Past Life

The sleuth sisters.

(2016) Thriller (Goldwyn/Orion) Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankon, Oma Rotenberg, Lenny Cohen, Avi Kornick, Keren Tzur, Aryeh Cherner, Nitzan Rotschild, Aliza Ben-Moha, Yannai A. Gonczarowski, Tamir Shinshoni. Directed by Avi Nesher

 

For those of a certain generation the question “What did you do in the war Daddy?” was neither a frivolous nor easily answered inquiry. For some, particularly in Axis nations, the answers weren’t particularly savory or honorable. There is no shame in survival, but let’s face it; survival can come at an extraordinarily high cost.

Sephi Milch (Rieger) is a young musician and singer who yearns to be a composer. As part of a tour that the choral group at her Israeli arts academy is undertaking in Europe in 1977, she takes part in a performance in West Germany. In the audience is acclaimed composer Thomas Zielinski (Stachowiak) and his mother Agnieszka (Gniewkowska). The older woman grows more and more agitated, unable to stop staring at the photo of Sephi in the program.

At a reception following the concert while her son is receiving an invitation from the choral master to come to Jerusalem and fill the artist in residency program, the mother accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. Thomas is forced to physically drag his mother out of the room. Sephi is quite naturally disturbed by this but rather than tell her father Baruch (Tavory), a well-respected gynecologist in Israel, she confides in her sister Nana (Tagar) whose relationship with her father is strained to say the least.

Nana works with her husband Jeremy (Avni) on a publication that publishes opinion pieces highly critical of the Israeli government as well as nude photo layouts of Israeli models. She has a temper and often argues loudly with her husband in front of co-workers. When Nana hears about the incident from Sephi, she determines to launch an investigation into her own father’s wartime activities. When Baruch gets wind of it, he decides to read his wartime diary to his daughters – he doesn’t have the diary but claims to remember it word for word.

Now the focus turns to the diary and whether Baruch’s memory is as sharp as he claims. That will bring Sephi back to Berlin and to Poland as she attempts to uncover the events of a horrifying night – and discover if her father is the man she thought she was.

This is reportedly to be the first in a planned trilogy of similarly themed stories from Nesher and it is based on the memoirs of the actual Baruch Milch (although it is a fictionalized version). Now, I will grant you that movies with Holocaust themes are many and there aren’t many more ways to explore it without essentially repeating themselves but this is quite different. For one thing, it implies that for the sake of living through the ordeal some Holocaust survivors did things that were terrible, which they undoubtedly did. It also looks at how these terrible acts can affect the lives of not only those who committed them but their families as well.

Rieger and Tagar are believable as sisters. Often in films the tendency is to give sisters very similar personalities; anyone who knows a pair of sisters knows that’s rarely the case. Often sisters have wildly divergent personalities and that is the case here; Sephi is quiet and a bit mousy while Nana is loud, abrasive and self-confident. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a closeness between them; it just means that the two react differently to the same stimulations and while there are those differences between them, they are more alike than even they realize.

The performances here are sterling throughout which helps keep the movie from settling into cliché; the people in the movie all feel real, whether it’s from the stressed out mother (Dodina) to the angry and stubborn Agnieszka. Thomas is a bit of a romantic foil for Sephi but there isn’t a lot of romance in the movie other than between the two sisters who learn to respect and relate to each other through their shared experience. Tavory also gives a fearless performance as Baruch, making him a most unpleasant man much of the time (you can see why Nana despises him) whose daughters grew up being physically assaulted by their father. Baruch does love his daughters as best as he can but he is extremely damaged by what happened during the war and he’s not inclined to share that with his girls until they finally corner him.

The choral music featured in the film is strikingly beautiful. Nesher also captures the era of the 70s well and while there are some missteps when it comes to pacing – the movie takes a long while to unfold which may cause problems for some younger Americans – he does allow the story to unfold very nicely. Like the espionage movies of the era in which this is set, nobody’s motives are above reproach and the audience is left feeling slightly off-balance in a good way.

The family dynamic is what elevates this movie above other movies that have themes involving the Holocaust. I can get why people are a little weary of movies with that theme but this one is definitely one worth taking note of. It’s difficult for those of us who didn’t live through the Holocaust to really understand what survivors endured and had to live with. This movie will at the very least give you an idea of that and maybe a little understanding at how far the damage went beyond those that didn’t survive the war.

REASONS TO GO: The film is brilliantly directed by Nesher. You’re never sure of anyone’s motives which heightens the suspense. The choral music is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story that Nana tells about urinating on her sister was something that the actress that plays her, Nelly Tagar, actually did. She told the story to director Avi Nesher and he liked it so much he put it in the script.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Debt
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hero

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