Two Takes on "To Dust"

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To Dust

Gesa Rohrig and Matthew Broderick in Shawn Snyder

Two Tikkun summer interns, Hannah Arin and Madison Wilson, recently saw To Dust at the SF Jewish Film Festival and had two different responses.
Hannah Arin:

The Reb Simcha Benuem of Pershyscha carried two slips of paper with him everywhere he went– a slip for each pocket. One which read: “Bishbili nivra ha-olam” — “For my sake the world was created.” And the other: “V’anokhi afar v’efer” — “I am but dust and ashes.” Just as the Reb would walk the roads of Poland, one foot after the other, each leg taking its fair stride, each slip taking its turn to step before the other, only to be outpaced by the other soon thereafter, we all, more or less, follow these same footsteps. Not that we all carry these slips in our pockets; not that we all walk through 19th century, Eastern European streets muttering prayers beneath our breath; not that we all are even aware of this paradoxical path upon which we find ourselves walking… But still, despite knowing or not knowing, we cannot escape the dynamics of the world within which come to live and die. Indeed, this world was made for us to live and to love in, and all the same, it will one day be taken from us; whether we go down fighting or in submission to what is beyond our earthly selves. Somehow, this world is entirely for us to experience, yet in some respects, “we” have never been.

To Dust, a black comedy about a Hasidic cantor navigating the grief after the loss of his young wife, gives us a glimpse into better understanding this line– balancing between polarity, making sense of disparity, finding peace in the casualties. And it does so, not by any of its characters marking themselves as exemplary figures upholding the framework of the human experience in their slip filled pockets or their humble steps, or even in its storyline alone. Rather it is the experience of To Dust as a comprehensive whole that gives rise to the precious experience of gaining even the slightest glimmer of insight into something that mostly seems ineffable. It is in the relation between the characters, the cinematography, the dialogue, the humor, the Hasidic prayer, that we find ourselves one step closer to understanding just what it means to be entirely in this world, fully belonging to it, and at the same time, to be visitors, who, in their heart of hearts, truly know that this never has been, nor ever will be our ultimate home.

By combining humor and loss; a pot smoking, community college science teacher and a Hasidic cantor; a classic narrative frame and an experimental incorporation of dream sequences and outside-of-the-narrative scenes, To Dust provides a crystallization of the paradoxical blueprint. By doing so, the film is able to further explore some of the ultimate dynamics of this human existence: life and death, love and pain, everything and nothing.

The film does so in two main “steps,” if you will; each moving the film, pace by pace, foot by foot. The first leg can be understood as working to gracefully guide viewers through the practice of laughing, not despite, but amidst the darkness. Instead of suggesting a somewhat shallow, almost repressive laughter in the face of tragedy (the kind of laugh that emerges when a situation is, “just too much”) To Dust offers a crash course in keeping the flame of authentic humor alive even whilst surrounded by deluges of darkness. By refraining from using pain itself as the punch line, and rather by showing that pain need not kill the punch line entirely, the film offers insight into how life can and must, in order to breathe its authentic breath, occupy both joy and sorrow all in one stroke. And surely there will be times when the pain is all encompassing and a shred of light seems lifetimes away, and there will be times of joy to match that mark; but, To Dust reminds us that we cannot put our emotions in a box. If we feel sadness, surely we ought to feel it, but we mustn’t fool ourselves into thinking that sadness precludes laugher or joy. In fact, as To Dust shows us, it is in the spark of these two parts meeting that a wholeness of sorts can truly come to life; a wholeness belonging to the ecstasy of dual parts finding their common ground and fully experiencing one another. In its graceful presentation of humor and heartache, the film encourages viewers to reunite joy and sadness as two long lost lovers, separated by the habituated constructs we’ve put on our capacity to feel the endlessly complex spectrum of emotion; and even in its bringing together of the two, the film ensures that the lovers never becoming dependent upon one another, jumbling their own self-authenticity in the process, cheapening their precious partnership, but rather, it gives them the space to walk their own unique gate, beside one another, step by step.

The second leg driving this film forward is its unapologetic usage of, what to most, is likely to be considered disturbing, perhaps even nauseating, footage. The film’s opening scene is of a tahara, or the Jewish ritual of washing and purifying a dead body before its burial. We see orthodox women handling a lifeless body, whose flesh is not entirely hidden from us. Immediately the film takes a step into the unfamiliar, the unrecognized, and the largely repressed: death as a part of life in a very intimate, physical way. For many in America, immediate relation to the dead, especially, dead bodies, is a fleeting, perhaps even completely alien dynamic. Seldom do we see lifeless bodies, even more rarely do we tend to them, actively handling them, unless that is part of our chosen profession. Dead bodies are simply not something the vast majority of Americans encounter all that often. The reality of the embodiment of death fills a very, very small part of our cultural consciousness and as a result, awareness of death, in both its immaterial and material aspects, has diminished greatly amongst our collective. In what seems to be an act of resistance to this culturally accustomed limitation of human experience and understanding, To Dust goes on to show footage of a corpse’s toe peeling back to bone (albeit in a somewhat dream sequence fashion), real footage of the decomposition of a piglet, a pig corpse, and bodies presented mid-decomposition above ground in both the nude and with their clothing on. Now, what makes To Dust’s cinematic incorporation of such footage actually impactful and not just plain off-putting, or even by some standards cruel, is that the film itself creates a container for the footage to be comfortably digested in. By promoting biblical ideology which overtly witnesses the turning of the body to dust, by creating dialogue around the wonder and honor that is to be (at least partially) returned to fertilizer which helps sustain such a glorious ecosystem, and of course by softening all of this with a little bit of humor, by the end of the film rotting flesh was no longer an off-putting, eye sore, but rather an ode to the miraculous mending of life as death and vice versa, something to be witnessed in all of its beauty.

All in all, To Dust is a beautiful act of defiance to the modern resistance towards polarity: exhibited in our acceptance of life and dismissal of death, our acceptance of one emotion but uncomfortability with a jumble of a few, etc. It calls us to witness life in as much of its entirety as we can muster, not because it is comfortable or entirely joyous, but because it is whole– something far more real than a life half lived, searching for meaning in a half-light world.

To Dust

Gesa Rohrig and Matthew Broderick in Shawn Snyder

Madison Wilson:

In To Dust, director Shawn Snyder debuts his bizarre yet tasteful style in a film that guarantees to confuse and delight. The comedy may seem surface-level, but the film’s underlying message is deep, relatable, and everlasting.

Geza Rohrig plays Shmuel, a Hasidic cantor who recently lost his wife to cancer. Shmuel is plagued by grotesque nightmares of his wife decomposing and fears that she is in pain, trapped between this world and the next. This single-minded obsession leads him to abandon his parenting duties with sons Noam and Naftali and his role in the Hasidic community. Tortured by visions of his wife decomposing, Shmuel eventually seeks out Albert, played by Matthew Broderick, a local community college biology professor. The two embark on a somewhat fanatical journey to discover what actually happens to your body when you die. They bury a pig, test soil samples from Shmuel’s wife’s grave, and even visit a “farm” that “plants” dead bodies to see how they decompose. Finally, Shmuel realizes that the best he can do for his wife is to let her body rest in and return to the earth, culminating in a (somewhat horrific) scene where Rohrig and Broderick dig up the corpse of his wife and rebury her next to a pond.

Snyder tests the boundaries of the grotesque and the humorous, finding creative and playful intersections between the two. The essence of the film boils down to the deep friendship between these two very different men, a somewhat cheesy takeaway but poignant nonetheless. Spots of humor take away from the horror of decomposing flesh and make Snyder’s characters more real – from Matthew Broderick’s fluffy housecoat to a side plot involving Shmuel’s sons and a rumored dybbuk, there is a variety of quirky comedy to keep viewers excited. However, the humor feels overdone at some points, and Matthew Broderick’s aggressive swearing and overdone slapstick scenes are more of a cheap laugh than masterful acting.

The largest issue in To Dust was plot motion. The story takes a little while to get going, and once it does, it feels a bit like a subway train – stop, start, long stretches where it doesn’t really go anywhere. The middle third of the film was stagnant and redundant, and without Broderick and Rohrig’s exceptional dynamic and humor, might have been boring. There are only so many different ways to bury a pig and test soil samples.

Perhaps the most enjoyable element of the film was the transformation of Rohrig and Broderick’s relationship. While Broderick often slipped into the lackadaisical Ferris Bueller and Rohrig occasionally overdid the angry/sad widower schtick, for the most part the two play off each other well and convince us that they are real human beings. Were their relationship not believable I would have had a difficult time stomaching the bizarre storyline. It’s almost childishly enjoyable seeing such a predictable basic plot play out in such strange conditions, and when the two become friends, I couldn’t help feeling immensely satisfied despite myself. It’s necessary for Snyder to create some realistic relationship dynamics to pull off the rest of this ridiculous film.

Cinematography is what turned this film from predictable and cute to wowing. The short animated sequences depicting Shmuel’s nightmares reminded me of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas – dark, slightly disturbing, but not realistic enough to be actually scary – almost kitschy. The way Snyder filmed the final scene is still stuck in my memory. It’s pouring rain, Broderick and Rohrig are slipping and sliding in the muddy cemetery as they wordlessly dig Shmuel’s wife out of her pine coffin and take her to a spot next to a pond. It’s almost a religious experience. The lighting is dark but hopeful, the rain, rather than ominous, is purifying. Somehow Snyder transforms digging up a (decomposing) corpse into an act of love, friendship, and purpose with clever camerawork and clean directing.

I always believe that well-done films will leave me contemplating long after the final credits. Long after seeing To Dust, I’m still thinking about the takeaways. An obvious one is the importance of tradition. Shmuel breaks rule upon Hasidic rule on his quest – he buries not one, but two pigs, for starters – but sacrifices the rigidity of his faith for the necessity of curiosity and love. Albert breaks a more unwritten rule by fraternizing with the “other” but eventually realizes that friendship, whether he likes it or not, does not respect societal norms.

The film also evoked a more metaphysical contemplation. We spend so much time worrying about where our souls go after death, yet rarely think about what happens to our physical bodies. Is the body so distinct from the soul? Is the body just a skin vessel for the more important, metaphysical stuff on the inside? Or are they one, and once the body becomes one with the earth, that’s it for the rest? The film contemplates the importance of what we can see and therefore control. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what happens to Shmuel’s wife’s body after she dies and the memories he and his sons keep of her and the impact she will always have on their lives are far more everlasting. This might be a cliche message, but it still rings true: while death happens to the body, it need not happen to the soul. We will never control nature but we can control how we remember, and while there are as many interpretations of the afterlife as there are people on earth, reverence for death and memory tie us all together.

Hannah Arinis an intern at Tikkun as well as a rising senior at Pitzer College studying Religious Studies and Philosophy. She is particularly interested in the sanctity of language and rehabilitating her own, as well as our collective relationship to the written and spoken word.
Madison Wilsonis a summer editorial intern atTikkunMagazine and an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College (most likely) majoring in English.