Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Their parents disapprove. It’s a tale as old as time, most commonly depicted through the many adaptations of “Romeo and Juliet.” In “Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey Into the Arms of a Shiksa,” the now orthodox nature of this storytelling formula gets a new meaning, as director Michael Steiner explores the humorous fallout when a young Orthodox Jew falls in love outside of his religion.
As its title explicitly suggests, the film tells the story of Motti Wolkenbruch, a young Orthodox Jew who finds love in unexpected places. Motti is a university student in Switzerland who has long adhered to the rules established by his religion and family, especially his overbearing mother Judith. Determined to preserve their culture and traditions, Judith insists that Motti find a Jewish wife and start his own family. But despite the endless arranged courtships, Motti’s wish to find love on his own. And soon, his desires lead him into a forbidden romance with a fellow student, who happens to be a “shiksa.”
On the surface, the film’s premise could be dismissed as a depiction of a form of religious or ethnic intolerance. However, Motti’s dilemma reflects intergenerational tensions found in many societies, especially within diaspora communities. With his decidedly comedic approach to the material, based on a novel by the same name, director Michael Steiner’s critical perspective is clear. As Motti frequently addresses the audience to explain the local Jewish customs and expectations, the film revels in the absurdity of a culture that limits the most basic expressions of individuality, including the types of eyewear and motor vehicles deemed appropriate.
The film’s biggest object of ridicule, however, is Motti’s mother Judith. Played with scene-stealing enthusiasm by Inge Maux, she is at once the most fascinating and problematic character. A prototypical overbearing mother, her firm control over Motti’s life yields much of the film’s slapstick comic relief. But her wildly over-the-top reactions to Motti’s rebellion cause her to feel increasingly cartoonish rather than a recognizable human being. Without a more nuanced exploration of her perspective, her accusation of her son of being a “murderer of Jewishness” simply elicits eye rolls.
Of course, broad humor in a comedy is not inherently a flaw. However, the outlandish characterization of Judith clashes with Motti’s more complex journey of self-discovery. As his forbidden affections cause him to question his self-identity, the script eventually offers a more resonant examination of what it means to be Jewish. Concluding on an unexpectedly ambiguous note, the clichés of the film are thus salvaged by a thoughtfully unorthodox outlook on Orthodox Judaism.