DVD+Digital: Sholem Aleichem, Mark Twain and Laughing in the Darkness

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  • courtesy of Docudrama Films

The well-made 90-minute film documentary may be mankind's most efficient mode of communication. When put together by skilled filmmakers, the feature-length documentary can convey quite massive amounts of information while providing wit and heart and functioning as, you know, a movie.

Such is the case with the historical documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, new to DVD and digital this week. In the late 19th century, Aleichem was the world's most famous Yiddish author and playwright — his stories of Jewish life in Eastern Europe inspired the musical Fiddler on the Roof. He's often referred to as "the Jewish Mark Twain." (Legend has it that when Twain heard this, he replied "please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.")

Born into a Hasidic family in what is now Ukraine, Aleichem began his writing career in Russian and Hebrew, then switched to Yiddish, the vernacular language of Eastern European Jews. Aleichem's stories — he produced over 40 volumes in Yiddish alone — detailed the lives of common Jews in the small towns (or shtetls) of Eastern Europe, as they endured increasing poverty and the anti-Semitic violence of the pogroms. Aleichem's work left lasting legacies in Europe, the Soviet Union and America. When Aleichem died in New York City, in 1916, 200,000 people attended his funeral. It was the largest funeral the city had ever witnessed.

Directed by Joseph Dorman, Laughing in the Darkness uses a combination of archival footage and talking-head interviews to detail Aleichem's life and work. But what images! Dorman must have done some heavy scholarly lifting to excavate the film's rich pageant of photographs and grainy film clips. The film spends long moments lingering over curious details in these snapshots and moving pictures of the past. A crowded village marketplace in Russia. A family portrait in Switzerland. A busy immigrant neighborhood in New York City.

With his round spectacles and groovy Van Dyke beard, the young Aleichem cuts a dashing figure in the formal portraits and candid photos. Voiceover is provided by actors Peter Riegert and Rachel Dratch. Various critics, historians and literary experts are consulted throughout, as is Aleichem's granddaughter. The writer's most famous creation — Tevye the Milkman — is remembered with readings and clips from the film version of Fiddler on the Roof.

Laughing in the Darkness is a curiously intimate film, with sounds and images working together to establish a warm and thoughtful tone. This doesn't feel like a history lesson; neither does it feel like an adoring tribute. Like all documentaries, the film has a point-of-view and an agenda. But the agenda seems to be quite simple: Here is a man and the work that he did, in this time and place. Here are his people and their crisis. Look at these pictures. Listen to these stories.

Also New This Week:

Ang Lee picked up the Best Director prize at this year's Academy Awards for his visually delirious fable Life of Pi, also available on Blu-ray 3D.

Santa Claus, Jack Frost, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy team up to fight for the kids in the animated family film Rise of the Guardians.

Anthony Hopkins and his prosthetic makeup co-star in the underwhelming Hitchcock.

Rocky Mount, N.C., native Mary Elizabeth Winstead headlines the sobriety drama Smashed.

Director Luis Buñuel's provocative 1970 film Tristana has been re-released to DVD and Blu-ray.

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