The Komediant

The story of Yiddish theater superstar Pesach'ke Burstein and his performing family is a documentary filmmaker's dream. It features a relatively unfamiliar but fascinating subject, a cast of colorful characters, and all the intrigue and family conflict of a Victorian novel — plus musical interludes. And happily, filmmaker Arnon fashioned these riches...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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The story of Yiddish theater superstar Pesach'ke Burstein and his performing family is a documentary filmmaker's dream. It features a relatively unfamiliar but fascinating subject, a cast of colorful characters, and all the intrigue and family conflict of a Victorian novel — plus musical interludes. And happily, filmmaker Arnon fashioned these riches into a dream of a documentary that begins with Pesach'ke, born in Poland to a Orthodox Jewish family on Passover, 1896. At the age of 15, Pesach'ke ran away from home to become an actor — a fate one interviewee describes as being "worse than becoming a Goy" among Orthodox Jews — and joined a traveling Jewish theatrical troupe. After gaining a certain measure of success, Pesach'ke caught the eye of famed Yiddish theatrical impresario Boris Thomashefsky, who brought Pesach'ke to New York City and the Yiddish theaters that once flourished on the Lower East Side. Pesach'ke quickly became a sensation: He was a good comic actor, a great singer and an extraordinary whistler, and was soon recording two to three records a week. In 1938, Pesach'ke met Lillian Lux, a Yiddish theater ingenue 22 years his junior, who became his second wife; together they toured the world as a popular performing duo. After escaping Hitler's Holocaust by a breathtaking stroke of luck, they returned to the U.S. where Lillian gave birth to twins, Susan and Michael, which is where the story gets really interesting. At the tender age of seven, the twins became part of their parents' act; Michael followed closely in his father's footsteps, while Susan found her voice through a ventriloquist's dummy named Jimmy. Both grew up travelling in the company of their parents, forced to live out of hotels and suitcases and bereft of friends. Michael eventually became a big star in Israel, while the deeply resentful Susan married at the first opportunity in order to escape the footlights and her fate as one of the performing Bursteins. The family saga is told primarily through a series of vivid, first-person accounts — Pesach'ke died in 1986, but Lillian and the kids are interviewed extensively — fleshed out with archival footage. There are far too many choice moments to single any one out, but the scene in which a grown and still-bitter Susan confronts Jimmy for the first time in years is a highlight: It's both funny and harrowing in the way that only a childhood nightmare come to life can be.

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  • Released: 1999
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: The story of Yiddish theater superstar Pesach'ke Burstein and his performing family is a documentary filmmaker's dream. It features a relatively unfamiliar but fascinating subject, a cast of colorful characters, and all the intrigue and family conflict of… (more)

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