,” he states. He is sentenced to burn at the stake, but Jesus finally returns to claim his soul before the flames reach him. His sin against Jesus forgiven, the Jew can at last end his wandering.
It is clear to see where Jews would take offense at such a film. Much of the film depicts the Jew in a negative light. He is adulterous, avaricious, and haughty. As Maurice Kann noted, “the character delineation mapped for Veidt paints him in cynical and almost brutal colors, and, because of that, may arouse Jewish opposition.”6 It did. Despite a proud ad campaign marketing it as a prestige film (“The successor to ‘Ben-Hur’”) and acquisition for distribution by MGM,7 the film upset American Jewish viewers and organizations, who voiced their protests to Joseph Breen.8 The MPPDA was thus wary of approving the film, and MGM withdrew the film from the Code certification process in September 1934.9 The film opened in independent U.S. theaters, distributed by Olympic Pictures, in 1935 in a version that was cut “to meet with the objections of religious groups.”10 The precise material cut from the original release version is not readily identifiable in available printed sources, although the character listing for the film includes Pontius Pilate, played by Basil Gill, and another character named Rachel in “Phase I” of the movie,11 and these characters are absent in the shorter version, so it is reasonably certain that the film originally contained at least additional scenes in its initial segment set in Jerusalem.
The heart of the matter, though, lies deeper than simply a negative portrayal of Jewish characters; the fundamental presentation of the Jew in Elvey’s film is not one with which Jews can readily identify. At its very core, The Wandering Jew is presented from a Christian worldview: the Jew sins against Jesus and spends over a millennium atoning for this sin. True, elements of the film address persecution of Jews, enough to merit revisiting by Jewish film producers a few years later, as will be discussed later in this essay. However, the Jewish figures in The Wandering Jew are not granted agency as Jews. The Jew’s redemption is of a Christian nature; he is a figure serving the ultimate end of reinforcing a Christian moral. This is not unlike the conversion to Christianity of the titular Jewish hero of Ben-Hur, to which The Wandering Jew was compared in its ad campaign. The presence of noted anti-Nazi Veidt as the title character indicates sympathy toward Jews as victims of persecution, and at least one writer interprets the film as taking a stand against antisemitism and prejudice in general.12 The Jew’s climactic speech against the Inquisition is indeed powerful, but from a standpoint focusing on Jewish content, it is mild. The signature image of the speech in that film is a high-angle shot of Matathias looking up at a sculpture of Jesus on the cross. The Jew’s stance against the Inquisition goes hand in hand with his finally coming to understand Jesus. Compare this resolution to that of the title character in Jew Süss (Lothar Mendes, 1934), also played by Veidt. The Jew of Süss seeks no Christian salvation. He too faces death, but he faces it as a Jew, proclaiming the Shema — “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!” (Deuteronomy 6:4) — in Hebrew. In his dying gesture, he publicly professes his adherence to Judaism. The Wandering Jew may end in the salvation of its title character, but it is not on Jewish terms, and it does little for the plight of the Jewish people.
Before Elvey’s film was released, work on another, radically different interpretation of the Wandering Jew myth began in the United States. “It was in partial response to [the] gradual disappearance of Jewish themes in Hollywood cinema that independent Yiddish filmmaking arose” in the early 1930s, Erens writes.13 In July 1933, Herman Ross established a new production company for making American Yiddish films.14 The company, called Jewish American Film Arts (JAFA), announced plans to make “a series of talkies in Yiddish and English dealing with current problems of Jewish life in Germany.”15 Ultimately only the first of the planned films was made: a film in Yiddish entitled Der Vanderer Yid, or The Wandering Jew, directed by George Roland, opened the week of October 20, 1933.
Roland’s film was considered non-extant at the time J. Hoberman wrote his comprehensive book on Yiddish cinema, Bridge of Light,16 but a majority of the film has survived and was subsequently restored by the National Center for Jewish Film in 1999. It is unclear exactly how long the film was originally. A Motion Picture Herald review lists its running time as 90 minutes,17 while a Film Daily review lists it as 68 minutes.18 Perhaps different cuts were exhibited during the film’s initial run, although there is no apparent evidence to support that claim directly. The 68-minute running time seems more likely, since the NCJF’s preface to the movie only mentions portions of the first reel as non-extant, and its presentation of the remainder of the film runs about 53 minutes; however, the NCJF’s source could be a later edit of the film — the absence of titles makes it difficult to tell without further scrutiny. Additionally, Judith Goldberg’s filmography of Yiddish cinema cites the shorter running time.19
Yiddish stage star Jacob Ben-Ami stars as Arthur Levi, a Jewish artist and professor at the Berlin Academy of Art, who has just completed his magnum opus, a painting of his late father as a Biblically dressed Jew, entitled “The Eternal Wanderer.” Levi, who considers himself a fully integrated member of German society, is stunned to hear that the Academy has rejected his painting and fired him due to the antisemitic Nazi decrees. Aware that the Nazis are burning Jewish works of art, Levi prepares to destroy his painting, but at the last moment, the figure in the painting comes to life. The “wanderer” explains to Levi the Jews’ history of surviving through persecution, which is illustrated with excerpts from various silent films depicting Moses in Egypt, the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, the Crusades, Tsarist pogroms, and Theodor Herzl’s efforts to establish a Jewish homeland. This encounter inspires Levi to maintain hope and carry on the eternal struggle of his people. The film culminates with the rather striking image of Levi and the wanderer rising from the flames as the wanderer proclaims that the enemies of the Jews “can never extinguish the Eternal Spirit!”
The Yiddish film, like the British one, incorporates the Wandering Jew figure; Levi’s painting clearly resembles the figure from Doré’s artwork. However, Roland and screenwriter Jacob Mestel utilize the mythical figure in a manner fundamentally different from that of Elvey’s film. Whereas the British film presents a literal interpretation of the antisemitic myth, the Yiddish film uses the mythical figure symbolically, as a personification of the age-old struggle of the Jewish people, persecuted and driven from place to place. The wanderer urges the Jews to persevere in a manner reflecting a historical precedent of “transforming” the Wandering Jew “into a figure of revolt,” per Erens.20
Der Vanderer Yid is additionally noteworthy as the first American feature film to directly denounce Nazism.21 The climax of the film includes footage of a rally against Nazism held at Madison Square Garden on March 27, 1933. Roland utilized various continuity techniques in order to make documentary footage of Nazi Germany more immediate, as he did with the other stock footage in the film. Strategic lighting makes it appear that Levi and his fiancée are present at the Nazi book-burning whose documentation is intercut with shots of the actors. Jacob Ben-Ami is also superimposed onto footage of the First World War and onto the figure of Moses in a silent film excerpt in order to emphasize his character’s direct connection to Jewish history. The film’s optimism that the Jews would overcome the Nazi persecution, before the extent of that persecution became apparent, strikes a nerve in retrospect.
Despite its pioneering anti-Nazi characteristic — according to Goldberg, no other American Yiddish film addressed Nazism22 — the film did not meet with success upon its initial theatrical run. Perhaps this has something to do with the reticence of the New York State Motion Picture Board to approve the film with English subtitles, deeming the film “a propaganda picture” if its reach were to be extended beyond Jewish audiences.23 However, even among its target audience, the film did not last longer than a few weeks in cinemas.24 Although The Film Daily reviewed the film as “very fine” and noted admiration of the “lavish sets,” which were actually (apparently beyond the reviewer’s comprehension) from the stock footage,25 Variety, noting the use of stock footage, dismissed the film as “badly done” and “a cheap effort.”26 No other films in the proposed series materialized.
As the decade progressed, however, both Der Vanderer Yid and The Wandering Jew re-emerged in new contexts. As the situation of the Jews in Germany grew more dire, the Yiddish film’s anti-Nazi message became more immediately relevant to exhibitors and audiences, and not just in New York. In 1936, the film reached British Columbia under its original English title.27 Whether this was a reissue of the film or simply the first time it reached the area, or both, is not clear; however, it demonstrates that the film was shown beyond its initial theatrical reach. Der Vanderer Yid was reissued under the title Yidn in Goles, literally Jews in Exile,28 or A Jew in Exile in 1938.29 Other reissue titles included Nazi Terror and The Jew in Germany, reflecting its subject matter’s renewed significance. The movie was re-released as late as January 1941, according to notes from the AFI catalogue.30
In a development seemingly unlikely given the film’s prior negative Jewish reception, Elvey’s The Wandering Jew was reissued by the Yiddish film industry in the late 1930s as well. Filmmaker Henry Lynn recut the film, removing the material dealing with Jesus, and had it dubbed in Yiddish, releasing it as the 65-minute Dos Eybike Folk, known in English mainly as A People Eternal, in 1939.31 This was done according to an established tradition of what was known as the faryidisht film. This sort of film came about in the early 1930s as Jewish filmmakers would take existing silent films and faryidish them — meaning they would refashion them, by dubbing dialogue and adding some new footage, into Yiddish “talkies” and often advertise them as Yiddish film spectacles. George Roland was one of the main craftsmen of the genre.32
It is apparent that Lynn or the entity that commissioned him saw in the original film’s depiction of Jewish persecution a basis from which to form a pro-Jewish message. An early notice of A People Eternal’s release in the Brooklyn Eagle said that the film “offers an interpretation of the Messiah’s plea for his salvation.” The notice also, in keeping with the way faryidisht films had previously been marketed, noted the film’s “cast of 10,000” and the presence of Veidt, although it acknowledged the source of the “new” film.33 The same newspaper, in its official review of the film, noted: “‘A People Eternal’ is an impressive, timely arrival…for it is built on the theme of Jewish oppression… [The Jew’s] experiences are sketched in bold strokes through the Spanish Inquisition when the fire that was to burn him as a heretic refused to blaze.”34 The repurposed film effectively showed the plight and resilience of the Jewish people, this time on Jewish terms, without the Christian message of the original. By refashioning The Wandering Jew into A People Eternal, Lynn appropriated the literal interpretation of the Wandering Jew figure to serve the same Jewish-positive, symbolic purpose it served in Roland’s film. His endeavor was evidently a success; A People Eternal ran in theaters for at least five months.35 The same historical circumstances that renewed the significance of Roland’s film had drawn a new purpose from Elvey’s film. After Nazi treatment of the Jews had worsened, the antisemitic Wandering Jew was ultimately transformed into a statement of Jewish perseverance. Its changed form freed it from the problems that had made the original so troubling to Jewish audiences five years earlier. Thus, outside of Elvey’s intent or capabilities, his film joined Roland’s in affirming the dignity of Jews as an onscreen people and as cinema audiences.
There is one linguistic coincidence that is worth noting in the context of the two films confronting Nazism in their respective capacities. The title Dos Eybike Folk resembles Der ewige Jude, the German term for the Wandering (or Eternal, to translate accurately, emphasizing the mythical figure’s immortality) Jew, which also served as the title of a notorious, maliciously antisemitic Nazi propaganda film made in 1940. That film also appropriated segments from other films, including a Yiddish film and the pro-Jewish Hollywood film The House of Rothschild (Alfred Werker, 1934) in order to suit its agenda. (Hoberman points out this genre as the “sinister counterpart” to the faryidisht film.36) Additionally, one of Roland’s earlier films, Avrom Ovinu (1931), whose title literally translates as Abraham Our Father, was known in English as The Eternal Jew.
I will add that the content of both Wandering Jew films upon their original releases is a topic that deserves further inquiry. Nevertheless, from the evidence that is presently available, it is clear that the two films of 1933 illustrate a fascinating case in the history of Jews on film and in film. The two films initially could not have been more different in their approaches to a longstanding myth that never favored Jews, but individually as well as collectively, their stories and legacies testify to a significant point in the convergence of Jewish history and cinema history.
1. Patricia Erens, The Jew in American Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984: 13-14.
2. Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939. New York: Columbia University Press 2013: 45.
3. Erens, The Jew in American Cinema, 139.
4. Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 45-53.
5. “Jolo,” “Wandering Jew.” Variety, Dec. 5, 1933: 17.
6. Maurice Kann, “The Wandering Jew.” Motion Picture Daily, Jan. 12, 1935: 2.
7. Advertisement found in Motion Picture Daily, Sep. 4, 1934, between pages 3 and 4. The same advertisement was also printed in The Film Daily and Motion Picture Herald.
8. Joseph Breen to Will Hays, Sep. 17, 1934 (The Wandering Jew file, Production Code Administration files, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, CA; hereinafter, PCA files). Note that, as of this writing, documents for both the American Yiddish Wandering Jew and the British Wandering Jew are kept in the same file at the Herrick Library.
9. Vincent G. Hart to Maurice McKenzie, Sep. 19, 1934 (The Wandering Jew file, PCA files).
10. “‘Wandering Jew’ Being Re-edited.” The Film Daily, Oct. 19, 1934: 8.
11. John T. Soister, Conrad Veidt on Screen. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2002): 249.
12. See the biography of Veidt written by Pat Wilks Battle in Soister, Conrad Veidt on Screen, 8 and 20.
13. Erens, The Jew in American Cinema, 163-164.
14. “Herman Ross Organizes Yiddish Picture Company,” The Film Daily, July 12, 1933: 2.
15. Charles Alicoate, “Short Shots from Eastern Studios.” The Film Daily, July 27, 1933: 4.
16. J. Hoberman, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1991: 196.
17. Aaronson, “The Wandering Jew.” Motion Picture Herald, Oct. 28, 1933: 59.
18. “The Wandering Jew.” The Film Daily, Oct. 21, 1933: 4.
19. Judith N. Goldberg, Laughter Through Tears: The Yiddish Cinema. East Brunswick, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1983: 154.
20. Erens, The Jew in American Cinema, 14.
21. Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 52.
22. Goldberg, Laughter Through Tears, 70.
23. Hoberman, Bridge of Light, 197.
24. Ibid.; also “Hitler, Pro or Anti, a Blah Show Subject.” Variety, Nov. 7, 1933: 1.
25. “The Wandering Jew.” The Film Daily, Oct. 21, 1933: 4.
26. “Wandering Jew.” Variety, Oct. 24, 1933: 22.
27. New York censor document (The Wandering Jew file, PCA files).
28. Hoberman, Bridge of Light, 299.
29. Goldberg, Laughter Through Tears, 154.
30. “Notes” for The Wandering Jew entry at Turner Classic Movies. Online at http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/95050/The-Wandering-Jew/notes.html. Classified as “data from AFI catalog.”
31. Hoberman, Bridge of Light, 190.
32. Hoberman, Bridge of Light, 182-183.
33. “‘A People Eternal’ for Miami Theater.” Brooklyn Eagle, Oct. 27, 1939: 25.
34. “‘A People Eternal’ Has Timely Theme.” Brooklyn Eagle, Oct. 30, 1939: 7.
35. Hoberman, Bridge of Light, 190.
36. Hoberman, Bridge of Light, 191.