The day I went to see Enemies: A Love Story, the cinema was so full, there were no seats left. My friend and I sat on the steps that went down the centre of the screening room. It didn’t seem to be like a bad place to be – we had a good view of everything even though we were on the floor. And then, for the next two hours, I forgot where I was entirely. I was so absorbed in the film, that I forgot everything – that we were in a cool art cinema in a New England university town, that the people in this often snow bound town circled each other suspiciously at times and snubbed or cozied up to one another as if these interactions were driven by a secret algorithm. I forgot how out of place I felt there, how misunderstood. Because when I watched Enemies: A Love Story, I felt seen, acknowledged, understood. Enemies: A Love Story was the film I’d been waiting for all my life.
When I try to describe Enemies: A Love Story to people who have never seen it, I usually start by saying it’s a bedroom farce about Holocaust Survivors. Some people look shocked when I say this. Some people look disturbed. And then I have to explain why the whole premise of Enemies: A Love Story is so ground-breaking, why it offers one of the most respectful depictions I have ever seen of Holocaust Survivors.
Enemies: A Love Story came out in 1989. Films about the Holocaust from a roughly fifteen year period around that time include Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Angry Harvest, and Holocaust. The first four of those films focus on the experiences of non-victims interacting with victims of the Holocaust: they primarily focus on the non-victims’ fears, hopes, and quandaries. Schindler’s list primarily depicts the complexity and emotional development of Oskar Schindler, who transforms from profiteering Nazi into a humanitarian hero by the end of the film. The concentration camp inmates, on the other hand, are there for Schindler’s (and the audience’s) edification. We don’t think much about them, worry about them, remember much about them when the film is done.
Enemies: A Love Story is a movie that cares about the victims — only the victims. It is set in New York in 1949, in the neighbourhoods where post war refugees live, and the Americans can’t quite comprehend what the refugees have experienced. Herman Broder, a Polish-Jewish refugee, lives with Yadwiga, his Polish-Catholic wife. Yadwiga was once the family housekeeper and hid Herman in the loft of the barn when the Nazis invaded. She is kind and attentive to Herman’s needs, and there’s an affection between them, but Herman’s true love is sophisticated, passionate Masha, a Russian-Jewish survivor who lives with her mother and slinks around like a femme fatale and accepts no shit. Herman was married before the war. Witnesses told him his wife was shot in a mass killing. But Tamara, his first wife, suddenly reappears. She wasn’t shot to death after all, but managed to escape. She spent years in Russia after the war and still hasn’t entirely recovered from the gunshot wounds. But she is finally able to emigrate to America. She finds Herman by taking out an ad in a paper. And Herman becomes first involved, then married, to all three women.
Herman isn’t scheming so much as hapless. “You were never able to make decisions,” Tamara observes. Tamara figures out Herman’s situation almost immediately and correctly guesses that Masha and Yadwiga are on the scene. Masha knows about Yadwiga, but refuses to believe Herman when he tells her that Tamara is still alive. Yadwiga learns Tamara is alive, but doesn’t know about Masha. The discovery of an illicit affair is almost always explosive in films – the shock of discovery, the destruction of pretence, the euphoria of having suspicions confirmed. In Enemies, it is all these things and it is also hilarious. Masha and Herman go to the Catskills to take a break, and Tamara’s devout aunt and uncle show up at the same bungalow colony. Yadwiga starts to suspect Herman might be involved with another woman, but when Tamara shows up and she realises Tamara has survived the war, she’s so shocked she locks herself in the bathroom. Years after seeing Enemies, I was able to remember some of the rapid fire dialogue. “She saved my life,” Herman explains to Tamara, when she wants to know how he could have married Yadwiga. “Was there no better way to repay her?” Tamara asks.
But the brutality that the four lovers have survived is also present throughout. Herman repeatedly has flashbacks about what happened to him and his family during the war. His flashbacks are auditory, and we know what they’re referring to because of a short scene at the beginning of the film with Nazis screaming and dogs barking. Only later do we find out that his and Tamara’s children were killed. Tamara has a bullet in her body that couldn’t be removed and walks with a limp because of this. Glamorous Masha has a tattooed number on her arm and repeatedly refers to what happened in the camps. Yadwiga’s devotion to Herman, and her desire to convert to Judaism, seems to be inspired at least in part by the possibility of dissociating herself from perpetrators and collaborators. But the trauma is only part of the survivors’ lives. They are also flawed, funny, horny, irrational, perfectly rational, heartbroken, hopeful, and at times exhausted – just like you and me.
About a year before Enemies: A Love Story came out, I walked into a Hillel office for the first time. Hillel is an organisation for Jewish students, and they have groups based on campuses around the world, but primarily in the United States. I was going there because a friend, who was not Jewish, had persuaded me to go. I was going to explain to them that, though my parents were Jewish, I didn’t know anything about Judaism. The rabbi, who was the sort of warm, approachable, blue-jean wearing rabbi you’d expect to find on a university campus, asked me why that was the case. I explained to him that my parents were both refugees from Nazi Germany, that my father had been in a concentration camp, and that by the time I was growing up, they didn’t have any connection to a synagogue anymore. I don’t know what I expected the rabbi to say. I was nervous for sure, but he reassured me and told me my situation wasn’t unusual. In fact, he told me, people walked in with stories like mine all the time. What did I want to start with? He asked. I decided to start with a shabbat dinner with some other students. I went to the high holyday services there. I wasn’t interested in becoming religious so much as I was interested in understanding this thing that my parents had turned away from. I wasn’t quite sure how to understand, how to talk about, my parents’ refugee past and I wanted to look at it finally. I will always think of Enemies: A Love Story as central to that process, as a film that allowed me to lift my parents’ history out of amber and bring it into the present.
Thirty years after watching Enemies: A Love Story for the first time, I watched it again. There had been no opportunities to watch it since that screening where I’d sat on the steps in 1989. I’d missed when it had come out on video and on DVD. Netflix didn’t have it. Amazon had a page for it that noted: ‘Our agreements with the content provider don’t allow purchases of this title at this time.’ Finally, I located it on Vudu, Walmart’s streaming service, and (because Vudu is for the US only) was able to watch it on my laptop using a VPN. Of course I was afraid the film wouldn’t live up to my memory of it, but it did.
It’s not perfect. The characters inexplicably speak English to one another even when their common language is Yiddish. The accents are usually pretty good, but not all of them all the time. Masha sometimes slips into manic pixie dream girl behaviour. But, overall, it manages to create a world I’ve never seen constructed as well in any other film.
Visually, the film is stunning: Herman gazes out the window at the lights of Coney Island Amusement Park at night. A gauze curtain falls against the paint. The period detail is plausible and not too glossy – the big cars, overcoat wearing men, and fog-windowed coffee shops are simply there instead of becoming the fetishized backdrop of a period film. We are also wholly engaged in in the survivors’ perspectives. When a guard in Nazi uniform boards the subway train that Herman is on, we, like Herman, are shocked and don’t understand what’s happening at first. Then we, like him, realise this is a hallucination, a manifestation of the trauma he’s experienced. Finally, Enemies: A Love Story is an extraordinarily sexy film. The first time we see Masha, she’s making out with Herman on the street. In her bedroom, Herman is alluring and vulnerable and glistening with sweat. There’s sex in Catskill cabins, and sex in Bronx bedrooms and sex in Lower East Side shared digs. Up until then, almost every film – especially comedies – highlighted the desirability of non-Jewish women: Cybill Shepard in the Heartbreak Kid. A film where the most magnetic character, MASHA, was not only Jewish, but a Holocaust Survivor shifted something in me, made me able to sit up a little more.
Enemies: A Love Story is based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose work many Americans know about but have not read. A Jewish-Polish migrant who came to New York in 1935, he fled when the Nazis came to power in Germany, sensing that Jews in Poland would soon be at risk. He wrote in Yiddish, and his work was later translated into English which brought him a much larger readership of course. He was known for writing fiction that explored Jewish life in Poland and in America, but I can’t really tell you much about his work. Like most Americans, I know about his work but have never read it. I know the sentimental depictions of his work that are part of American pop culture. I know the descriptions of the Lower East Side that a friend’s father recited. I know there was a musical version of Yentl that starred Barbra Streisand that was made into a film. I was surprised to find out more recently that, not only did Singer write porn on the side, he also wrote fiction besides Enemies that was about sex and trauma and moral ambiguity in the lives of Holocaust survivors who’d made it to America.
I am writing this at a time when tens of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing Central America are being detained in camps on the US border, held in conditions so brutal that both children and adults have died while being held in the camps. In Greece, refugees who have managed to make it out of Syria wait for resettlement, like the refugees who waited years after the Second World War to devote themselves to a new country. In Germany, a million refugees are beginning their lives over, knowing they will never return to the ruined cities they fled. They are sending their children to school in a new country, learning German, probably heartbroken, hopeful, and at times exhausted. What movies will be made about them? How will we see their lives? Or will they appear as background characters in a didactic drama where someone who is not forced to flee learns about what’s right and wrong and finds their humanity? Will the victims of todays’ wars and catastrophes be shown as complex people who loved, made mistakes, and kept going (or didn’t). What will we see then? What will we see now?
About the Author:
Linda Mannheim is the author of several books including Risk (Penguin 20016), Above Sugar Hill (Influx 2014) and most recently, This Way to Departures (Influx 2019). Her short stories have appeared in magazines in the US, UK, South Africa, and Canada. She recently launched Barbed Wire Fever, a project that explores what it means to be a refugee through writing and literature. Originally from New York, Linda divides her time between London and Berlin.