THE LAST – movie review

THE LAST
Plainview Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net with Rotten Tomatoes link by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jeff Lipsky
Screenwriter: Jeff Lipsky
Cast: Rebecca Schull, Jill Durso, AJ Cedeño, Reed Birney
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/16/19
Opens: March 29, 2019

The Last (2019)

Prospective viewers take note. “The Last” features a story that would play better on the stage than on the big screen. Writer-director Jeff Lipsky, whose “Mad Women” features a mother of three daughters who commits a crime of conscience and becomes radicalized in prison, segues into a new movie about one woman who is mad-insane (arguably, at one time), another two who are mad (angry as hell and rightly so), and two men whose views about where to put the great grandma are radically different. Since “The Last” is rich in dialogue, including a stunning forty-five minute monologue by the 90-year-old actress Rebecca Schull as the 92-year-old Claire, could easily fit on an off-Broadway stage with a little sand to represent a beach.

Here is yet another take on the Holocaust, the greatest crime of all time. “The Last” is not likely to be the last look at the atrocity, nor should it be. Lipsky puts an elderly woman on the front burner, rare enough in the movies these days, a character who is quite different from the person her many-generation family thinks she is. The film’s advertising notes that she will reveal some details of her life three-score and ten years ago that has a sobering effect on her family. However, no film critic should destroy the suspense by revealing the coup d’ètat, nor should readers who suspect the revelation to be a shattering read any commentary on the film that exposes this key feature.

With a stunning performance from nonagenarian Rebecca Schull, perhaps best known for her role in the TV comedy “Wings” about two brothers trying to run an airline from Nantucket, “The Last” opens on the kind of Rosh HaShanah service in which Josh (AJ Cedeño), wearing kippah and identifying as Modern Orthodox, challenges the group by revealing that he does not really believe in God. Yes, there may have been a burning bush, but not one that was lit up by a Divine Bic. Yes, the Red Sea may have seemed to part, but perhaps the good guys escaped from Pharaoh’s army by walking on the rocks. Despite Josh’s skepticism, his wife Olivia (Jill Durso), has undergone a conversion to Judaism, not without feeling embarrassed by her nudity after dunking in the purifying Mikveh baths.

A Mikveh would have been better suited for Claire, who is the least pure family relic, and who in the film’s key middle delivers one of the longest monologues ever to appear on celluloid rather than its more appropriate place on the legit stage. Claire’s tale is of her escape from Germany during the rise of Hitler and her attainment of U.S. citizenship thanks to a marriage of convenience with one Moishe. Her granddaughter Melody (Julie Fain Lawrence), married to would-be graphic novelist Harry (Reed Birney), can identify strongly with Claire, given that Melody lost both of her parents in the war.

When Claire reveals that she is terminally ill and has booked passage to Oregon for a gentle end to her active life, the stage (or rather, the screen), is set for yet another surprise that leads Olivia into a convulsive tantrum, wracked with psychic pain.

While you might expect “The Last” to be targeted to a Jewish audience—it did, in fact, play at a Jewish center prior to its March 29th opening this year—there is every reason for an audience of all faiths or none to find universality in the plot. Despite the low level of histrionics in favor of some carefully written dialogue, “The Last” is a daring film that can be appreciated by a select, sophisticated audience.

123 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

SOBIBOR – movie review

SOBIBÓR
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Konstantin Khabenskiy
Screenwriter: Anna Chernakova, Michael Edelstein, Ilya Vasiliev, based on the book by Ilya Vasiliev: “Alexander Pechersky: Breakthrough to Immortality”
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskiy, Christopher Lambert, Mariya Kozhevnikova, Michalina Olszanska, Philippe Reinhardt
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/7/19
Opens: March 29, 2019

If you travel to Poland, you will do well to take the day trip from Krakow to Auschwitz, certainly not because there is entertainment to be found there but because the most notorious death camp and its promotion by Germany is part of what is now called grief tourism. The German government has been surprisingly transparent in its vast campaign of owning up what the Nazi government did to the Jews they arrested, most of whom either died in the camps or were summarily shot on location. If the camp at Sobibór is not among the most visited camps today ,it is because unlike with Auschwitz, the Nazis government tore down the camp in 1943 after a dramatic escape by prisoners, making it part of the adjoining forest.

Konstantin Khabenskiy, who directs and stars in “Sobibór” takes on the role of the actual hero, Alexander Pechersky, who led one of the only two successful escapes from concentration camps, standing in as one answer to naïve accusations such as “Why didn’t the Jews do more to fight against the enemy?” Obviously given the way that the guards at the camps crushed not only the spirit of the inmates but did their best to work them to death, Jews were generally in no condition to put up a fight. Given this situation, you can’t blame Russia for commemorating the heroic uprising led by Pechersky, though under an anti-Semitic Stalin, information was kept quiet only because the rebellion was led by Jews. Happily things are different now as we witness the box office success of Khabenskiy’s film, which has among the most gory, bloody scenes of chaos month after month involving German officers living on Cognac and laughing at the humiliations they visit upon the poor prisoners.

Ramunus Greicius films entirely in Vilnius County, Lithuania, standing in for the Polish city of Sobibór which lies southeast of both Warsaw and Treblinka, hugging the border with Ukraine. With a cast including scores of Lithuanian extras, Anna Chernakova, Michael Edelstein and Ilya’s Vasiliev screenplay based on the book “Alexander Pechersky” by Ilya Vasiliev takes us first to the railway where Jews being resettled have allegedly been treated fairly well on the transport to cover up the goal of the Germans. As they depart, they are told “Welcome to your new life,” but instead, most of the women are forced to strip naked and march into the “showers” only to be gassed with carbon monoxide. The men and women who are kept alive are made busy with sewing and chopping, their hard work met with strange rewards including one attempted rape, nonstop floggings, setting Jews up as horses to run the officers around.

As a result of one attempted escape early on, the officers order one inmate of every group of ten to be shot, to discourage further escapes and to demand that the Jews tell the Nazis of any future plan. Among the prisoners is one kapo who is crueler to his fellow Jews than any German, calling them “kikes,” and bringing clear definition to the term “self-hating Jew.” The camp commandant, Karl Frenzel (Christiopher Lambert) does little to discipline the men, even encouraging them to shoot Jews for sport and, in one instance, to allow Berg (Mindaugas Papinigis) to pour alcohol on one prisoner and set him on fire.

Most of the story deals with life in the camps, which the officers find to their liking being the sadists that they are, nobody forcing restraint while the Jews are beaten so regularly that we wonder how they are able to kill eleven officers, duping them by saying that they have beautiful Parisian leather jackets to show them in their quarters and then stabbing or shooting them. It is only during the final twenty minutes that the actual escape takes place, as prisoners take the pistols and rifles that they capture and make their way into the forest. Slow-motion photography adds drama to the narrative. Regrettably, of the six hundred taking part in the mad dash to freedom, most perished, either killed by guards or exploded in the mine fields surrounding the camp. Only 58 are known to have survived, while some are killed by locals and some by Ukrainian guards.

Because the film so boldly displays the misery dished out to the Jews, who never know whether they would survive the day, it stands as a great tribute to Alexander Pechersky without whose leadership all might have been either killed or too petrified even to attempt escape. English subtitles provided for languages spoken: Russian, Polish, German, Dutch, Yiddish

117 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY – movie review

WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY
Abramorama
Reviewed for Shockya.com and BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Roberta Grossman
Screenwriter: Roberta Grossman, Samuel Kassow from Kassow’s book “Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto”
Cast: Jowitz Budnik, Piotr Glowacki, Piotr Jankowski, Wojciech Zielinski, Karolina Gruzka, Bartlomiej Kotschedoff, Gera Sandler
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/1/19
Opens: January 18, 2019

Who Will Write Our History Large Poster

We in the U.S. are living now in a time that the printed word has been downgraded, where texting and sexting are the language of youth, and where the New York Times is denigrated by our country’s chief office holder as “failing” and full of “fake news.” How refreshing it is, then, that a film and the book from which it is adapted honors the word, whether in English, or Yiddish, or Hebrew or Polish. “Who Will Write our History” commemorates and even idolizes a few remarkable people shut inside the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi conquest of Poland who dedicated the rest of their brief, remaining lives to writing an archive of material. The material, mostly of the printed word, includes some pictures, so that people in London could be made aware of the delivering of Polish Jewish into a gated neighborhood ghetto followed by their mass murder. The sixty thousand pages of first-person testimony were buried after the ghetto and, indeed, much of the entire city was burned to the ground and found only recently by groups of workers with some documentation presumably buried under the Chinese Embassy in Poland’s capital.

Using archival film taken mostly by Nazis who, by photographing Jews wasting away with starvation and afflicted with lice and disease, employed the films as propaganda to show the world that the Jews are filthy and lice-infected—as though the heartless conquering people had nothing to do with their miserable and desperate condition. The source material, from Samuel Kassow’s book “Who Will Write our History,” cannot be faulted as the author, who lectures on Russian and Jewish history, received a commentary from the New Republic magazine “May be the most important book about history that anyone will ever read.” (Available from Amazon for $17.04.)

The documentary mixes in contemporary footage in full color as actors taking the parts of journalists, scholars and community leaders who go about their secret work of writing voluminous accounts of the greatest crime of the last century. Emanuel Ringelblum was the leader of the group, a historian who gave the project the code name of Oyneg Shabes, determined to puncture German lies with the pen while lacking the sword—at least until the uprising of those Jews remaining in the ghetto on April 19, 1943.

The project is directed, written and produced by Roberta Grossman, whose passion for social justice is easily understood by looking at her previous works. “Seeing Allred,” which she co-directed, takes on the recent testimony of sexual assaults, while her “Hava Nagila” is a virtual travelogue of the famous Jewish song. For this film she employs the voice of Joan Allen, whose narrative offerings include “Rickover: the Birth of Nuclear Power” Catherine Senesh from a movie about Hannah Senesh, who was captured by the Nazis while trying to rescue Jews during the war. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, narrator Adrien Brody used his narrative voice in the past as the mouse in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Focusing on the story of Emanuel Ringelblum and his Oyneg Shabes archive, writer-director Grossman honors the determination of writers to become eyewitnesses to the destructive criminality of the Nazis, indicting the Jewish police as well for their desire to save their lives by treating other Jews with the same brutality as the Germans. What emerges from the writings is not simply a narrative history, as the sixty writers also knocked

out diaries, essays, jokes, poems and songs. Most significant is that they depict the Jews from the Jewish point of view so the world should see German propaganda as little more than the lies of a craven people.

This is a major piece of documentary filmmaking, the scholars and filmmakers working for six months to prepare the actual shooting, while the words spoken by the actors are the very words that emerge from the printed material. In 1999 three document collections from Poland were included by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register: the works of Chopin (ironically enough considering the composer’s virulent anti-Semitism), the works of Copernicus, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive.

Some may argue that the special effects and reenactments threaten the veracity of the material but Grossman makes sure that every word spoken in the recreations, every emotion, boldly supplements the amazing collection of archival celluloid, much of which I for one had never seen before despite my aim to see every film made that tries to make sense of the Holocaust.

95 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – A
Overall – A-

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ – movie review

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ

Menemsha Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ruth Beckermann
Screenwriter: Ruth Beckermann
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/24/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
Waldheims Walzer (2018)
Pete Seeger once sang a Tom Paxton song, a section going like this:

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine,
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine.
I learned our country must be strong, it’s always right and never wrong,
Our leaders are the finest men, and we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today, that’s what I learned in school.

Don’t you think it’s true that in America all our leaders are the finest men?  Grade school optimism of this nature would not fare well in other countries, as their presidents and prime ministers are not as saintly as ours.  Take the bottom-feeder that came out of Austria.  No, not that one.  Think of Kurt Waldheim, Wouldn’t it have been great if that war criminal, that Viennese vulture, spent his life baking sachertortes instead of taking part in Nazi paramilitary activities?  Instead the one-time president of Austria repeatedly states throughout this documentary that he was just a soldier drafted by Germany to serve on the Russian front.  What he conceals while at the same time virtually shooting himself in the foot by his denials, that he knew nothing about the shooting of Serb civilians one hundred meters from his office in Yugoslavia nor did he have any knowledge of the deportation of 12,000 Jews from Salonika, Greece during the years of World War II particularly 1942-43.

Maybe he lied, maybe he didn’t. But there is enough doubt sowed here to have caused the Austrian voters to demur about casting ballots for him when he ran for president in 1986.  He won on the second ballot with 53.8% of the vote.

Filmmaker Ruth Beckermann, who has considerable experience with documentaries, is adept at dramas as well.  Before “The Waldheim Waltz” she traveled across Europe and the Mediterranean to unfold “The Dreamed Ones,” focused on chance encounters with the likes of Nigerian asylum seekers in Sicily, an Arab musician in Galilee, nationalists drunk on beer in Vienna, and veiled young women trying to cross a busy road in Alexandria.  She provides voiceover narration throughout “The Waldheim Waltz,” which concentrates on the 1986 presidential election, showing archival film from the forties and from Waldheim’s tenure as UN Secretary General.  One must wonder at the kind of world that existed in 1972 to allow this fellow, later banned from travel in the U.S. for lying about his service in the S.A., or Sturmabterlung, the Nazi paramilitary force.

The most dramatic incident occurs when, during a street confrontation between pro-Waldheim people on the street and those opposed, a member of the former group yells to Beckermann and to all around gathered to watch the action, “You belong in the ground, you Jewish swine.” Then to another in the crowd, “Are you a Jewboy?  A Jewboy?”  This antisemitism is nothing new for Austrians.  To this day, they consider themselves citizens who suffered just like the Jews under the Nazis since the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.  The reality is that crowds turned out to cheer wildly for Hitler and generally to show that the majority, perhaps, were quite comfortable attaching themselves to another German-speaking country.

We can’t fail to add that Waldheim’s “memory loss” or “amnesia” about his wartime activities brings to mind similar situations that have arisen here in the U.S. as politicians, grilled by journalists and congressional committees to ‘fess up about shady dealings in their past, have “no recollection.”  This is not to say that any office holder or candidate for high-level jobs is on the same base level as was a member of a Nazi paramilitary organization.  This is just the way that we, watching local politics about the Kavanaugh hearings in particular, can have an AHA! moment.  This is what dirty politics is all about.  It’s no wonder that so many of our citizens have given up on participating even once every two years in the simple act of casting ballots, given that neither Tweedledum nor Tweedledee will be able to solve or even to bother understanding the real problems that all but the richest one percent face.

94 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

WHERE HANDS TOUCH – movie review

WHERE HANDS TOUCH

Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Amma Asante
Screenwriter: Amma Asante
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston, Tom Sweet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/24/18
Opens: September 9, 2018 at Toronto Film Festival

Amandla Stenberg in Where Hands Touch (2018)

Once you get past the absurdity of Germans’ speaking only English in a film that has a little French spoken in the final scene, you realize that this Holocaust story is one that to my knowledge had never before been explored. “Where Hands Touch” examines the life of 15-year-old Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) who comes of age by having her first sexual experience with an “Aryan” member of the Hitler Youth. To the young woman’s discredit, she does not have a problem with her liaison with Lutz (George MacKay), a young man who does not try to get off the hook by pretending that every kid had to accommodate himself to the Nazi program and join the organization. He is so loyal to the Nazi regime that time and again states that he might even try to be assigned to the Russian front, and who is protected by his father (Christopher Eccleston) who assigns him to work in a concentration camp.

For her part, Leyna is protected from persecution, at least for a time, by her mother (Abbie Cornish), an “Aryan” German who had had a relationship with an African, thereby producing a mixed-race child.

Amma Asante, a London-based actor, screenwriter, and director who was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to Film, is known by her fans largely for her 2004 film “A Way of Life.” That story is about a 17-year-old girl who is paranoid that a Turkish neighbor is plotting to take away her 6-months’ old baby. Asante, therefore, is in her métier by this lataest story requires no paranoia to realize that Leyna is really in serious trouble. Her mother is sensible, as mothers often are when dealing with their daughters’ passions, doing her best to have her daughter fade into invisibility. That she is having an affair with a die-hard Nazi troubles her, while her daughter, passion trumping rationality, plunges headline into danger.

So much is known about the Nazi persecution of Jews that we overlook the fact that Afro-German professionals found it almost impossible to work in Germany under Hitler. They were forbidden to have sexual relations and marriage to Aryans, they were called “Rhineland bastards,” and were subjected to undergo forced sterilization. Yet they were better off than Jews and Romani, segregated with a plan to make them disappear by having the 25,000 women of color disappear after the present generation.

“Where Hands Touch” does give us insight into the Holocaust as it applies to women who are not Jews but whose papers were somehow not in order. In the situation here, Leyland’s mother is taken away for producing a mixed race child while her daughter is confined to a concentration camp located not far from a neighboring facility where Jews are murdered and sent up in smoke.

The film bills itself not particularly as a coming-of-age story, though Leyland’s virginity is lost and the girl is made pregnant by her Nazi lover. Instead, I believe the writer-director wants us to look at the work as principally a romance, albeit a love affair dominated by the political and social order of 1944-1945. The film has received some backlash, including a screed by Tara Nafisa, a Nigerian critic who is incensed that we are “expected to develop a special bond with a mixed-race girl who sees past the blood in his hands, the emblems on his uniforms, and the philosophy of the association he represent.” However let’s face facts. Leyland, who is the principal character, is not meant to be a shining example of a caring, compassionate woman, but is rather limited by her tender age, driven by passions that her mother fears. In the same sense, her young man, despite his love of Germany, partially to overlook his ideology, which would make similar people avoid and even denigrate women of mixed race. He is willing to risk his standing with the society of his day and become alienated from his father. There are no saints in this story with the possible exception of the girl’s mother, but rather a basket of flawed personalities, some, like the boy’s father, who would fit easily into a basket of deplorables. The same could, of course, be said of the extras, the Nazi officers who bark orders, demand right and left that citizens produce papers, shooting some in the back as easily as they could put a hook on a fish.

Ultimately the picture is flawed by a script that is both saccharine and simplistic, the British actors delivering their lines in a stilted manner. The dialogue between Leyland’s mom and the girl, and between the Aryan and her father could remind us of the long-winded advice that Shakespeare’s Polonius gives to Laertes, but there is nothing in the conversations that transcends the banal.
So give Ms. Asante the credit for exposing us to a segment of the Holocaust not before treated in a film that, despite being based on a true story, does not come across as credible. Remi Adefarasin films in Belgium, moments of melodrama aided by Ann Chmelewsky’s music.

Rated R. 122 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – C+
Technical – B-
Overall – C+

A BAG OF MARBLES – movie review

A BAG OF MARBLES (Un sac de billes)

Gaumont
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Christian Duguay
Screenwriter: Alexandra Geismar, Jonathan Allouche w/ collaboration of Laurent Zeitoun and based on the graphic novel by Joseph Joffo and Vincent Bailly
Cast: Patrick Bruel, Dorian Le Clech, Batyste Fleurial Palmieri, Elsa Zylberstein
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/8/18
Opens: March 23, 2018

This narrative film based on a graphic novel by Joseph Joffo and Vincent Bailly purportedly relating true experiences takes place in Paris and Nice, exhibiting a phase of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Joseph (Dorian Le Clech) and his big brother Maurice Joffo (Batyste Fleurial). “A Bag of Marbles” includes some shots of unprovoked brutality, although if you’re seen enough Holocaust films and read enough books on the tragic era, you’d be naïve to think that this represents Germans and some French acting on their full-pledged antisemitism. The director, Christian Duguay, has a resume packed with TV episodes including one called “Human Trafficking,” about the brutality of kidnappers who sell young women into prostitution.

An authentic performance by Patrick Bruel in the role of the boys’ father is the highlight, a man who runs a barber shop in Paris that caters only to Jews (who in 1942 would not be allowed to patronize a shop run by Christians). For me a big surprise was that two German soldiers among the occupation troops in France’s capital visited the barber as customers, and that Roman, the boy’s father, freely stated to the two customers that “everyone in the shop is Jewish.” I had figured that by 1942 the windows would be broken, a Star of David would be painted on the walls, and the Jews would have to go immediately into hiding.

Since the film involves the travels of the two brothers without their parents to a freer area in the south, largely on foot but sometimes by hitched rides, you could this a road-and-buddy pic, involving various people, mostly friendly and talkative. Among the events encountered by young and naïve Joseph, who could barely believe that the lives of Jews were in danger, and his more mature, older brother Maurice, is one in which the lads, traveling alone on a train heading south toward Nice which was governed by the French Vichy regime under Petain, are terrified when about to be confronted by the authorities asking for papers (they had none). They came under the immediate protection of a priest, one of two gents of the cloth who would protect the identity of the two. Other events include their presence in a training program of youths expected to fight for Germany, wherein the boys feign Catholicism, and another in which Joseph, following the counsel of his father who literally beat into him that he must always deny his Jewishness, worked for an anti-Semitic bookseller for six months without guessing the identity of his employee. This middle-aged shop owner, who would be dealt with by the Resistance after liberation, blamed the Jews for the war, a classic Big Lie of the Nazi regime, and who furthermore states that the real enemy of France is England, not Germany.

With a solid supporting role by Elsa Zilberstein as Anna Joffo, the boys’ mother, “Bag of Marbles” is yet another film on the horrors of the Nazi regime with its own particular niche. It should be required viewing by those who tend to believe whatever governments are telling them, with a manifesto that should read “Question authority: Trust No One.” This especially in view of the rightward movement of several Western countries whose naïve citizens are going along with the hatred spewed by candidates for government. Beware of anyone with statements about neo-Nazis and white supremacists in our own country that there are fine people among them.

Unrated. 110 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

PAST LIFE – movie review

  • PAST LIFE (original title Ha-Khata’im, “The Sin”)

    Orion/ Samuel Goldwyn Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  Avi Nesher
    Written by: Avi Nesher
    Cast: Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Evgenia Dodina, Doron Tavory, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Schulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/6/17
    Opens: June 2, 2017
    Past Life Movie Poster
    That films revolving around the Holocaust continue to be made—good ones at that—is a sign that the tragedy ranks as among the most revealing of the pure savagery that can be attributed to humankind.  When innocent people, including babies, can be imprisoned, starved, shot, gassed, hanged, none of which has any relevance to winning a war, we’re dealing once again with the truism that human beings, unlike wild animals, are the only creatures who murder without conscience.

    “Past Life” has only a few flashbacks to incidents in which Christians, whether for money or for pure moral fiber, risked their lives by hiding Jews in their cellars from 1941 to 1945.  The major part of the film takes place in 1977, the year that Anwar Sadat of Egypt went to the Israeli Knesset (parliament) to offer peace between his country and Isarel. For that he was killed by his own people.  The action is filmed in Germany and Poland and four languages are spoken: Hebrew (primarily), German, English and Polish, all under the direction of scripter Avi Nesher, whose impressive résumé dates back to 1978 with “Ha Lahaka,” about a troupe of young Israelis in an entertainment unit at the time of the Yom Kippur war.

    There is some beautiful music in “Past Life” as well, given that the focus is on Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger), the principal singer and student in a Jerusalem conservatory.  Her older sister, Nana Milch-Kotler (Nelly Tagar), is married and envious of Sephi’s talent.  Balancing the story of the sisters with allegations of a  crime committed by their physician father Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory) during the Holocaust in Poland, Nesher essentially projects two plots so skillfully that we never consider that he is trying to push two separate movies on us.  Most of the suspense begins with an outburst at a concert in West Berlin by a Polish woman, Agnieszka Zielinska (Katarzyna Gniewkowska), who squeezes Sephi’s arm and proclaims that the young singer’s father is a murderer.  She is restrained by her son, Thomas zielinski (Rafael Stachowiak), a famous German composer who visits Jerusalem on a cultural exchange and develops a bond with Sephi.

    What’s the story, then? Is the doctor a killer who does not deserve to be forgiven? And is the professor at the Academy, Uri Lotan (Muli Shulman), being sexist when he puts down singer-composer Sephi with the comment, “After all, has there even been a truly significant or well-known female classical composer?”  The former makes this is mystery that unfolds ever so gradually, while the latter adds this film to the feminist file, the woman determined to show the male teacher how wrong he is.

    Now, not even a radical feminist can deny that sometimes women can not only disagree with one another but could harbor intense envy.  The long-term jealousy of Nana, an intellectual who is easily the more vocal of the siblings, needs to resolve her conflict while the quieter, but angelic singer Sephi, does nothing to foster that jealousy other than using her talent as both singer and composer as well she should.

    The plot lines require audience focus as one can become distracted, as the two plots zigzag about. There is much to admire in the period costumes, the automobiles, the various locations in Germany and Poland, and especially the high production values that go into a considerable segment of actual singing and instrumental accompaniment.  Though “Past Life” might be considered by some to be “of Jewish interest,” there is surely much that is universal in its themes of envy, secrets of past lives, and murderous hostility.

    Unrated.  110 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?