Directed by Avi Nesher
Presented by the National Center for Jewish Film’s 20th Annual Film Festival, May 4–21, 2017, screens May 9, at the West Newton Cinema, tickets at jewishfilm.org
Anguish marks this movie, and courage. It’s not possible to truly understand how Dr. Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory), his wife Lusia (Evgenia Dodina), and other terrorized and haunted Holocaust survivors go on with their lives. Anguish is captured in Baruch’s face as he tells his daughter Sephi (Joy Rieger) how he came to be married to her mother. He was working in a German hospital after the war because the Americans were there making it safer for Jews than his native Poland. He says, “They brought her in, she was so young, so sick—my heart went out to her, what she went through.” This visceral connection to Lusia gave him a ray of hope for his own life and future: It was 1948 and a Jewish State had just been created; he could take back his original name of Milch, having survived until then on false Polish papers; and he could have a family again, the way he had before the Nazis marched his wife and two-year-old son to a mass pit and shot them.
His heart went out to Lusia, what his eyes told him she had been through, and we the audience witness this past in her beautiful middle-aged face carved in tragedy. Her quietly suffering role in the movie becomes pivotal toward the end, when she suddenly breaks free from her repressed state and passionately pleads for forgiveness of the war’s tragedies, because only forgiveness allows life to go on. But forgiveness can’t work for everyone, and up until that moment certainly not for Baruch, who adamantly refuses to step foot in Germany; nor will he speak in his native tongue of Polish.
The movie succeeds in conveying survivors’ coping with ineradicable anguish. Baruch and Lusia’s daughters, Sephi and Nana (Nelly Tagar), have been raised harshly by Baruch to “make names for themselves”—Sephi as a classical musician and composer and Nana as a journalist and playwright. It is 1977, and Sephi’s music academy performs in West Berlin, where she meets the young, well-known German composer Thomas Zielinski, whose Polish mother Agnieszka viciously denounces Sephi after the concert, calling Baruch Milch a murderer.
Such an accusation naturally unsettles Sephi. She returns home to Israel and shares the experience with her older sister Nana. One thing leads to another and soon the sisters are on a quest to find out their father’s secret past as a possible murderer. The movie’s vehicle of a mystery gives it structure, but its playing up of Thomas Zielinski’s trustworthiness falls into contrivance. He gives a master class at Sephi’s school and then invites her to perform his latest choral work in Warsaw. She gladly accepts the career opportunity, despite her father’s objections that Poland isn’t safe, she might disappear if she goes there. The soundtrack becomes sinister as a taxi drives Sephi and Thomas to a dark, deserted Warsaw street and leaves them there. Thomas, with the sinister music growing louder, opens a door that appears to lead down to a gloomy death cellar. Ominously he tells Sephi to enter first. We think he has bad intentions—that he plans revenge for his mother’s accusation that Sephi’s father is a murderer. But it turns out that the dungeon-like stairs lead to a lively speakeasy, where Thomas pushes Sephi to drink and dance, be freer with herself. From that point on, Thomas becomes Sephi’s partner in the quest to unearth Baruch’s past, for his wartime diary containing the truth is archived somewhere in Poland and perhaps they can find it. Was Baruch really a murderer as Agnieszka and Romek—a survivor from Baruch's past—have shouted at the sisters, or was the story Baruch finally told his daughters in 1977 the truth?
Other subplots and themes weave through the movie, enriching it, but Sephi’s triumphant concert in the last scene lapses into melodrama. However, many movies conclude with the same emotional family endings that please audiences. In the case of Past Life, prolonging the sentimental moment forces Nana’s character to overact. Otherwise, her role in the story has power—sharp lines and flavor—that play well off her controlled husband Yirmi. Both are left-wing journalists with a poster of Lenin in their radical magazine’s office, which is a room in their Tel Aviv apartment. Nana fights her father, fights her mother, fights the world with her anger, but a sudden crisis in her personal life, in addition to researching her father’s dubious past, brings her to a positive turning point. Sephi lives under the tyrannical chauvinism of her academy’s professor, but through Thomas’s free-thinking life as an artist is able to liberate herself as a composer. Even Baruch takes steps in a new, more tolerant direction, led by his formerly reticent wife. All of these relations and individual resolutions are well-rounded in the cinematic tradition.
Past Life is based on the true story of Baruch Milch (1907–1989), whose Holocaust diary was published posthumously through the efforts of his daughters. The facts contained in Milch’s diary and told by Baruch in the movie fly by in subtitles, all too fast for foreign audiences. Understanding the Zielinski family’s connection to Baruch, and Baruch’s relationship to Romek, can be quite confusing when you can’t read the titling twice. It’s easy to miss that Baruch and Romek are brothers-in-law and that both had toddler sons named Lonek. It’s worth noting that in this story a Polish family hid Jews in their cellar, and when the SS stormed the house they did not reveal the hiding place.
Baruch’s diary’s first line repeats several times in the movie and comes to symbolize the larger experience of Holocaust survivors, those with a past life: “The 1st of September 1939 was the beginning of the end of my life.” The next line in the diary conveys the anguish that can never be extinguished in those who survive genocide: “I never imagined that people were capable of such atrocities.”