Speaking Yiddish Without Words: A Profile of Filmmaker Eleanor Antin

What do you get when you cross “Fiddler on the Roof,” silent film, fictitious history, and a Jewish feminist writer-director-producer? “The Man Without A World” (Milestone Film and Video, 1991, 98 min.)—a postmodern-retro-Yiddish silent film, circa 1928, actually made in 1991. Confused? Let me explain.

Eleanor Antin, creator of the film, is a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and a poet, writer, painter, performance artist and narrative filmmaker. In “The Man Without A World,” this long time explorer has undertaken a new and deeply rooted expedition, spurred by her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Struggling to reach her retreating mother on a visceral level in recent years, Antin began speaking Yiddish during her visits in the nursing home. Not only did her mother respond, but Antin felt a nascent stirring within herself; a passion for Jewishness that she had abandoned—not for the enduring leftist politics, but for the culture itself. She spent a year devouring books on Yiddish culture and shtetl life, and watching and studying silent films. “The Man Without A World” is Antin’s love letter to her mother, a passionate return to yiddishkeit [Jewishness].

At the time, Antin had just completed filming “The Last Night of Rasputin,” which she attributed to a man of her own creation: a 1920’s Russian filmmaker, “Yevgeny Antinov.” As Rasputin’s filmmaker, Antinov, a secular Russian, was exiled to Poland for his failure to be politically correct. With Antin’s awakening and exploration, however, Antinov evolved as a Jew. The introduction to “The Man Without A World” tells how the exiled Antinov is approached by two Jewish-American merchants anxious to dabble in culture and to cash in on the Yiddish nostalgia market back home. They commission a “shtetl movie, pure and simple.” Antinov, however, injects the film with his characteristic social and political commentary, after which the businessmen abandon the project, reluctant to “throw good money after bad.” The film “disappeared into the Holocaust. . . until it showed up in an obscure Odessa archive” after Glasnost.

The plot hinges on the romance between Rukhele and Zevi, lovers derailed by the arrival of the Gypsy wagon, complete with strongman, fortune teller and exotic dancer, seductively played by Antin herself. The shtetl also features Moishe’s Cafe, watering hole of the cultural elite, where anarchists read poetry while Zionists and Socialists try to solve the world’s problems. Antin presents shtetl life from marketplace to cemetery with the requisite dybbuk, exorcism, pogrom, rape, dying mother, and wedding scenes; she manages the look and projection quality of early films by shooting at 16 frames per second, rather than the usual 24. The stylized facial and bodily expressions of the actors, augmented by title cards and background music, reveal the action clearly.

In her use of sets, acting style, and themes, Antin adheres to the genre’s tradition, which requires, of course, that Yevgeny Antinov be male. Antin, a confirmed feminist, reflects: “There were modernist female artists, but the directors of the period were male.” Yet her feminist spirit prevails in the women’s world revealed in the night-before-the-wedding scene. While the male Antinov cannot resist using back nudity of Rukhele in the mikveh [ritual bath, offlimits to men], the female Antin stages the scene as “girls’ night out.” In this setting the hint of a lesbian relationship between two girls is waved away simply as “time to get a husband.” Similarly, Antin wields her influence in an Edenic fantasy scene where Zevi is as alluringly unclothed as Rukhele.

Antin’s “collaboration” with the mythic Antinov will continue as more of his long lost films “surface;” she plans an early “talkie” as their next project. Antin’s work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Hirschhorn, and the Venice Biennale. She has created a mixed-media piece, “Vilna Nights,” for the reopening of New York’s Jewish Museum. The installation, on display through December, consists of a life-size bombed out Ghetto street, through which one glimpses bits of the lives within.