Originally written by Alexandre Chatrian and Emile Erckmann in 1871, “Le juif polonais” was first adapted into a feature-length silent film by James Young, who directed “The Bells” in 1926, starring Lionel Barrymore and newcomer Boris Karloff. The copyrights to this film fell into the public domain in 2001. A deteriorated print of “The Bells” was re-edited into this short film, “The Mesmerist”.
In the 1926 version of “The Bells”, the character played by Lionel Barrymore basically gets away with murder. He first befriends and then betrays his Jewish guest. But the most haunting scene comes when he drags his murdered corpse into an incinerator, eerily foreshadowing crimes against European Jews that were to become widespread only over a decade later. The murderer feels guilty, but nothing that can’t be assuaged by a statue of the Virgin Mary. “The Bells” ends with the murderer in sound financial shape, and his daughter married to the newly appointed chief of police. He falls asleep at peace with his conscience.
“The Mesmerist” begins with this final shot of the sleeping man, and re-interprets the strangely anti-Semitic tale into one more aligned with modern sensibilities. With the horrors of the Holocaust now a historical reality, the profane absolution of guilt delivered in the name of religion seems all the more obscene. And it is all the more relevant today. Just as the murderer survives to rob his victim and revise History, so does this short film steal from, and butcher, its predecessor to re-tell its story.