LFF 2022 Review: SHTTL
★★★★★ | A hard day's night and day.
On a long, fading summer evening, a young man returns to his shtetl. That word is Yiddish, which means a town of Ashkenazi Jews, used until the 1940s before the Nazis wiped out their culture from the face of the earth.
The shtetl is preparing for a wedding. It rests by a riverbank in Ukraine, bordering Poland. The Soviet military machine found them some years earlier. Stalin’s men spend their days conscripting those they can and sermonising those they can’t.
The returning man, Mendele, has left behind friends, family, unresolved conflicts, and the woman he loves. They all have something left unsaid. Things that can’t linger in their soul any longer.
It is the summer of 1941. Days before Operation Barbarossa. History hangs over their heads like the sword of Damocles.
SHTTL, stylized to remove the e’s, is the debut film from Ady Walter. How that’s possible is beyond me. This is a surely directed, beautifully composed masterpiece, that lingers in the heart and mind long after it ends. In recreating the mundane in a seemingly single, uninterrupted shot, Walter enraptures us in a world that breathes and exists in the same space as its audience.
The story of SHTTL is simple, yet told through as many intricacies and turns as life itself. In framing it like a stage play, Walter creates an intoxicating reality. One where every character, building, and lingering grievance has texture and grit. This story and shtetl are fictional, the opening tells us, but they’re also grounded in the reality of millions murdered. As we linger in conversations, tedious daily tasks, and memories gilded by time, Walter crafts an existence so immersive I didn’t want it to end.
When it does, reality hits with the brutality only history can achieve. It feels like a betrayal. But that is the sensation Walter seeks. The atrocity committed by the Nazi force wiped out dreams, legacies, and history. By immersing us in a singular quest, Walter brings that reality to life with immediacy and grace. SHTTL is a film that understands how home feels. When you’re there, the rest of the world is beyond another border.
Told entirely in Yiddish, there is a musical quality to SHTTL. You could watch the entire film without subtitles and understand it. The cast, a collection of newcomers, veterans, and multimedia artists, carries the complicated picture with grace. Every monologue is compelling, and every conflict is earned. It refuses to avoid complexity. A man can be a hypocrite, a Luddite, even dangerously devout to their faith, and still, help another when faced with reckless hate. Others can believe in fairness and equality, yet blindly follow the promised lies of a Stalinist state. Walter’s beautifully intricate script does not judge nor condone. It simply captures life caught in a sunbeam.
SHTTL is a triumph. A hypnotic masterpiece from an exciting voice. Profound in its simplicity, eloquent in its complexity. It stands alongside other great works about our recent history, bringing to mind the humanism of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
It is a stark reminder that, for a moment, there was life here. SHTTL captures the last gasp of those unrealized dreams as they echo into history.