„A Serious Man”

As part of the Jewish Culture Festival in Copenhagen, I went to the screenplay of „A Serious Man” by brothers Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Before the film, we were offered a glass of kosher wine, and the cultural communicator Dennis Jacob Rosenfeld had masterly put us in the film’s atmosphere. These two things made me think of this movie as one of the most Jewish pictures I have ever seen in my life because if you can’t find your inner Jew, watching this movie will be just a waste of your time. The film must be watched through the Cohen brothers’ prism, which introduces us to the unreal realities of their youth in the late 1960s, where Larry, a Jewish university lecturer, suddenly stands in the middle of a life crisis. From a normal lecturer’s life, with a house, a wife, a daughter, and a son who is just getting ready for a bar mitzvah, the Cohen brothers put the poor Larry into more and more troubles, as if they were bidding on what else this poor man might face.

Suddenly, we learn that his wife has found another man in the person of his best friend, Sy Ableman, who is much older than he is and, besides, writes denunciations on him. A teenage son is more interested in drugs than in the preparations for a bar mitzvah. The neighbor starts to use Larry’s part of the lawn as his own. Larry begins to be blackmailed by one of his students. One company demands some payments for the delivery of CDs Larry has not ordered because a failure to refuse the first delivery was automatically treated as an acceptance of the subscription.

His wife demands a Jewish divorce; Larry is forced to move to a hotel together with his crazy brother because Sy Ableman is moving into his house. His attempts to find an answer to the question of why all this happens to him leads to discussions with local rabbis, who dismiss him with empty phrases. Nothing seems to be, as one would expect. Like Larry’s mathematical equation of Schrödinger’s Cat, it shows that determining whether this cat is dead or alive is possible only after opening the box, which is still closed to the viewer.

The Cohen brothers introduce us into the world of absurdity, where we find Kafkaesque elements in Larry’s attempts to obtain an audience with Rabbi Marshak, who is the only one who doesn’t use that title because everyone knows who he is. But the junior rabbi is Rabbi Scott (name), and the senior rabbi is Rabbi Nachter (surname). That in Marshak’s waiting room we find a portrait of the “dybbuk” from the opening sequence of the film, which takes place in the nineteenth century and is kept in Chagallian colors and everyone speaks Yiddish, it should not come as a surprise to anyone. The same one can say about Larry staying on the roof not, heaven forbid, to play the violin, but to watch the neighbor woman sunbathe naked in her backyard.

Do you think that’s all? So what about an envelope with money that, if not accepted, is not actually a bribe, but becomes a part of the blackmail anyway? What about the twenty bucks which Larry’s son Danny owes someone for drugs? Twenty bucks that the Hebrew teacher has confiscated along with the radio, Danny was listening during the lesson. This money, which aren’t Danny’s because he took them from his sister, who stole them from Larry because she’s collecting money for nose surgery? What about the sudden death of his wife’s suitor, which not causing Larry’s (and his crazy brother) automatic return home? What about the fact that none of these questions in the film is really answered?

Do you want to know? Then go to the movie!

Alex Wieseltier
September 2020