The Light Ahead (1939)


(directors: Edgar G. Ulmer/Henry Felt; screenwriters: Chaver Pahver/from the short story by Mendele Mocher Sforim; cinematographer: J. Burgi Contner/Edward Hyland; editor: Jack Kemp; cast: David Opatoshu (Fishke, the lame), Helen Beverly (Hodel, the blind), Isidore Cashier (Mendele Moicher Sforim), Rosetta Bialis (Dropke), Anna Guskin (Gitel), Wolf Mercur (Getzel, the thief), Judel Dubinsky (Isaak, the stutterer), Leon Seidenberg (Reb Alter), Morris Shorr (Hershel); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sharon Pucker Rivo; The National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF); 1939-in Yiddish with English subtitles)
“It has more of a political slant than other Yiddish films at the time.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A worthy adaptation of the short story from the 19th-century, born in Lithuania, social satirist S.Y. Abramovitch, who took the pen name of Mendele Mocher Sforim. Sholom Aleichem referred to him as the Grandfather of Yiddish Literature. It represents Edgar G. Ulmer’s third Yiddish film following Green Fields (1937) and The Singing Blacksmith (1938). Noted poverty-row filmmaker Ulmer is most recognized for The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945). The Light Ahead, a low-budget Yiddish drama, was filmed in Newton, New Jersey, on the same set Ulmer just completed Moon over Harlem. The ensemble cast from New York’s Artef and Yiddish Art Theater are superb and give the film an air of authenticity.

It’s an acrimonious satire about Jewish life being subject to exploitation in the shtetl (small town with a large Jewish population) and is also a bleak but luminous allegory about frustrated love between impoverished and handicapped lovers during the time of tsarist rule in 19th-century Russia. That was a time of oppression and poverty for the Jews living in the backward shtetl just outside of Odessa called Glubsk (translated as “fools’ town”). Glubsk is a substitute name for the author’s adopted hometown of Berdichev.

It has more of a political slant than other Yiddish films at the time. It’s also the only such Yiddish film to hold out more hope for big city than country living, as the city would be free of poverty, environmental deformity, superstitions and stifling Old World prejudices. The sentimental and highly stylized melodrama leaves one with hope that they can escape their immediate perils if they have the courage to do what’s best for themselves despite traditional beliefs. Filmed during 1939, it aimed to give the immigrant American Jews renewed hope in a world threatened by Nazism.

It opens with traveling bookseller Mendele Moicher Sforim (Isidore Cashier), the author’s alter ego, returning to Glubsk by a horse driven wagon and meeting on the road Reb Alter, who just wants to accompany the avuncular Talmudic wise man. He then meets Isaak, who complains he purchased a larger chicken in the next town but the corrupt rebbes in Glubsk declared it not kosher and refuse to slaughter it; and finally he meets a disconsolate orphan named Fishke the Cripple (David Opatoshu), who felt hurt by his longtime love interest–the blind orphan Hodel (Helen Beverly). She has refused to go with him to Odessa to start over again and live in a more cultured and richer city. The kindly Mendele talks Fishke into going back to Glubsk instead of continuing on to the big city, and suggests that he make up with Hodel. In Glubsk, Fishke works as a bathhouse attendant while Hodel works by plucking chickens. They are too poor to wed, and dream that they can get a humble place of their own where they can dine on potatoes and herring.

Back in Glubsk, Mendele, the enlightened bookseller, tries to get the locals to build a hospital and clean up the polluted river to counter a cholera outbreak, but the superstitious town elders refuse as they believe God is the only true healer and choose to spend the money instead on religious activities hoping to please the Lord. The elders believe they can also please God by picking up the cost of the wedding of Fishke and Hodel. They believe God will thereby recognize their generosity to the unfortunates and stop the cholera plague. At first the couple resists at becoming known as the “cholera bride and groom,” but Mendele counsels the youngsters on how to leave Glubsk for Odessa after the wedding and take advantage of the situation that’s derived from the superstition of the elders who think they can fool God with this false act of piety. Mendele believes that Fishke was right, that the small town promises only an empty life and the big city will give him more opportunities. But he believes he shouldn’t go there without Hodel as his wife.

The village set is filmed mostly at night and looks eerie, as if a cross between a Marc Chagall painting and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Under Ulmer’s stagy direction the dark film nevertheless is emotionally appealing, poignant and even heart-warming. Though the future is uncertain, as even the hopeful Mendele in private thinks the worst might be in store for his people, there’s still enough hope delivered to comfort some in the audience. The film was not a commercial success even though it received acclaim in both the Yiddish and gentile press. Opatoshu and Beverly are superb as the innocents, and many consider them to be the most beautiful couple of Yiddish cinema. They made their stressful downbeat romance into a memorable, courageous and meaningful one that could appeal to movie goers of all creeds and nationalities.