Last night, I had the honor of seeing one more Israeli film which just opened here in Jerusalem – Past Life by Avi Nesher – and it is the most compelling and serious Israeli film that I have seen in a long time.
Avi Nesher makes great films. He is known for his earlier films – Dizengoff ’99 and Sing Your Heart Out – and for his later films – Turn Left at the End of the World, Secrets, and Wonders.
His newest film, Past Life (Hebrew title: החטאים ), tells the story of two sisters in 1977 Israel who learn about their father’s complicated and problematic past during the Holocaust. It is also about the blurring of moral choices in time of war. The script is based on the true story of Ella Sheriff, wife of Noam Sheriff (the Israeli world-renowned conductor/musician/composter).
According to a radio interview with Avi Nesher last Friday, he chose to have the film take place in 1977 because this was a year of upheaval in Israeli society. There were the political changes of the revolutionary election of the Likud to power as well as the historic visit of Egyptian President Sadat to Jerusalem, which led to the groundbreaking peace agreement with Egypt. This was also the end of the period of the “generals”, a macho period in which the leadership of the Israel Defense Forces thought that they had answers to everything, but in fact their conventional understanding of the enemy was mistaken, which led to the debacle of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. The fact that everything got turned upside down in so many different ways is clearly reflected in this relevant film, especially because this is the story of two very strong women.
Ella Sheriff, like her husband, is a musician/composer. Interviewed on the same talk radio program as Avi Nesher, she said that as a result of participating in this project, she felt that she was being pushed to finally grapple with her story. She said that before she saw the film, she couldn’t believe that this would be a true telling of her family’s story. But now, having viewed it, she realized how much Avi Nesher caught the depths of who she is and the important aspects of her story.
The narrative of the film is about two sisters -- Sephie is learning music at the Academy of Music in Jerusalem, and Nana, who is older, is married and co-publishing a provocative intellectual magazine together with her husband. At a choral performance in Berlin, an older woman shouts at Sephie that her father was a murderer. Clearly shaken by this outburst, she undertakes a journey, together with her sister, trying to discover who her father really was and what happened to him during the war.
This is not just another Holocaust film. It is a deeply compelling look at some of the extremely difficult moral choices people were forced to take, and how those choices impact on their lives 30 years later.
The film is also like a concert, showcasing extraordinary choral music and concluding with a triumphant, even cathartic, concert performed back in Berlin.
Past Life, which opened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, is probably Avi Nesher’s best film yet. Don’t miss it!