For a director who tries to only look ahead, Avi Nesher found himself in a difficult spot. Having had great international success with the 2012 drama “The Matchmaker,” a nostalgic look back at Israel during the late 1960s through the eyes of a teenager who is taken under the wing of the local relationship broker who has lost his own taste for romance as a survivor of the Holocaust, the writer/director declined to read any of the scores of World War II-related scripts that came pouring in, refusing even the slightly possibility of repeating himself. (“I always like when I make movies to not make movies about things I know, but things I would like to explore and to learn something myself as I make a movie,” he notes.) However, when Nesher received a personal plea from the famed composer Ella Milch-Sheriff to see if he might be interested in reading her father’s diary for inspiration for his next picture, he couldn’t turn it down.
“I finally met her because I have so much respect for her and we went to a Tel Aviv cafe and I told her, ‘I’m not going to make this movie,’” Nesher said, thinking that would be the end of the conversation. “She started crying in the middle of the crowded Tel Aviv cafe and it was really embarrassing. People were looking at me like what have you done to this poor woman? And I said, ‘Ella, but why is it so important to tell this story? It’s a very powerful story, but every Holocaust survivor’s story is powerful.” And she said, ‘You don’t understand. It’s me and my sister and this really bizarre journey that we went on.’ She told me the story of her and her sister and I could completely identify with this — the trauma, which has been passed on from your parents to you, and how we all grow up with these wonderful people called our parents, but what do we really know about them?”
Nesher allows this question to linger in the air to create tension in “Past Life,” which moves with the ferocity of a thriller, but has the tenderness of an intimate family drama as it sees one threatened to be torn apart by the revelation of what their patriarch was doing in Poland during the Holocaust. Yet the filmmaker, as is his wont, is less interested in dwelling on what happened in the past than how the film’s central siblings, Sephi (Joy Rieger) and Nana (“Zero Motivation” standout Nelly Tagar) have internalized their father Baruch’s behavior towards them in the years since and reflect it in their own ways as they come of age in the turbulent times of the late 1970s in Israel. Observing how Baruch’s discipline has manifested itself into shaping Sephi’s focus as a musician as she rises to the international stage and caused Nana to constantly question authority, calling herself “a walking polygraph” as a political journalist for a Playboy-esque publication, the film vividly envisions the present as a collision of Sephi and Nana’s conflicting beliefs attitudes towards history, with the former inclined to adhere to tradition while the latter worries that doing so will doom them to repeating the same mistakes.
As complicated as things get for the sisters, particularly when Sephi is confronted at one of her concerts with someone claiming to be a victim of Baruch, “Past Life” unfolds seamlessly as a gripping mystery and as it arrives on American shores after premiering last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, Nesher talks about how he got a hold on the material after initially wanting to pass on it, why he needs total authenticity in his films and why he’s drawn to real-life stories.
Was it interesting to go back to this particular time period, reflecting the differing cultural attitudes between these two sisters?
This is a very unique time. It was near when I made my very first feature and in Israel, it’s a time of complete political upheaval. This is the year when Israel went from being a socialist country to being a capitalist country, from being dominated by the left to being dominated by the right and [there were] major cultural and political shifts. Of course 1978 is also when Sadat came to Jerusalem, changing the equilibrium in the Middle East, so this whole notion of having one year where everything changes was of great interest to me and ’78 is also very interesting musically, especially for a movie that deals with so much classical music with disco in the background.
How did you want to use music in the film?
Before I started making movies, I used to be a musician — not very talented, but enthusiastic and I understand films through music because for me the music is the emotion of the movie. I always try to figure out the score of the movies before I make them, and I was fascinated here with the combination of the classical music and the disco, which co-exists within the structure of the movie. I spent over a year putting together the soundtrack of the movie and I really understood the inner textures of the characters through the music.
Was the story difficult to structure in how the past interacts with the present?
No, it wasn’t. I used to be a film critic for many years and I [know that] whenever I invent something, I’m really ripping off some old movie I’ve seen and [because] I start off with a true story [in “Past Life”], life has such an interesting way of playing out narratives, you know [the screenwriting guru Robert] McKee could never figure it out. It doesn’t follow the exact three-act structure, and one of my favorite things in cinema is Alfred Hitchcock saying, “Never let the audience be ahead of you.” Now, you can never be ahead of a story based on someone’s life [because] it’s so unexpected, so the trick here was to just use the truth. The condition I laid out to Ella Milch-Sheriff was that I will do this [film], but you have to tell me the story exactly as is. And of course, we shouldn’t give away the ending, but there’s a big twist and it’s a true thing. She never told anyone and she had to tell me this this because I never would’ve made the movie otherwise.
Speaking of surprises, you’ve said you’ll rewrite after seeing the rehearsals. Was there something unexpected you found in that time that made it into the film?
The rehearsals are really interesting because I always cast actors that will bring to the character inner information that I do not possess. Like the two women who plays these sisters know about the way women are repressed in society and male domination and I know about these things theoretically, but they’ve lived it, so during the rehearsals, they brought in a lot of elements from their own lives and their own experience and integrated it into the experience of the characters in the movie and it made the characters much more complete.
How did you find these two actresses to play these sisters?
Nelly [Tagar] was better known. She was in a couple Israeli movies before, but never really played the lead, and she’s very sharp and funny and opinionated. Her early audition was really, really strong and I really liked her [for Nana], but to cast [Sephi, her sister] was really difficult because you need somebody who is very charismatic that can also play classical music, which is very, very difficult. Joy Rieger has never acted in a movie before and interestingly enough, she went to the same art school as my daughter. I saw her work — she acted in my daughter’s extraordinary short — and she auditioned for us and was very, very good. Yet she couldn’t sing. And I hate in movies when there’s fake singing, like Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.” Since in many of the films I make there’s an ongoing search for truth, I think the least you can do is have your actors actually do what they’re supposed to do, whether it be stunts or singing, so I really like to keep it as realistic as possible and having [the actress who played Nana] sing was a precondition.
Our musical director said the two scariest words in the English language [to me], “Trust me. I’ll get [Joy] to sing in 10 months.” And I said, “Right, like you can get me to compete in the 100-meter dash in the Olympics.” [laughs] And he just took her on and it was like musical basic training. She took voice and note-reading lessons and you know, again, she spent 10 months being bombarded with all these lessons and after 10 months, he called and asked me to come down to the recording studio. The music started and she stepped forward and she opened her mouth and she sang in the most extraordinary way. What you hear in the movie is [Joy] singing.
Beyond that, was there any particular challenge that was satisfying to overcome?
Period pieces are always challenging. We didn’t have that much money and we wanted the movie to have this old world elegance and yet tinker with new world influences. Stylistically, we wanted to be very precise. We shot in Israel, we shot in Poland, we shot in Germany, so logistically, it was complex. But it was a joy. We worked really hard and the cast was extraordinary, the Polish crew was extraordinary and there was a moment in time in Poland when the crew was comprised of Israelis, Pols, Germans, French people, and Americans and in a way, the crew became synonymous with what the movie was all about, having let go of the past. Here, we were, the children of Holocaust survivors, working with German actors.
The process of making this movie really came together with what the movie was all about. Our first international screening was at Toronto and people gave it a standing ovation and the reviews were great and as we made the movie, I really felt we were making a movie about a universal subject. We were not making a unique Israeli movie, even though it does deal with the Holocaust, but ultimately, it’s about the way parents and children interact and how we can keep all the good that our parents gave us and somehow get rid of the bad.