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The Great Yiddish Love
Conflict and Subversion in the Art of Diane Nerwen




by Carol Schwarzman


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With its first few frames, Diane Nerwen's new video, The Great Yiddish Love/Die Grosse Jiddische Liebe, shrewdly sets up its mode of operating inside a dialectic of montaged, sampled footage, music, and dialogue. It's got a great one-two-three punch: establish an initial reality with meticulously found old footage, subvert that reality with a soundtrack, and push that disjunction further by layering contradictions, impossibilities, and ironies. We're ushered into an elegant mongrelization of Hollywood cinema, Nazi-supported Ufa-film, and Yiddish melodrama and song. There's violence in the mixture of hilarity, sarcasm and tragedy — and it plays well alongside the seriousness of the video's inquiry.

The Great Yiddish Love, which was recently selected by the Guggenheim's John Handhardt and Maria-Christa Villasenor for screening as part of Ronald Feldman Gallery's American Dream (which ended April 5, 2003), stars Marlene Dietrich and Zarah Leander. Filmgoers know Marlene D. as the tempestuous idol of German, and subsequently, Hollywood cinema, who defiantly abandoned her homeland for the US in 1930, slapping the rise of Nazism in its face. The much lesser-known Leander was brought in to fill Dietrich's shoes, and went on to become the darling of the Nazi film industry, with her biggest hit entitled, Die Grosse Liebe. Nerwen's manipulation of choice segments from each diva's films, dubbed over with dialogue and music from contemporaneous Yiddish film (and subtitled in English) — Dietrich meets Leander meets Molly Picon — becomes a meta-narrative underscoring the cultural similarities shared by those who resisted, those who cashed in, and those who were victimized. In The Great Yiddish Love neither of the two stars speaks in her own voice. Each woman mouths the words of an unknown dialogue, and the audience hears Yiddish voices accusing, berating and hoping for love, safe passage, or memories of home.

Following the video's title, which triply layers German, Yiddish and English, we see a shot from behind of a lace-covered woman solemnly lighting the Friday-night candles, a Jewish tradition. Then, the "camera" cuts to a vivacious, confident Marlene chatting and babbling, with her head coquettishly draped in white lace. Klezmer music is playing and the title reads, "Starring Marlene Dietrich…” Cut back to the candle ceremony. Next a shot of lace-headed Leander strumming a mandolin and singing, with the title "…and Zarah Leander." So, what never could have occurred in "real life" is happening before our eyes in a "real film."

Nerwen provides exposition for The Great Yiddish Love with text that reads in part, "…Set in Berlin, with rumors of jealousy and hatred swirling around the two stars, this newly restored version reveals this untold story…” The audience is cued to exponentially suspend disbelief, history is re-presented and the truth is finally told in this love story between Marlene and Zarah.

I was interested in destabilizing the cultural identity Of Dietrich and Leander, in creating multiple, shifting Identities. They are simultaneously heterosexual and lesbian, Jewish and German. Their conflict symbolizes both exile and collaboration in the Nazi era…1

What amazes most is Nerwen's ability to maintain a filmic reality given the disparity of political and historical truths of which the audience is well aware. And to bring it all together under the rubric of two women's love for one another "elevates" this romance to the heights of the encoded heterosexual alliances which classic cinema canonized and approved. She does this by simultaneously relying on nostalgia and camp and poking fun at them. She employs great schtick, because her quotations of imagery, in particular, are often in double quotations — the overt use of twice-repeated shots of Marlene presenting her celebrated profile, or of the actress nervously dreaming of New York City both function like quotation marks ("as if," "like," "I'm joking."). Nerwen also relies heavily on what the audience knows about Dietrich's personal history: her bisexuality, her complex, difficult personality and her need for secrecy and glamour. This furthers the artist's play with alter egos, doppelgängers and multiple identities. Today, when the boundary between screened reality and personal truth seems less than thin, Dietrich's persona slips easily back and forth among endless worlds. It's tempting to observe that Nerwen's dichotomies replicate into a virtual reality of tri- and quadrichotomies, but spaciness doesn't seem to be her goal here at all.

However, it is interesting to imagine a world where "dialectic" has become as outmoded as "duality." Drawing, painting, or sculpting with film imagery and iconography bring Joseph Cornell and Ray Johnson to mind, although Nerwen's work is much more concerned with public, communal issues of politics and defiance in the face of the status quo. Her outsider's viewpoint almost runs counter to her familiarity with her technology, but perhaps the need to express her dissent and sadness is ultimately her strongest motivation.W

1)   Conversation with the artist, April 23, 2003.


Carol Schwarzman is an artist and writer living in Williamsburg.



All images:
Diane Nerwen, The Great Yiddish Love, stills, 2002
15:00, b/w video/16mm film
in Yiddish with English subtitles
Images courtesy the artist



























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