Joy Rieger (left) and Nelly Tagar co-star in “Past Life.” Photo courtesy of TIFF

Holocaust is passed down and always present in ‘Past Life’


The parents ate sour grapes and the children have rotten teeth.”

That line from the film “Past Life” summarizes the story’s exploration of the Holocaust’s effect on subsequent generations.

The movie is the first in a trilogy planned by writer-director Avi Nesher, one of Israel’s foremost filmmakers. “The other two stories also deal with the way the past affects the present, true to the Faulkner quote, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Both stories also feature complex relationships between parents and children — an arena where the past plays a particularly important part,” Nesher said in a recent interview.

The film is based on the book “Can Heaven Be Void?” by Holocaust survivor Baruch Milch, one of the movie’s main characters (played by Doron Tavory). Nesher also used information supplied by Milch’s daughter, Ella Milch-Sheriff, a renowned musician and composer, who contributed to the film’s haunting score.

As the movie begins, it is 1977, and Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger), the role based on Milch-Sheriff, is a vocal soloist at a concert in West Berlin. During the reception that follows, a much older woman (Katarzyna Gniewkowska) accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. The woman is with her son (Rafael Stachowiak), a famous composer, who apologizes, saying his mother had a hard time during World War II.

The incident sets a series of events in motion, as the sensitive Sephi and her hard-nosed sister, Nana (Nelly Tagar), begin a quest to uncover painful secrets about their father’s past, especially about what he did while hiding from the Nazis in Poland. Their investigation and what they uncover could well cause a cataclysm in their family. An aura of suspense accompanies the twists and turns of revelations from a dark history.

As the son of Holocaust survivors himself, Nesher said he relates to the story. He explained why he tackled this subject.

“I feel that I live in a country which is trapped in its past and, most particularly, in its traumas,” the director said. “Israel is an extraordinary nation, which has [had] incredible achievements in its 69 years of existence, and yet the trauma of the Holocaust is still used by Israeli politicians in order to justify political maneuvers that do not necessarily serve the greater Israeli good. National traumas [such as slavery in America] can only be solved culturally, and cinema is a great catalyst for initiating such a process.”

The Milch family lives in Israel, and Baruch, a gynecologist, is drawn as a toughened man who was hard on his daughters, especially on Nana, whom he beat when she was young. The real-life Baruch Milch revealed his own embittered nature through his book, in which he wrote his personal Ten Commandments, such as “Though shalt have no other God before yourself,” “Do not have faith — the sky is empty,” “Toughen your heart and do not heed it” and “Do not get close to people, and do not bring them close to you.”

“Baruch is a man who believes that we live in a tough, cruel world, and you cannot afford to display any weakness, or kindness, or magnanimity. He expects the world out of his daughters. He wants them to achieve great things and, in a way, accomplish what history prevented him from accomplishing,” Nesher said. He added, “For me, the central themes of this film are the acceptance of humans as flawed beings and the inevitable conclusion of this acceptance, which is forgiveness.”

Another theme in the film is sexism. Sephi wants to be a composer, but her chauvinistic instructor discourages her, saying there are no female composers of any note. Ultimately, she triumphs.

All in all, Nesher believes his film’s core issues are relevant today, especially in his area of the world.

“As an Israeli, I feel that I am part of a battle between two people [Jewish and Palestinian] who carry a very heavy emotional load regarding the past and are out for ‘justice,’ ” he said. “I believe that, in this case, justice is a dangerous and impractical concept — forgiveness is the first step toward coexistence. Each side can develop a compelling argument as to why they are ‘right’ and the other side is ‘wrong’ — but that will translate to much future bloodshed.”

As for what Nesher would like audiences to take away from his film, he said, “I would like people to think of their own past and how it shapes, for better or for worse, their own present.”

“Past Life” opens in Los Angeles on June 2.