Review: ‘Unorthodox,’ a Stunning Escape From Brooklyn

Review: ‘Unorthodox,’ a Stunning Escape From Brooklyn

In Berlin, she’s free but terrified, with little money, no contacts but her estranged mother and few skills applicable in the modern world. (Encountering a computer search engine for the first time at a library, she asks it if God exists. She gets only a list of contradictory answers.) By chance, she falls in with a group of international music students from a conservatory; their free-spokenness awes and daunts her.

To them, Esty is like a fascinating alien, a time traveler from the 19th century. There’s an otherworldliness to “Unorthodox,” a credit to how well the director, Maria Schrader (also of the “Deutschland” series), visualizes both Williamsburg and Berlin. The dialogue hopscotches among Yiddish, English and German; the scenes among the Hasidim are essentially period pieces, meticulously designed and costumed. There’s a sense, which Esty must feel, that the series takes places simultaneously in the past and the future.

Haas is a phenomenon, expressive and captivating. As Esty makes her way, drawn forward by little more than hope and an attraction to music, Haas makes you hear the unsounded symphonies in her head. In the first hour, Esty goes to a beach with her new conservatory friends, carefully pulls off her pantyhose, wades mostly clothed into the water and sets her wig adrift. The sequence is religious in its ecstasy. (It also contrasts with a ritual-bathing scene at a mikvah, where she is cleansed after her period for the marital bed.)

At the same time, “Unorthodox” follows Yanky and Moishe’s peregrinations across Brooklyn, then Berlin, like long-coated G-men. You root for Esty to escape them, but the series is also sensitive to their perspective. Yanky, especially, is at sea, raised to believe that as a husband he is “a king” but also discovering that the customs that defined his life are thinner and more fragile than the wire around his neighborhood.

“Unorthodox” is, unambiguously, the story of a woman’s escape from a society that she finds suffocating and unsustaining. But it extends its curiosity and understanding to those who find Hasidic isolationism to be a refuge from a world that has continually been hostile to Jews.

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