For nearly 40 years, Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher has been making award-winning movies like his latest, Past Life, which opened in South Florida last week.
The film, already acclaimed in Israel and at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, concerns two sisters – one a shy classical musician and the other an outgoing tabloid journalist – who delve into the mystery of their Holocaust survivor father’s experiences in World War II Poland.
Nesher had no intention of making another Holocaust film after his previous feature, The Matchmaker. “I have this rule of thumb, I never repeat a success,” he explains. “There’s something unsavory about going back to that same well. I never make movies about things I know. I make movies about things I would like to find out about.”
Nevertheless, Holocaust-related screenplays came pouring in to Nesher, and he rejected them all. But then he was contacted by renowned classical composer Ella Milch-Sheriff, who had a personal story she wanted him to film. He knew he was not interested, “But I was a great admirer of her music, so I met her to explain to her in person why I had to turn her down.
“We met in this Tel Aviv café, she had her father’s book with her, and I said to her why I can’t do it,” recalls Nesher. “And she started crying, in this really crowded Tel Aviv café. People are looking at me like, ‘What have you done to this poor woman?’ It was really embarrassing.
“And I said, ‘Nana, why are you crying? It’s just a movie.’ And she went into this whole crazy story about her and her sister, growing up in this household. And it touched me. I completely understood their plight, their struggle to make something of themselves in Israel in the ’70s. I understood what it was to grow up in this house with these two parents, a house full of secrets.”
Nesher saw that while this fact-based tale was grounded in the Holocaust, it also had a unique quality. “I think the way it’s told through music makes it different,” he says. “Because ultimately what kept her sane is the fact that she’s a composer. This woman has been through hell, in a way. There’s something about the way art puts a perspective on life, makes redemption an option. The fact that she’s an artist was something I could really relate to.”
Film reviewers in Israel have described Past Life as melodramatic, which Nesher does not deny. “The plight of the Jews in World War II was melodramatic,” he responds bluntly. “I do not know a single Holocaust survivor whose story is not melodramatic and I do not know any people who are born to Holocaust survivors whose stories are not melodramatic.”
Nesher knew that the casting of the two sisters would be crucial to the film’s success. “I take a long time casting, because I never know what my characters look like. I know their souls better than what they look like,” he says. He quickly gravitated to Nelly Tagar to play Nana Milch. She “was an easy choice because she’s brilliant. She was a leading candidate from the start. Joy (Rieger as Sephi, the fictional version of Ella Milch-Sheriff) was a different story, because she had not done much before this. She was a big gamble and she was not a singer. I hate those movie where someone has to sing and they dub the voice.
“I didn’t know what to do and a guy who was a musical producer, Josh Deckler, took it upon himself to turn her into a classical singer in 10 months,” Nesher says. “Not since my army basic training days have I seen someone work so hard. Every day she had voice lessons and piano lessons. She really went through a musical boot camp. Ten month later, he called me into a studio and she stood up and she opened her mouth and she sang like an angel. I nearly cried.”
Nesher began his career as a film critic, which, he feels, explains why he feels it important that he write the screenplays for his movies. “They begin from a very cerebral kind of place and then I try to let go on the cerebral and write it emotionally,” he says. “And then I kind of re-visit my understanding of the movie when it comes out and I read what people write about it.”
Yes, he is that rare filmmaker who concedes that he learns from reviews. “Like the leading critic in Israel found that this movie is part of what he calls The Present Tense trilogy.” Along with Turn Left at the End of the World and The Matchmaker, the reviewer felt all three films have a common theme of the way the past affects Israel. Nesher says the link was never consciously intended by him, “but I do like his interpretation.”
Past Life first met an audience at the Haifa Film Festival where it received a 10-minute standing ovation, which took Nesher by surprise. “I’m always surprised. You never get used to it. You never expect it,” he says. “And the reaction in Toronto was pretty much the same. Maybe not 10 minutes, but it was a very powerful reaction. I’ve seen the film worldwide now — I saw it in Poland, I saw it in the States, I saw it in Israel — and the reaction has been pretty much the same.”
He is quick to add that despite the Holocaust theme and the melodramatic story, Past Life has humor as well. “I can only tell you that people who have seen the movie just had a great cinematic experience. Whether people were in the Holocaust or not, whether they are young or old, I think cinematically you go there for two hours and you hear great music and you see great acting and you laugh and you cry.
“In many ways I think it’s the kind of movie that I would like to see, had I not been the guy who made it. I have this rule of thumb – I only make movies that I want to see.”
PAST LIFE. Director: Avi Nesher. Starring: Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Evgenia Dodina, Doron Tavory. In Hebrew, German, Polish and English. Living Room Theaters and Shadowwood 16, Boca Raton.