Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Paul Mazursky | Enemies, a Love Story

by Douglas Messerli
Roger L. Simon and Paul Mazursky (screenwriters, based on a novel by Isaac B. Singer), Paul Mazursky (director) Enemies, a Love Story  / 1989
Herman Broder (Ron Silver), now living near Coney Island, survived the Holocaust by hiding out in a barn, embedded in a haystack and bought food and other provisions by the family’s Polish servant, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein), who, in part in reward for of her love and loyalty, he has married in the US. Broder, as the first scene of the Mazursky’s movie demonstrates, also was forced to watch the Nazis beat her in retaliation for her suspected protection of him. As the neighbor gossips make clear, Yadwiga is a saint, still living with servant-like dedication with Broder, who lies to her about his profession (he claims he is a traveling book salesman) and an extra-marital relationship with a beautiful Russian refugee, also a survivor of the Holocaust, Masha (Lena Olin), who lives in the Bronx with her mother.     Masha is everything that Yadwiga is not: a sassy, completely assimilated woman, Masha offers Herman a kind of passionate, almost bestial like sexuality that lies at the complete opposite extreme of Yadwiga’s tender embraces, and each day, in his “rambling travels,” Broder visits her, staying on during the afternoon, while Masha goes to work, to work as a ghostwriter for a successful rabbi’s sermons and speeches (Rabbi Lembeck, played by Alan King). An experienced lover, who is still married to businessman Leon Torshiner (Paul Mazursky), Masha, although perpetually jealous, attempts to overlook Broder’s marriage, seemingly satisfied with their morning sexual activities.

      All three of these figures, at times, define themselves as dead, beings whose existence, given the deaths of all those around them, appears as a kind of miracle; and each of them grab what they can from one another, greedy for the memories of life it provides them. Yet, all of them are severely marked by their pasts. Broder’s and Yadwiga’s marriage is literally based on events that occurred during the war; similarly, Masha’s behavior reflects a woman who has done almost anything during the Holocaust to survive. And, as such, each of these three figures might easily be described as ghosts, haunted by the brutal past.

      Before we can almost assimilate the complex “wonder wheel”-like—the name that lights up throughout the film across the Coney Island Farris Wheel—circularity of Broder’s life, everything is complicated further by the sudden appearance of his thought-to-be dead wife, Tamara (Angelica Huston), who pretended death after a mass murder, crawling out from under the dead bodies to survive. She too, obviously, is a ghost, who later, when she appears at Broder’s Coney Island hovel, terrifies Yadwiga, who is convinced that Tamara actually is a ghost!      Upon discovering her existence, Broder is suddenly faced with such a series of dilemmas so contradictory that he literally does not know which way to turn. Through Huston’s skillful acting and Mazursky’s artful director, we quickly perceive that, despite their outward hostility, Tamara and Broder are still very much in love. Clearly in over his head, Broder vaguely attempts to tell Masha the truth, but the reality is so incredible that she refuses to believe him, soon after, when she discovers herself pregnant, demanding that Broder marry her in a “symbolic” marriage for the sake of her mother.

      Suddenly, what began as a mildly comic tale of infidelity—at the heart of many a Mazursky movie—has suddenly exploded in a moral struggle for Broder, in which he attempts to please all three women; he even makes a joke, at one point, about his polygamous activities. But living for him, as he spins through space from the Bronx, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and back into Coney Island is a heart-spinning and heart-breaking ride, made even more complex when, on vacation with Masha in  the Catskills, he runs into the uncle and aunt with whom Tamara is living.

      At one point, when Masha’s now ex-husband, demands a meeting with Broder, things temporarily seem to open up, particularly when Torshiner reveals that Masha had an affair with a Russian criminal throughout the war, that she has had numerous sexual affairs, and that she is a dangerous temptress.

      Events finally explode, moreover, when Masha and Broder attend at event at Rabbi Lembeck’s house, where they run into a strange figure, Pesheles, who has accidently visited Broder in Coney Island and met Tamara in the hospital where she has gone to have the wartime bullet removed from her hip. With what might be described almost as glee, Pesheles recounts the existence of Broder’s two other wives to Masha, who furiously storms out of her and Broder’s relationship.

     Fortunately, Broder has been completely honest with Tamara, who offers to serve as his personal manager. Her advice is that he abandon Masha and return to Yadwiga, who is soon to have a baby. Broder obeys, for a while rediscovering his second marriage and his faith. But he still longs for Masha, and when she contacts him, now apparently working as a kind of prostitute, Broder becomes determined to run off with her and work for her provider.

     Meeting her again at the Bronx apartment, however, he discovers that the place has just been burglarized, and that her mother is missing. The much beloved and hated mother (Judith Malina) returns, but soon after dies. Demanding Masha be honest about her past, he discovers that she has had sex with Torshiner in order to obtain her divorce, but little else. She is as incapable of the truth as he is in making a decision in his commitment to the women in his life.     Broder leaves Masha, who takes enough pills to kill herself, realizing the death by which she has long defined her life. Similarly, Broder himself disappears, occasionally sending money to Yadwiga.

      The baby has arrived who has a regular care-giver not only in the form of his saintly mother but through the nurturing support of the very earthy Tamara, the two “ghosts” together—in a strange feminist bonding (even stranger given that the sometimes misogynistic Isaac B. Singer penned this fiction)—sustaining this child of the new world and of the future, in the hopes that it might  live a life different from their horrifyingly destructive past. Perhaps, finally, the enemies of the past, not only the German soldiers but cancerous motivations carried about within each of the ghosts’ selves, may be put to rest.

Los Angeles, July 16, 2014

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