(director/writer: Stefan Schwietert; screenwriter: Thomas Kufus; cinematographer: Robert Richman; editor: Arpad Bondy; cast: Julius J. Epstein, Max Epstein, Willie Epstein; Runtime: 90; Kino International; 1996-Ger.)

“The Epsteins are wonderful musicians and storytellers…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A charming black-and-white documentary about three elderly musician brothers, the Epsteins. Max is a clarinet player and the oldest at 83; Willie is the middle one, who plays the trumpet; and, Max the youngest, is in his seventies and is the drummer. They moved to a south Florida senior citizens community (which they comically say is God’s waiting room) from Brooklyn to retire but nevertheless continued to professionally play the Yiddish music they love, klezmer. The Jewish music had a rebirth and became popular again due to the young people clamoring for this music not to be forgotten. Max had the good fortune to play with the old Jewish klezmer masters who came to this country in the beginning of the 1900s, but since they all died out he is the only one left who was trained by them to carry out the tradition as it was handed down from the old country. Klezmer is a Yiddish term for an itinerant musician, a type of folk music that was popular for the Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before World War 11; but, in America it was considered a derogatory term indicating a musician who doesn’t have steady work. But that has all changed now with its revival. The Epsteins always earned a good living playing Jewish music and were very popular with the Hasidics, especially, from the 1950s through the early ’70s, playing at their festivals, bar mitzvahs, and weddings.

They are shown living in their very ordinary Florida residence, travelling to concerts in Berlin and Poland, and on a nostalgia tour of their old haunts in the once Jewish enclave of Brownsville and the still Hasidic neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. They will also visit the Lower East Side in Manhattan, where they were born.

The Epsteins are wonderful musicians and storytellers, openly explaining their music and talking about themselves with no pretensions or false modesty. They have no inhibitions about talking; in fact, it is hard to get them to keep quiet. The unevenness comes from the lackluster direction of Schwietert, the thirtysomething, gentile German director, who lived in Florida with the Epsteins for three months during the filming, and is unsure of how to pace a film and how to go with the flow of the story. But the richness of the lively music and the very natural and easy way the brothers play and communicate makes this a heartfelt film, just like the music played. You don’t have to be Jewish to like the music, as they proved to be popular in front of a mainly non-Jewish audience in Berlin who couldn’t get enough of that music. But when they played in their Florida neighborhood to an elderly Jewish audience, you couldn’t help but notice how much more lively and even more appreciative their audience was.

The documentary spends a lot of time showing them booking concerts in synagogues, setting club dates, bickering over concert fees, making potato latkes and eating a Nathan’s hot dog in Coney Island. It also goes on a dull side trip to Pinsk, a place that borders Russia-Poland, where their parents are from but someplace they are unfamiliar with; it turns out that there was nothing worthwhile to see there. But, in all fairness to the director, aside from a few lapses in the film, he did capture the essence of their Klezmer music and what makes the Epsteins so special.

The brothers take pride in their craft and it shows in their musical pieces presented, as they bring out a heartfelt joy in their music. It was a fun film to watch and it was informative to watch them practice and discuss the music while never taking themselves too seriously, but always serious about doing a good job. They seem to be very aware that they are one of the last links with the past, a tradition that might have shamefully died out if not for them and a few other groups like them becoming spokesmen for Klezmer music.

The title of the film comes from a song Max wrote for their grandfather who went to hear an opera at the Met and liked it, but said that he preferred Yiddish music because it tickles his heart.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”