BR: Zelig (1983)

January 12, 2017 | By

Zelig_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  July 26, 2016

Genre:  Mockumentary / Comedy

Synopsis: faux documentray on ‘the human chameleon’ and his development to a person with his own identity and personality.

Special Features:  Isolated Mono Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Woody Allen’s Zelig drew plenty of attention for its bravura visual effects in which fictional Leonard Zelig (Allen, of course) and others were seamlessly blended with real newsreel and archival film footage, creative a perfect mockumentary that feels like some previously lost, one-time, feature-length Fox Movietone production that was initially aborted and later completed decades after the footage was discovered in some dank vault holding RKO oddities.

It’s also kind of a miracle Zelig found an audience, because it’s a nearly unquantifiable film: you can’t describe it without spoiling its unique twists, hence this warning: what follows are blatant spoilers.



Orion’s original trailer reveals nothing except the different fonts that show “Zelig” in different guises, which cleverly hint at Allen’s weirdest creation.

In a nutshell, Leonard Zelig is a human chameleon, a man who has little sense of self, no self-confidence, and survives by absorbing mood, words, physical comportment, and actual speech and physical attributes of whoever fascinates him. Unlike idiot Forest Gump, Zelig has no personality, but when chatting with an African American, his skin darkens and hair curls; with an indigenous American, similar changes occur, as with other racial caricatures of cinema from that time period. If he’s interviewed by a doctor, he quickly becomes ‘ doctor,’ and carries on like a professional of equal stature… until one day he’s caught, documented, and branded by the media as the human chameleon.

Zelig’s popularity spawns a lizard dance and a novelty song, plus a cornucopia of trinkets and unlicensed crap which force him to disappear until one day he’s spotted standing beside the Pope, and unmasked as a fake. When he’s back in the U.S., Zelig’s case is championed by renegade shrink Dr. Fletcher (Mia Farrow), and the two eventually become romantically involved – but not until she discovers what triggers Zelig’s chameleon abilities.

Allen’s script is incredibly tight, and like a formal documentary, moves from mystery to examination, conflicts to peace, and a resolution where all is finally well – except the interludes are sometimes surreal or insane. Perhaps the most infamous moment has Zelig seated behind Adolf Hitler at a party rally – an hysterical sequence extracted from a ‘vintage’ German newsreel in which ‘that swine’ is chased from the rally hall to the airfield.

Interwoven are ‘interviews’ with surviving present day figures who met / knew / loved Zelig, and expert writers, historians and sociologists (including genuines Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and Bruno Bettelheim) who add faux credibility to the recreated vintage footage of Zelig, as his own identity comes into its own after meeting Dr. Fletcher. Dick Hyman’s score flows through period songs and original pieces to evoke archival sounds of Zelig’s early years during Prohibition, and Gordon Willis’ cinematography evokes grainy newsreels, Fletcher’s ‘hidden camera’ footage, and colour contemporary ‘interviews’ that resemble economically lit 16mm colour film.



The film would’ve succeeded without its innovative technical wizardry, but it enhances a mockumentary that frequently winks at audiences, and perhaps gives fans some of the absurdity missing in Stardust Memories; when Zelig gets a needle, it’s HUGE, and when he’s sitting behind Hitler, he’s a bumpkin completely oblivious to being at the epicenter of anti-Semitic hate.

Allen’s portrayal of Zelig is faithful to the smiling, homey, perplexed figures seen in period newsreels, often reacting on-camera to suggestions or prods from off-screen producers wanting some energy to keep audiences excited; in terms of matching the look, feel, and infotainment content of the era, it’s quite remarkable.

Contemporary audiences will be able to see a few of the seams in the technical magic, but in terms of the newsreel recreations, the visual and aural granularity between fake and real is almost seamless. They’ll also appreciate the tightness of the faux doc, which doesn’t sag, meander, nor unmask itself. Allen’s winks to audiences are subtle and fleeting, and just as we start to accept the film’s fictional content, along comes a figure like Bruno Bettelheim to redirect us back to Leonard Zelig, the forgotten human chameleon.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a perfect transfer and Dick Hyman’s score isolated in mono on a separate track. Also included is a German dub track. Julia Kirgo’s essay is lively, celebrating the film’s creative and technical virtues, and the cinematic love affair enacted by Allen and Farrow which feels genuine and warm, but today is at odds with the wholly divided power couple of American comedy after their public disputes and allegations.

Woody Allen films released by Twilight Time include Love and Death (1975), Interiors (1978), Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days(1987), and Crimes and Misdemeanors(1989), and the Allen starring in the Red Menace satire The Front (1976).



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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