Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Snow in August (2001)

Magic is not the most extraordinary thing in the world: "Snow in August"

Magic is not the most extraordinary thing in the world: “Snow in August”

Snow in August (2001)

Written by: Richard Friedenberg, Pete Hamill (book)
Directed by: Richard Friedenberg
Starring: Peter Tambakis, Stephen Rea, Lolita Davidovich
Summary: A small but lovely magical realist film about the unlikely friendship between an Irish-American boy and a rabbi.

I was briefly tempted to put this film into my Irish-American Crime Movie section. It is, after all, about the unlikely friendship between an Irish-American teenager and a rabbi in Brooklyn in the year 1947, and both must contend with the threat of an Irish-American youth gang. But — and this is a bit of a spoiler, but I can’t discuss the film and be circumspect about the climax — in the last half hour, the boy brings a golem to life.

For those of you unfamiliar with golems, they are creatures made of clay, and the most famous was supposedly created by Rabbi Judah Loew in Prague in the late-16th century to battle antisemitism.  Judah Loew was a real man, by the way, although the story is likely a literary invention of the 19th century. The golem was the subject of a marvelous German Expressionistic film called ” The Golem: How He Came into the World” in 1920, where the creature was thick-featured and burly, with an enormous, blunt wig that really looked like it was made of clay. The golem in this film is very different: Tall, lean, and bald, colored reddish-brown, with a sweet, expressive face that most often expresses a deep sympathy for the characters. The golem also wears a red cape pinned with a button emblazoned with the image of baseball player Jackie Robinson, and there is a reason for this.

His friends are openly antisemitic, and the local Irish gang is violently antisemitic.
The film, based on the novel by Pete Hamill, is set during Robinson’s first season playing for the Dodgers, and the film’s Irish-American child, Michael Devlin (Peter Tambakis), is a fan. He’s alone in this, too; reactions to Robinson from his friends and neighbors are generally racist. For whatever reason, however, Devlin has little patience for intolerance, and he tends to respond to any expression of hatred with dismissive sarcasm. There’s no explicit reason for this, but Devlin is a very bright boy, and, moreover, even in an Irish-American neighborhood, he’s a bit of an outsider. His mother, played by Lolita Davidovich, is an immigrant from Ireland, and his father died in World War II, and Devlin is perceptive enough to know that the fact that she is a single mother and the fact that she is an immigrant has made things a bit hard for her.

It also makes him a little more friendly than he might otherwise be to the neighborhood’s other immigrants, who are Jewish. And that makes things a bit hard for him. His friends are openly antisemitic, and the local Irish gang is violently antisemitic. One in the gang beats a Jewish shopkeeper to death, and Devlin witnesses it. He’s galled, but the gang member immediately starts threatening him. More than that, there is a neighborhood code against squealing; even his mother discourages him, telling him that in Ireland, the worst thing a person can be is a quisling.

Devlin lives very near an abandoned synagogue, tended to by a friendly rabbi, played by Irish actor Stephen Rea. The rabbi asks the boy to help him out on the sabbath; he quickly enlists the boy to help him learn English, trading him lessons in Yiddish, which intrigues Devlin. However, this relationship encourages the local gang to believe that Devlin can’t be trusted, and their threats turn to terrorism, which is when Devlin turns to Jewish mysticism for protection.

The film was made for television, and often feels it. It has a nice sense of the era it is in, but it’s mostly created through costume, set design, and smart location choices, which are relatively inexpensive. The director, Richard Friedenberg, is probably best-known for his work on the Grizzly Addams series back in the Seventies, and he’s not a showy director, favoring relatively static shots in the middle distance or simply placing his characters in the middle of the frame when they have long scenes of dialogue. The script is sometimes a bit too pointed, with characters clearly expressing what a subtler fimmaker would leave as subtext, as though the audience needed the film’s moral spelled out for them.

The film is interested in how much people are alike, despite profound cultural differences.
But these are quibbles. The film is very well cast, and the unshowiness of the direction encourages expressive performances from the cast, especially Rea, who plays a character who is quietly heartbroken from his experiences in Europe. The film showcases its characters’ affection and compassion for each other, so much so that when the golem finally appears, he seems a creation of kindness and neighborliness, and not a monster. And so it feels right that the only badge the creature wears is a picture of Jackie Robinson.

The film is interested in how much people are alike, despite profound cultural differences. This is most obvious in its casting — I don’t believe it was an accident that a famously Irish actor was cast as a Jew. Loloita Davidovitch is an actress of Serbian heritage who seems born to play Eastern Europeans and Jewish women, but here is cast as an Irish woman.  And I don’t know the origin of Peter Tambakis’ last name, but it is not Irish. So even the casting serves as a metaphor for the ways people from one culture or ethnicity can sympathize with people from another.

This is also dramatized in the film. Devlin proves not only to be a fan of Jackie Robinson, but also of Yiddish, which he uses when he’s around Jewish immigrants, to their delight an amazement. (He’s not the first; James Cagney spoke a little Yiddish and liked to show off the fact.) The rabbi, in turn, is fascinated by American culture. He carefully tracks baseball stats and, at one point, Devlin catches him playing along to jazz with a ritual ram’s horn. As they get to know each other, the rabbi and the boy come to realize they have something painful in common — both have lost family members to Nazis. And, as the film progresses, they share something even worse, in that both are targeted for violence.

This relationship is so carefully detailed, and genuinely sweet, that the climax of the film necessarily feels like an afterthought, less a climax to the story than a necessary denouement to wrap up the conflict of the film. And perhaps this is a failing — I’m not sure that the fantastic should feel tacked on in a film about the fantastic. But, then, in this story, the most extraordinary thing is a friendship between two characters who are superficially so different, and yet discover so much in common. No golem is going to feel more amazing, or more important, than that.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.