The Klezmer Project (2023) Berlinale 2023

February 23rd, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Leandro Koch. Paloma Schachmann; Documentary with Perin Snee, Rebecca Janofer, Cesar Lerner, Bob Cohen, Argentina/Austria 2023, 117 min.

Klezmer music dominated the Yiddish speaking world of (mainly eastern) Europe before the Holocaust. The Klezmer Project sees Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann scouring Europe for the dying embers of this iconic Ashkenazi instrumental tradition in their engaging hybrid documentary debut. 

And they have to act quickly. Most of the musicians are now well into their eighties and there is dearth of audio material. The pandemic saw the death of many who would have gladly taken part, but the 2016 research reccy ended as a trial run. Judaism is struggling to survive in countries like Romania, Moldovia and Ukraine, and the connections with the Yiddish language has also been severed. To find as many active musicians of Klezmer as possible, what what drove the directors forward.

Schachmann, who plays the clarinet, regularly performed at Jewish weddings, and her audience talked about their childhood. She got to know Klezmer musicians from around the diaspora before she and Koch flew off to Eastern Europe in their initial 2016 mission. They had a camera and a recorder, but the agenda was dictated by the availability of the surviving musicians. One goal was to show the powerful combination of Klezmer music and the Yiddish language. Most of the fictional parts were written before the journeys, and they enabled the filmmakers to depict ethno-archaeological research into the origins of Klezmer music. Crucially, their aim was focus on the essence of Yiddish culture and Klezmer music, knowing full well the difficult task on their hands. What they had not bargained for was the reticence of those involved to come forward given that main surviving Jews in the diaspora have turned their back on their own culture. If anything this made the filmmakers even keener, and led to them uncovering some unexpected material.

Bob Cohen is the central figure in the research project. He told Koch and Schachmann the names of all the musicians who still knew the Klezmer tunes. Reading Susana Skura’s papers was was always helpful – she gave the directors some background on the vanishing culture and Bob showed them where to find the last remains.

On the second trip, the filmmakers started in Poland where the Jewish Cultural Festival was taking place. There they met Schulam Ment, an amazing fiddler, who was going on tour to Romania with Benjy Fox Rosen. Jake and Benji played Jewish songs and Klezmer music in old synagogues around Transylvania. In Ukraine the filmmakers caught up with Sasha Somish, a Jewish singer and Choirmaster from Lyviv. In Moldavia Marin Buena and Adam Slinga were recorded, who were, like Susan Ghergus, Fima Chorney and Slava Farber, outstanding performers of Lautantraditional music.

The editing process (Leandro Koch/Javier Favot) took nearly 18 months. 120 hours of footage had to be dealt with, there were “always new layers of different narratives to incorporate and this demanded new scenes.” Because of the pandemic the filmmakers were unable to return to Eastern Europe, they had to find answers sifting through footage already in their possession. In the end, the pruning led to almost two separate films: the one shot in Argentina and the other from Eastern Europe. They are connected by a Yiddish story and Koch’s notes about Jewish Culture. This labour of love and dedication to a dwindling musical culture is significantly enhanced by DoPs Leandro Koch and Javier Favot, whose intimate images of the musicians resonate the most in this unique and moving first feature. AS




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