The Last Klezmer

  • 1994
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Documentary, Musical

This vibrant, often moving, no-frills documentary takes a look at Leopold Kozlowski, a robust 72-year-old who is the last descendant of generations of klezmerim, the Jewish folk musicians of central Europe. While most of his family was slaughtered in the Holocaust, the Ukrainian-born Kozlowski managed to survive German labor camps (partly through his...read more

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This vibrant, often moving, no-frills documentary takes a look at Leopold Kozlowski, a robust 72-year-old who is the last descendant of generations of klezmerim, the Jewish folk musicians of central Europe.

While most of his family was slaughtered in the Holocaust, the Ukrainian-born Kozlowski managed to survive German labor camps (partly through his musical skills) and eventually escaped to fight with Jewish partisans against the Nazis. Emigrating to Poland after the war, he changed his name (from

Kleinman) and for 23 years composed for and conducted the Polish Army Symphony Orchestra, meanwhile keeping alive the klezmer tradition and surviving occasional anti-Semitic purges. The film shows Kozlowski conducting the State Theatre Orchestra in Warsaw and teaching klezmer to (mostly

non-Jewish) students, and follows him on a pilgrimage to Peremyshlyany, his native village, where he revisits his childhood home and searches for his father's grave. The emotional center of the documentary is his reunion with a ghetto friend he hasn't seen in 50 years (who asks him, "If you were

so important, why didn't you call me sooner?"); together, they recall hair-raising experiences during the German occupation.

Before it was nearly eradicated by the Holocaust, klezmer was performed by thousands of wandering musicians and bands throughout Eastern Europe. Often called "Jewish jazz" or "Yiddish Dixieland," klezmer encapsulated centuries of Jewish traditions and culture and was most often performed at

ritual celebrations, especially weddings ("a wedding without klezmer was worse than a funeral without tears," Kozlowski remarks). In the US, this near-moribund musical form experienced a revival beginning in the 1980s, partly due to the efforts of musician Yale Strom, who directed THE LAST

KLEZMER. Strom's cinematic inexperience is obvious: with its low-budget, technically roughhewn format (complete with Strom's amateurish voice-overs to cover gaps and present information), it looks more like a home movie than a theatrical film. Still, the unpolished quality often works in the

film's favor; emotional climaxes, such as Kozlowski's discovery of his father's mass-grave site, feel virtually unmediated and are all the more powerful as a result. Ultimately, technical deficiencies are overcome by the sheer force of Kozlowski's personality; his tenacity, humor, and zest for

life are irresistible. The only serious drawback is that relatively little klezmer is actually heard on the soundtrack. (Adult situations.)

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  • Released: 1994
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: This vibrant, often moving, no-frills documentary takes a look at Leopold Kozlowski, a robust 72-year-old who is the last descendant of generations of klezmerim, the Jewish folk musicians of central Europe. While most of his family was slaughtered in th… (more)

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