music is all very catchy, but it is out of its depth responding to events of
great enormity. However, classical chorale music is perfectly suited for grand
elegiac concerts. As a composer of such music, Ella Milch-Sheriff would find
inspiration within her own family. A somewhat fictionalized version of their
story unfolds in Avi Nesher’s Past Life (trailer here) which screens during the 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival.
Milch (as she is called in Nesher’s screenplay) is a chorale student in an Israeli
conservatory who harbors ambitions of composing, but is too mousy to stand up
to the sexist dean. During a concert in West Germany, Milch is rather stunned
when an elderly woman accosts her, accusing her father, Dr. Baruch Milch of
murder. To make it even more awkward, she happens to be the mother of famous
German-Polish chorale composer Thomas Zielinski.
various reasons (including her father’s often excessive discipline), Milch cannot
dismiss the encounter, so she takes her sister Nana Milch-Kotler into her
confidence. Having an even more fraught relationship with their father, the
leftwing journalist assumes there must be some truth to it. With varying
degrees of reluctance and enthusiasm, the two sisters start investigating their
father’s past. As word of their inquiries reaches Dr. Milch, he offers to
reconstruct the lost diary of the years he spent hiding in the Zielinski farm. However,
the combination of Milch-Kotler’s lingering doubts and accumulated bad karma
might produce tragic results for the Milch family.
significance of setting the film in 1977 should not be lost on anyone, but
Nesher does not belabor the parallels between the thaw with Sadat and the
efforts of Sephi Milch and Thomas Zielinski to reconcile their parents. Indeed,
it is richly detailed period production that evokes both the good and the bad
of the era. For added authenticity, the haunting piece performed during the
climax really was composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff.
Rieger is rather remarkable as the initially naïve and submissive Sephi Milch.
Her expressive face is like an open book. Nelly Tagar brings more attitude and
angst as the razor-sharp but profoundly sad Milch-Kotler. Doron Tavory deftly
walks a fine line as Dr. Milch, establishing his severity as a parent, but also
a deep sense of his fundamentally decent but scarred psyche. Yet, Rafael
Stachowiak might be the film’s X-factor as the constantly surprising Thomas
With Past Life,
Nesher further burnishes his well-earned reputation as a filmmaker of great
sensitivity. It is also a characteristic example of his affinity for historical
dramas that reflect the Israeli national experience through more or less
average people (this is particularly true of The Matchmaker). Nesher and his frequent cinematographer Michel
Abramowicz (who also shot the first Taken
film) have a knack for making a picture look nostalgic, but also darkly
moody. Recommended for those who appreciate thematically sophisticated dramas and
chorale music, Past Life screens Sunday
(1/15) and Monday (1/16) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.
Labels: Avi Nesher, Israeli Cinema, NYJFF '17