The Prince and the Dybbuk

The Prince and the Dybbuk is more interesting in its first 15 minutes than some films manage to be in 2 hours. It is a biopic of early Hollywood director Michal Waszynski. He worked on blockbusters like Fall of the Roman Empire, The Barefoot Contessa, and Orson Welles’s Othello.

When Michal died, he was buried in the Dickmann family tomb in Rome. He was as good as family to them, and godfather to their children. Even today his godchildren speak of him as the best of men.

In fact, the film begins with everyone who knew him in his adult life talking about what a great man he was. Not only was he a man of talent in the field of cinema, he was a good man, generous and fair. He had an aristocratic elegance but was never haughty and always had time for everyone. He was the best boss, says his chauffeur. It makes you think, how good a man he must have been for even his employees to speak highly of him more than 50 years after his death.

But he was very private about his past and personal life. Even his godchildren, whom he was very close to, knew only that he was a Polish nobleman, a prince of some sort, before he came to Italy. The only photo they have of him as a young man they show to the filmmaker. It has on the back some handwriting which they cannot read.

And here a story begins that proves truth is stranger than fiction. They trace the stamp of the photo studio to Kovel, in Ukraine. They ask the elders of Kovel if they recognise the man in the photo, or can read the writing on the back, or know of a Michal Waszynski from the area. “Waszynski?,” ask one woman. “No, I don’t think it says that. It says Waks, not Waszynski.” An old man says, “That surname used to exist around here, but it doesn’t any more.”

You know what that means.

Michal Waszynski was originally born Mosze Waks. Far from a prince, he was born to a humble Jewish family in this small Ukrainian town. Very little can be traced of his past because the majority of his family appears to have been wiped out during the war. Only an old tombstone remains, broken to a fragment and lying unceremoniously in an unmarked patch of ground.

Although the filmmakers have Michal’s diaries, he writes of his past almost not at all, except to say that it does him no good to look back, and that he has locked all the doors behind him. But hints creep through, as he records his distressing dreams. He seems to have fallen for a yashiva boy, and been heartbroken when the boy shut down any connection they had. Michal, reeling from that, and perhaps reacting to the antisemitism of the time, converted to Catholicism and changed his name to Michal Waszynski.

When he left to make movies in Poland and Germany, he couldn’t have known what was to come. During this time he makes one of his most famous films, The Dybbuk, which is one of the few Yiddish language films made in Europe before the war. It is a story of unrequited love, when a young boy gives up his soul to be with a young girl who is to wed another, and this causes him to drop dead, and his soul possesses her body. Condemned by Goebbels, it was burned by the Nazis.

When the war came, Michal joined the Polish army under British leadership, and crossed Europe, finally ending up in Italy. It was here he took up with an elderly widowed countess, learning from her all the aristocratic mores he would affect in later life. She left him her money in her will.

He worked in the army film corp, and filmed the Battle of Monte Cassino. For his achievements during the war, he was given an honorary title of Chevalier Prince. And thus he transformed into the Polish prince, the aristocrat Michal Waszynski.

For the rest of his life, as he rubbed shoulders with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, he kept his sexuality discreet and his Jewish roots secret. While there is an obvious sadness, he seems to have been grateful to get a second chance at life, to be reborn after the heartache and horror of the war. He wanted to be washed of the memories of his past life, and focus on how blessed he was in his new one. He was rich, famous, admired, and loved. With the Dickmanns, he had a new family, including children he loved dearly. He was a great success in his career, and loved what he was doing.

The Prince and the Dybbuk is a fascinating documentary looking into a man whose life and identity were complicated. It includes some archival footage and footage from Waszynski’s own films. At first I wasn’t sure I liked how it transitioned between them, but it grew on me as the film went on. It paints a picture of glamour and fame, mixed with loneliness and sorrow. It shows deep bonds of family and love, and deep secrets. What was real? Both were real.

If you like this…