Jul 08, 2022
After many years of near-orphan film status, Samy Szlingerbaum’s 1980 Belgian Yiddish “Brussels Transit” is back in circulation. The film was one of the first full-length post-WWII motion pictures in Yiddish, part of an innovative filmmaking wave rethinking the limits of cinematic structure. In its beautifully restored seventy-seven minutes, the movie depicts a Jewish family’s displacement in the aftermath of World War II through an array of quietly evocative cinematic devices, primarily in the mameloshn of Malka Szlingerbaum, Samy’s own mame. Lead actor Boris Lehman describes this film as the director’s love letter to his mother (who reciprocated upon seeing it screened at numerous festivals). This seemingly ineffable masterpiece merits a field guide, which I have provided here.
The odyssey begins as Malka leaves Poland in 1947. Our first encounter with her is through her richly expressive unaccompanied singing on the soundtrack, in a musical piece she has made idiosyncratically her own. Looking closely at this deceptively simple song, which recurs throughout the film, illuminates key aspects of the director’s presentation. Even before this, the discrepancies in the brief Yiddish and French texts that open the film, and the recurrence of key bilingual moments in Szlingerbaum’s interviews with Malka, offer a microcosm of the weakened but ultimately intact goldene keyt.
“Brussels Transit” is constructed as a flashback with a porous fourth wall, portraying the aftermath of war and a lifetime of often harsh resettlement thereafter. We are given no specifics of the violence and wartime destruction witnessed or experienced by the mother and father leaving Poland with their young son. Following Malka’s opening song, she becomes a sporadic narrator, recounting episodes of her relentless journey of postwar displacement, together with her husband and Samy’s older brother, starting from Łódź. In Malka’s telling, agitated crowds cram the railcars; even a child cannot move as thousands are stranded by chaotic delays, their escape from the rubble of Warsaw moving at a crawl. All this we hear about, but we directly see none of it. Once their arduous trip reaches Belgium, new patterns of visual storytelling engage us, weaving together motifs of domesticity and displacement during scenarios of marginalized family and working life. We still hear intermittent voiceovers from Malka – mainly in Yiddish, with a few French phrases during certain lively remembrances – in these narrative scenes featuring the actors playing young Samy, his older brother, his parents, a family acquaintance, and other Brussels residents.
Renowned cine-iconoclast Chantal Akerman, also a Belgian child of Holocaust survivors and Samy’s close friend (and frequent collaborator), produced “Brussels Transit” in 1980 under the aegis of her company Paradis Films. From Szlingerbaum’s death from AIDS in 1986 until Akerman’s own tragic death in 2015, she controlled the rights to her friend’s only completed feature film. In these decades, “Brussels Transit” was primarily screened in a VHS transfer that did not convey the luminosity of its original black and white footage. The celluloid version was shown again in 1992, as a culmination for the landmark retrospective series “Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds,” jointly sponsored by The Museum of Modern Art and the National Center for Jewish Film. Though NCJF did not own a copy, MoMA obtained a print and permission through their film department’s relationship with Szlingerbaum himself a dozen years before, when the director had traveled to New York to introduce his movie in person for the museum’s cutting edge New Directors/New Films series.
Szlingerbaum in 1981, filmed by Gérard Courant.
I am fortunate to have worked for “Bridge of Light” co-curators Adrienne Mancia and Jim Hoberman throughout the MoMA series, which is how I became an acolyte of Samy Szlingerbaum. After subsequent decades of monitoring the film’s distribution status, I was thrilled to learn in 2018 that a restoration by Royal Cinematek of Belgium was available, and finally my colleagues at Yiddish New York were able to screen the reissued digital version for our 2021 online film festival. I coordinated the YNY virtual roundtable discussion, which brought forth numerous revelations, both via Belgian panelist Boris Lehman – the film’s lead actor – and the fortuitous emergence of another ardent “Brussels Transit” fan: Daryl Chin, whom I met on social media in sharing my enthusiasm for the upcoming YNY events. MoMA movie maven Daryl had not only seen the movie during the museum’s ND/NF screening almost forty years earlier, but also held cherished memories of his discussions with Samy Szlingerbaum during that New York visit. Chin (who knew Chantal Akerman as well) reverentially recalled that Szlingerbaum had told him then of plans to direct a second feature film, a kind of sequel to “Brussels Transit,” again to be produced by Chantal. This next production, which never materialized, was to center on Yiddish also, but now in terms of Belgian-Jewish adolescent experience, the years when Samy’s (as well as Chantal’s) queer identity had emerged.
In 2022, as three million Ukrainians fled across international borders in the first three weeks of Putin’s invasion alone, this film’s story of mass displacement became newly raw and resonant. Szlingerbaum’s reflections on next-generational loss and lingering trauma along with aftselokhes cultural continuity also remain achingly relevant. This simultaneously dreamlike and concrete cinematic reconstruction of events after WWII offers viewers a nuanced yet direct and deeply personal perspective of refugee experience and immigrant family life, boasting excellent production values yet filmed on an independent budget. Szlingerbaum uses his mother’s own speech and singing as key elements to bring the past into a materially granular, ephemerally soulful present. Language and music play a central role in conveying both dislocation and psychic self-preservation, as text, oral history audio, and the recurrent Yiddish opening song ground the film’s developmental arc. Multiple viewings of “Brussels Transit” reveal its intricately structured, polyglot, yet often non-verbal chronicle of fear, frustration, disconnect, exhaustion, and alienation alongside inner rootedness, resourceful resilience, and diasporic endurance.
“Brussels Transit” opens in silence. We read brief bilingual titles and introductions, soon augmented by Malka’s haunting a capella. Written blocks of text cue in our bittersweet aural Yiddish welcome, with French portions designating the audio as “recit en langue yiddish,” dedicated “à ma mère Malka.” While all French is perfectly spelled and grammatically correct, a close parsing of the Yiddish reveals an inscrutable series of off-kilter linguistic oddities.
Samy’s “[kino]-brivele der mamen” is defined by his loving treatment of Yiddish, mame Malka’s mother tongue. Yet his own limitations and those of many in his generation become part of the depiction. Szlingerbaum’s tape recordings of his mother’s monologically-edited interview respect and privilege her native idiom while also carefully revealing a telling moment of linguistic code-switch: Malka reverts to their mutually conversant French to tell her son she needs to rest from the exertion of revisiting past times and challenging memories. Szlingerbaum places this audio aside just before the film’s five-minute mark — right after her description of the endless ordeal of traveling in packed chaos from Łódź to Varshe, giving us a window onto his mother who has just reached her psychic threshold for the day: “Samy, aujourd’hui ça va pas. Je t’en prie.” [Samy, that’s enough for today. Please.]
This instance of boundary-setting between survivor-interviewee parent and artist-investigator child resembles the dynamic portrayed by Art Spiegelman in Maus, although in that graphic novel masterpiece, the pair’s linguistic differences are only represented in the contrast between Artie’s fluent American English and Vladek’s Slavic-immigrant syntax: “Well, it’s enough for today, yes? I’m tired and I must count still my pills.” We hear Vladek’s accent, but all is accessible to the monolingual reader in the book’s New York assimilated safe-haven, where the young cartoonist receives and conveys his survivor father’s telling with no intervening layers of translation via Polish or Yiddish. Szlingerbaum’s narrative, though more verbally sparse, is more linguistically complex.
Yiddish was “in the air” personally for all principals on “Brussels Transit” film sets, though these second-generation creators all spoke French as a lingua franca. Both of the film’s acting leads, as well as their director, had grown up hearing Yiddish at home and understanding it to an extent. Producer Akerman may have been less familiar: the more-assimilated Akerman family had initially arrived in Belgium “avant la guerre” and used less Yiddish or Polish at home. All four of them — including the actress Hélène Lapiower, who portrays a younger Malka onscreen — would also eventually explore mameloshn in film creations of their own. Yet it seems that none of the creators of “Brussels Transit” knew Yiddish fluently, and the story’s non-synchronous construction does not require them to speak it aloud (with two exceptions: during the kitchen scene, Lapiower sings a brief portion of the same tune we have heard multiple times during Malka’s iconic opening, but at slower tempo; and in the pivotal bakery scene, she utters the single Yiddish word “bakn” while making insistent but ultimately futile wordless gestures).
Malka’s intermittent oral history guides us, providing the warm, colloquial vernacular of displaced home through a narrative of alienated, sometimes incomprehensible goles. We may barely notice that this is on some level a shtum-film, silent action, since Szlingerbaum juxtaposes Malka’s voice and his poetic visuals with spare, delicate precision. But looking closely at the only other Yiddish in the film — the fleeting opening titles — reveals more of a disconnect in communication as well. Upon examination, we may wonder whether the film’s creators were fully literate in the printed language, or else perhaps conveying a meta-message of language disjuncture and constant uprootings. 1 1 Lehman, who played Szlingerbaum’s father, does not recall exactly who prepared the Jewish “translations” of the film’s title or opening descriptive lines. Through Lehman, a close filmmaking colleague of Szlingerbaum’s and yet another Brussels Jew whose parents had come (via Switzerland) to Belgium after the Holocaust, we also know salient particulars, including the fact that Samy had begun an earlier version of “Brussels Transit” which he scrapped, eventually resuming the project with a higher budget to allow the proper realization of his vision. In his cinema history “Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds,” Hoberman alludes to this postwar Yiddish film as both “a brivele fun mamen” and as a pebble on a metaphorical matseyve, yet a living mama Malka attended and reveled in her son’s epic movie telling of her own story.
The enigmatic orthography in the film’s opening text can lead us to begin by questioning the very meaning of the film’s Yiddish title. The opening frame gives the French release title “Bruxelles-Transit” alongside the Yiddish: דאַך בריסעל. For years, “Dakh Brisel” has been interpreted as “Brussels Roof,” as in Roof Over Brussels, perhaps to be construed as a kind of Gimme Shelter for the wandering mishpokhe. The history of Yiddish film releases has many similar examples of divergent bilingual titles, such as The Light Ahead // פֿישקע דער קרומער (also known as “Di Klyatshe”).
Another example: Overture to Glory // דער װילנער שטאָט חזן (also known as “Der Vilner Balebesl”).
However, looking closely at the opening frames calls into question this interpretation of “Dakh” — and suggests other possible Yiddish titles as Szlingerbaum’s original intent.
First appearing on screen is, in largest type:
with what seems to be a shape-based typo, using a shlos-mem rather than a samekh in “Brisel”. Underneath, on this same slate, is the film’s descriptive subtitle:
אַ מעסה אין דער יידישע שפּראַך
This clearly conveys “A Story in the Yiddish Language,” but with a grammatical mistake in the adjectival declension of the word “Yiddish,” which could also represent a kind of phonetic rendering.
The “yidishe(r)” ending omission in this subtitle suggests that perhaps the “dakh” above could stand in for a different but phonetically similar noun altogether. Sam Shuman and others have suggested “durkh” Brisel [through Brussels], transposed via dialect and regional pronunciation and idiomatic spelling. Yet in fact, Lehman confirmed in post-YNY correspondence that the title was originally supposed to be “nach” [nokh] Brisel, travel parlance for “toward Brussels.” This makes sense to suggest Brussels as a way station, though the letter substitution is a less obvious visual error than the samekh/shlos-mem substitution in “Brisel.” 3 3 Josh Waletsky, in response to Boris Lehman’s account, concurred: ‘”Nokh [nakh] brisl” is what I believe (the aleph without the komets — diacritics are missing in the film titles everywhere — also the German word ‘nach’) meaning “toward Brussels” in railroad language.’
Yet more strange translation onscreen follows. The next slate after the Yiddish title displays further orthographic idiosyncrasies and visually based spelling errors, and it also includes a clear content discrepancy between the French and the Yiddish, with important historical and biographical ramifications.
I wonder whether this might reflect an insider versus official version of events, since this does not seem like any simple substitution or mistranslation. I have even considered the esoteric possibility that this relates somehow to the Slavic expression for “one-and-a-half” as “poltora” (‘half-three’) but this doesn’t seem to make sense in this context.
Both the French and the Yiddish begin: “My parents came from Poland in 1947.” The Yiddish uses non-standard but legible spellings including Polish Yiddish vowel sounds.
The next line is nearly as straightforward in the correspondence of meaning and the rendering of the Yiddish words: “My father and my mother were 25 years old” — with non-standard Yiddish including dialect spellings for “uben” [hobn] and “gehad” [gehat].
But the third phrase (fourth line)’s grammatical and spelling curiosities actually suggest a factual disjuncture regarding the age of Malka’s older son during their journey in 1947.
The French clearly reads: “my brother was three years old” [mon frère avait 3 ans].
But the Yiddish is another story. Accounting for spelling and grammatical oddities (including another shape-swap letter switch), the semantic intent appears to be: “my brother was a year and a half” (tayne —> mayne[r] brider [bruder] ayne a halbe yor).
The difference between these two possible birth years would historically have been anything but trivial. A Jewish Eastern European child born in late 1945 or early 1946, versus 1944, might mean deeply divergent circumstances affecting that baby’s fate and survival. 5 5 Perhaps this glaring numerical discrepancy as to age has to do with the perceived age of the child actor cast for these scenes (though that’s a stretch, and still leaves open why one language would accidentally still list a biologically accurate account), or what certain official documents might have read. Conceivably the Szlingerbaums may have escaped from Poland during the war into Soviet territory, where having an infant could have been less risky (the mass-production recording of Alexandrovich’s “Bin ikh mir ayn furman” recording is of Soviet provenance, and in the postwar USSR Malka might well have heard this and from there evolved her own version).
The film’s seeming textual flaws might have been planted for a very select audience as a unreliable-narrator special effect, a kind of inside commentary on the damaged but ultimately intact chain of cultural transmission. Alternatively, any or all of these print inaccuracies could simply be grayzn, post-production mistakes and /or miscommunications. But no matter how such type-character confusion occurred, mere misprint errata cannot explain away the brother’s age discrepancy, which provides a substantively and historically different starting place for readers of Yiddish as we enter the fraught journey of the Szlingerbaum family.
The Yiddish tune through which we meet Malka, our auditory guide and first-person protagonist, sets an evocative, ultimately uplifting tone. The various iterations of her song portions shape and accompany our experience of the travel narrative that her son reconstructs for us. Malka’s repeated passages of reflective verse, anchoring bridge, and accelerating refrain express a building momentum despite ongoing hardship and uncertainty, fueling the determination that helps sustain her displaced family. Malka’s folkloric-sounding approach brings an original melodic structure to her reinterpretation of “Bin ikh mir a furman,” originally written by Soviet Yiddish playwright and songwriter Boris Bergolts. Popular Soviet recording star (and erstwhile cantor) Mikhail Davidovich Alexandrovich recorded the work in 1947, in an art song format with full orchestra.
Mikhail Davidovich Alexandrovich’s 1947 rendition of “Bin ikh mir a furman”
This version of “Bin ikh mir a furman” has since been emulated by many other vocalists, particularly male cantors and balladeers treating it as a showpiece. 6 6 Alexandrovich’s original 78 rpm recording of this song, likely the basis for Malka’s adaptation, was the B-side on a matrix featuring another Bergolts Yiddish lyric, “di bobe dermont zikh” on its A-side. Misha Alexandrovich himself later recorded a more “popular” arrangement of “Bin ikh mir a furman” in Tel Aviv 1972, but this less nuanced orchestration embodies a ‘reder skripn’ phrase (lyrics only hinted at in one of Malka’s retakes) with literal violin scrapes. This Tel Aviv remake also contains a third Yiddish verse, not heard in the Leningrad 1947 version, possibly reflecting the fact that 33 rpm recordings allow a longer performance. Another, more folk-styled, unaccompanied variation, sung by Mikhail Akerman, was collected in Minsk 2002 by ethnomusicologist Dmitri Zisl Slepovich with his mentor Nina Stepanskaya. Listening to these assorted interpretations — some alternately titled “bin ikh mir a balegoltshik” and so on — is instructive for understanding how Samy Szlingerbaum uses his mother’s deeply resonant but non-khazonesdik interpretation of the song to frame her telling. Malka’s musical and lyrical choices convey both weariness and self-soothing, followed by reaffirmation of strength to continue on the journey. 7 7 I thank my Yiddish New York film fest co-curator Josh Waletzky and ethnomusicological colleagues for their diligence in our joint project of translating Malka’s own version of what turns out to be a somewhat widely-known song in its post-WWII era and Eastern European provenance.
I have coined the term “vakh-lid” to describe the function of this music in generating a grounded momentum for both singer and listener (rather than a “vig-lid” [cradle song], which comforts but lulls the hearer to sleep). While her melodic approach differs markedly from those on commercial tracks and the Minsk field recording, Malka sings many lines textually similar to Bergolts’ original verses and refrain as heard on the Leningrad disc by Alexandrovich. However, she transforms certain passages: While preserving the crucial image of the two swift, strong horses as a pair of eagles, her description renders that team as one white and one grey steed rather than of a vayser and “shvartser.” And in the final words of her chorus, Malka’s horse terminology reflects her own origins in Łódź with the Polish signals for horses “hetta, wio, wiśta, prr” (Turn right! Giddy-up! Turn left! Whoa!). 8 8 Special thanks to Asia Fruman for this insight; hetta (also hejta, hajta).
Polish Mazowsze regional song using the same Polish horse terminology that Malka includes in her version of “Bin ikh mir a furman”
Malka’s first verse, bridge and refrain are here, transcribed with her Łódźer pronunciation:
bin ikh mir ayn furman,
hob ikh mir tsvay ferdelekh,
ferdelekh - udlerlekh tsvay.
ayner ayn vayser,
der tsvayter ayn grue(r).
shoyn veltn oysgefurn mit zay.
mayn haym iz dos feld.
mayn bet iz der vugn.
mayn arbayt: tsu(-)shmaysn,
di ferdelekh zoln geyn.
in az di ferdelekh geyen, geyen,
ti ikh mit di laytsn tsien,
makh mit di lipn
hetta, wio, wiśta [vishta], prrr
Malka’s only major-key interlude is at the pivotal line: “mayn arbayt: tsu shmaysn” — which leads directly into an accelerando for the next line, even as the passage returns to minor key. All systems are charged up to go.
Her second verse also closely parallels that of Alexandrovich and other male singers. However, while their versions contain various descriptions of the coachman/teamster stroking his beard [bord/berdl], Malka changes her own wording to “glet mit mayn arim di hor”: 9 9 Thanks to Asya Schulman for decoding this line.
zits ikh mir oyf di nare,
shtil ba di kelnye,
un glet mit mayn arim di hu-e.
dan dakht zikh mir di zangen,
farshitn shoyn di felder,
farshitn shoyn a mul
un nokh ayn mul.
Szlingerbaum returns to Malka’s song to delineate several passages of the film’s opening section in which we learn of the travails of his parents’ and older brother’s journey. Her singing and her spoken recollections accompany evocative but not “flashback” footage of train stations, railway yards, and urban streetscapes. This non-linear, thematically associative visual collage of moving images creates both intimate perspective and filtered distance from Malka’s lived experience. The song bookends passages of her verbal narration, including slow audio fade-ups bringing us gradually back to her musical voice after pauses in her oral history, under sequences of travel noise and street sounds accompanying the movement and surroundings of train voyage. The song’s energy brings us back from the poignant hiatus in her story, suggesting a sense of reflection as well as replenished strength during both the difficult times being remembered and also the difficult task of her recollection — and our absorption — of these memories.
The tempi and even the key in which Malka sings her verses of “Bin ikh mir ayn furman” vary as she continually reprises the song for her son’s microphone, perhaps over several sessions of reminiscence and requests. Throughout, her range of tempi give a burst of lively quickening as she reaches the song’s chorus or refrain section, which resembles the cantering gait of a horse.
Other recorded arrangements of this song also settle into some accelerando or livelier pace by the refrain, though they do not attain Malka’s driving pulse. 10 10 Thanks to Itzik Gottesman for guiding researchers of Malka Szlingerbaum’s “furman” lyrics to many studio-recorded iterations of this song, by a wide range of notable vocalists enumerated from both sides of the Atlantic, and both sides of the Iron Curtain. Each suggests its own equine tempo. For instance, Sidor Belarsky moves from a dirge-like opening to a steady walk; Ben Bonus uses a very slow walking gait. Mikhail Akerman, in the version Slepovich collected from Belarus, proceeds at a slow trot; his song remains in minor key but with a clip-clop 4/4 feel and scansion that retains a more reflective phrasing, with extra beats of rest, even in this more exuberant passage. 11 11 Alexandrovich in Mikhail Milner’s 1947 arrangement, conducted by L.P. Pyatigorsky, follows a transitional modal clarinet figure with a steadily trotting orchestral processional feel for his markedly major-key refrain. Cantors Louis Danto and Pierre Pinchik are also in respective trot feels with major-key refrains (Danto perhaps approaching a slow canter). And on the “Brussels Transit” soundtrack re-enactment section, the actress Hélène Lapiower herself hums and then quietly sings a brief passage of Malka’s own tune to her young son [toddler Samy] during the kitchen scene, but in a slower rendition, perhaps due to her own limitations in pronouncing the lyrics at speed or approximating the melodic arc.
Malka’s unique pacing, melodic arc, and harmonic pattern bring a fresh sense of movement to this piece. For a brief portion of her bridge, the melody turns major before her driving refrain reverts to a minor key and rousing, subtly urgent 2/4 time. No simple “sad” message is intended here. A sense of staunch if wounded determination, rather than defeated pessimism, complete exhaustion, or melancholic blues, defines the story, despite fleeting references and photo album glances reflecting so many family losses in the war. 12 12 In correspondence regarding Malka’s interpretation of “Furman,” Josh Waletzky adds that ‘applying the description “sad” to the song combines two unfortunately common and injurious cliches about Jewish history and music: the “lachrymose theory of Jewish history” (“Look what they did to us! and then look what they did to us!”) and the outsiders’ perception that all music in a minor key is “sad” (see Andre Previn’s book about Hollywood movie scoring, whose title tells it all: “No Minor Chords”) …[I]t’s not a lament! It is, rather, a sober engagement with the circumstances both the teamster in the song and Malka and family find themselves in: On a long road (forced to sleep not in a bed at home) — destination unknown or at least not indicated, it’s not the focus of attention — but with the resources and energy to keep up the journey! The resources: two horses like eagles. The energy: the whip and the teamster’s cries that direct the horses, “Giddy-up!!…“ ‘
Perseverance is the clear lyrical and melodic message in the original composition. The song’s third verse (presumably also penned by Bergolts, though we never hear Malka sing these lines) explicitly asserts: even as the furman ages over years on the road, through heat, cold, mud, and sand, his powerful grip endures. The words Malka sings suggest the same message. Transliteration here is klal, closer to Alexandrovich’s:
Ikh heyb zey on traybn un fayfn un shmaysn.
Haynt ven mayn ponim zet oys mies fun kneytshn
Un groy iz gevorn mayn kop,
Dokh mayne hent zenen shtarker vi ayzn
Un lozn di leytses nit op;
Shtark iz nokh der knut in di hent fun mazolyes
Ferdlekh, hayda! Men tor zikh nisht foyln.
These lines reflect what becomes her non-stop working existence in Brussels for decades onward. Life is unrelenting, soul-wearying, yet she has continued on, and this song remains a source of renewal. As Alexandrovich also sings, the lidl itself gives the strength to carry on, using the language of horse and wagon again to keep moving through it all: “Kol zman, koyekh iz nokh do. Zing ikh mir a lidl, hayda un vyo.” While these particular lines are not part of Malka’s sung version, her vibrant accelerando vocalizes this doggedly encouraging spirit.
A less refreshing but equally telling musical piece comes a few sequences later in the film. We only hear Malka sing “Di frishinke zeml” once, as the family’s saga of precarious peregrination gives way to their years-long search in Brussels for stability in lodgings and parnose, all without work permits, ration cards, or any valid visa to stay in Belgium other than as tourists. Unlike “Bin ikh mir ayn furman,” this next song deals with long stretches of hunger, remembering delicious hot buns fresh from the basket when one has not eaten for days. The song reflects lives filled with constant anxiety, fear of want, and the inability ever to feel fully at home. This more daunting musical interlude leads us through traveling shots of Brussels facades, until a brief burst of loud, dark tunnel visual brings us into the next section of the film — a slow, majestic vertical pan of the house where we will finally meet the characters whom until now we have been just glimpsing in rail station waiting rooms and vokzal corridors. Malka’s repeated versions of “Bin ikh mir a furman” and her single rendition of “Di frishinke zeml” thus guide viewers to her family’s arrival in Brussels, which, though officially only a “way station,” finally provides a semblance of lasting resettlement, despite immigration troubles.
Domesticity, Displacement, and the Szlingerbaum-Akerman Connection
So commence the movie’s more traditionally narrative sequences. Now rather than the device of Malka’s voice and evocative visual collages, we see reenactments of the family’s experience of uncertain, marginalized life in Belgium. Their constantly shifting residences and conditions allow scant time and resources to recharge; we see repeating patterns of disruption, alienation, and frustration. Szlingerbaum’s camera navigates interior domestic landscapes that unfold quietly and slowly, minutely revealing the memories and stresses of day-to-day coping. While the parents strive to reestablish their livelihood and cultural heritage, these efforts can be upset at any moment. Rhythms shift when sudden hostile forces interfere, whether tsuris with a police visit in the ground floor workroom or an aggressive neighbor competing for space in the cramped ‘shutfis kokh’ upstairs.
Szlingerbaum establishes a trope of being evicted from use of a table — suddenly losing the domestic locus of productive, creative cultural labor and/or traditional hemshekh. We see this first with Boris Lehman playing the fabric-cutter father and then Hélène Lapiower as dough-crafting mother. Their respective roles in successive scenes involve parallel gestures, first with his smoothing the piecework pattern on the fabric surface, and then her smoothing the dough for making farfelekh (beloved food from the Old Country to celebrate a yontef). Even the imagery of their blade-cutting angles is parallel, his in an atelier below and hers in a kitchen above. Each is thwarted in their careful efforts, suddenly uprooted until the crisis passes and they are finally able to reassemble and try once again. For the young mother, a subsequent series of failed attempts to use a bakery oven — futile visits to local boulangeries and a demeaningly apathetic, uncomprehending outside world she encounters — lead her to forcefully, impulsively abandon her unfinished project. This embodiment of her enraged defeat takes place in full view of both children, but barriers of language and emotional rupture prevent her describing to them all that now seems lost.
This pattern of building repetitions with micro-focus on tasks of domestic ritual, only to reach estranged culmination in a sudden physical [self-]destructive act, strikes me as a bridge between Samy Szlingerbaum’s “Brussels Transit” and the famed quietly violent denouement of Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman.” In a quick partial zoom-in over the bakery counter that is unlike any camera motion seen elsewhere in his film, Szlingerbaum also hints at aggressive foreshadowing: This noir-esque shot gesture gives a slightly menacing air to either the slicing machine, its adamantly French-centric proprietress, or both.
Connections between Samy and Chantal go beyond key correspondences of style and substance, developed between numerous films on which they worked together.
Szlingerbaum had also worked closely with Akerman on several of her own productions, both before and after “Brussels Transit”: Among these are “Le 15/8” which they co-edited and co-directed in 1973, as well as “je tu il elle” (1974), and “Golden Eighties” (released January 1, 1986).
These manifest at times on-camera as well as behind the scenes, and even from the pre-filmmaking years of these two cineaste offspring of Holocaust survivors.
The theme of language ideology and hegemony in the bifurcated Belgian Francophone/Flemish environment runs through both “Brussels Transit” and “Jeanne Dielman.” Even on the set design of Szlingerbaum’s spartan collective kitchen, a wall calendar is adorned with an iconic Flemish [dominant culture] portrait. This hegemonic calendar illustration hangs next to a forbidden cupboard only accessible to the French-speaking neighbor with her key. Encounters with language as broken means of transmission are another common theme (despite one kind androgynous stranger’s friendly attempt at multilingual intervention in the bakery scene).
According to Boris Lehman, who not only played Samy’s father but was his longtime friend, an older Jewish man whom his character encounters at a trolley stop – recognizing this bearded gentleman as a fellow yid from Poland “avant la guerre” – is in fact based on Chantal’s own father, a fellow Polish expatriate but one who has already become a Belgian citizen. As longer-established Belgian Jews, the real-life Akerman family and their anonymous cinematic counterparts prove able to transfer some measure of control to help Samy’s mishpokhe in their disempowered post-war immigrant plight. 14 14 Boris clarified this point about the actor representing Chantal’s father during our preparation for Yiddish New York’s 2021 panel session. He had earlier disclosed this connection while introducing “Brussels Transit” in 2015 for a screening at Kulturfest NY.
In the film, befriending and teaming up with this legally-privileged landsman finally gives the Szlingerbaums both a “zeyde” figure and a more stable means to earn a living. And in real life decades later, Chantal not only produced “Brussels Transit” through her company Paradis Films but also was already in planning stages for Samy’s second feature soon after.
This follow-up to “Brussels Transit” was never realized due to other projects and then his subsequent illness and death. But thanks to one contemporary New York colleague of theirs, we can relay its outlines. Cinephile, curator, multimedia artist, and critic Daryl Chin met Szlingerbaum when the filmmaker came to introduce “Brussels Transit” at MoMA. The news of Samy’s death only a few years later came as a shock, and Daryl keenly remembered his cross-cultural film and their conversations. He writes:
“My friend Chantal Akerman was a close friend and associate of Samy Szlingerbaum, and the film was included in New Directors/New Films in 1980…. I do know (having talked to Samy a little while he was in NYC for ND/NF) that [Szlingerbaum and Akerman] were collaborating on what would have been Samy’s second feature, which was about his school experiences as a Jewish gay child….
“Samy Szlingerbaum’s family came after WWII to Brussels, and they moved to the “Jewish” neighborhood, which is how Samy initially met Chantal. But Chantal’s family was one that was more ‘assimilated’: the primary languages for the Akermans were French and Polish, but for Samy’s family, their primary language was Yiddish, and it made it hard for him as a child when he went to school. (That was one of the conflicts he wanted to explore in the film, and the fear that he had about how Yiddish was becoming a “lost” language.)”
Samy’s and Chantal’s queerness and their relationship to yidishkayt gave them a shared sense of dual alienation from the dominant culture. According to Boris Lehman, Samy’s father was not close to his son, in part because of Samy’s sexuality. In more recent decades, friends of mine remember Chantal as an occasional member of the Facebook group Yiddish Pour Tous. 15 15 Boris’ co-star Hélène Lapiower also died relatively young, but she completed her documentary “Petite Conversation Familiale,” made over the course of seven years, which features an older woman Yiddish speaker. Boris Lehman (who for the sake of “Brussels Transit” was even willing to cut his hair), in directing his own 1987 documentary short “Gefilte Fish” also brings out a fascination with the language, both in terms of family ritual at Rosh Hashanah and in meditations on mass extermination. And according to J. Hoberman, Chantal Akerman spent years trying to finance an adaption of I.B. Singer’s novel “The Manor.” In Akerman’s 1989 “Histoires d’Amerique,” an open display of Yiddish appears in American goles only: New Yorker film critic Richard Brody described this facet of her approach as “garlicky comedy of Catskills jokes, acted out on a D.I.Y. outdoor set of an old-style delicatessen. Amid the schmaltz and the schtick, Akerman highlights the forthright display of a distinctive Jewish-American diaspora culture, which she contrasts with the private and wary sense of Jewish identity on view in her European work.” In the words of Sam Shuman, for Belgian Yiddish speakers such as Samy, their fate was to grow up in “a country divided by [Flemish/French] ethnolinguistic/nationalist divisions…and yet to be “illegible” to either side.” Yet Szlingerbaum, whose family arrived in Belgium only “après la guerre,” seems to have heard more of the language in his formative years.
In January 2019 the New York Jewish Film Festival gave the restored edition of “Brussels Transit” its North American premiere, with new English subtitles created in time for this Lincoln Center debut.
I am honored to have brought news of the film’s revived distribution to the attention of festival director Aviva Weintraub, who then programmed this masterwork which she knew from MoMA decades earlier as well.
Jim Hoberman, co-curator of the film’s 1992 MoMA showing, spoke following the screening. Addressing the audience from the stage, he declared that henceforth Samy Szlingerbaum’s lone, long-neglected feature should be considered a recovered part of the Chantal Akerman canon.