“If you wanted to live, you had to shut your heart tight,” explains Moishe (Rami Heuberger) to his youngest of three sons, describing life and death in Auschwitz, where his firstborn Yankel met his physical demise (along with his mother) but that fact could not be accepted by the emotionally gutted bookbinder even after remarrying and fathering a pair of doting replacements with a long-suffering new bride whose legs could never measure up to the lofty heights of her enshrined predecessor.
From that premise, writer/director Hanan Peled has crafted a magnificent film that has as much to say about blind devotion and chronic denialism (ironically, on both sides of the Nazi persecution of the Jews) as the immediate and lingering effects of systemic ethnic cleansing.
Similar to The Art of Crying (cross-reference below) it falls to the youngest child, Hilik (played with remarkable insight and understanding by the engagingly freckled Ido Port) to take charge and rescue his dad from the depths of despair. He has convinced himself that his pride and joy not only survived the ravages of the death camp but is now Jack Waldman—personal advisor to President Kennedy, no less. Using decades-apart photographic evidence and the coincidence of the same surname, the desperate papa will hear nothing but his own rewritten version of the truth. When challenged, he gasps and clutches his heart, scaring his boy that it will “pop out” as surely as the unbearable reality won’t “pop in” to his wounded soul.
Then, before you can say “Son Knows Best” (aided and abetted by school-chum/sweetheart Nirit—Ela Armoni revels in the role and looks like a great find for the future), Hilik ensures that Jack answers Moishe’s letter of inquiry that not even a spelling mistake, errant stamp or everyday stationery can bring the grateful recipient to be dissuaded of its validity.
Wife No. 2 (Jenya Dodina stoically brings Rivka to her own life of the damned) dreams of moving from the inner city, where countless other letters to government officials fall on deaf ears in the matter of bus service, to Holon—a new development in the desert. The housing project is one of fellow survivor, Froyeke (played with convincing willful blindness and lechery by Dorval’e Glickman) who eschews his sexless life partner for whore-du-jour in his own method of pushing away the horrors of decades past.
Much music fills the air. Yoni Bloch’s score—especially the jaunty, bittersweet waltz, wonderfully coloured with accordion, clarinet and strings—binds the tale of suffering children (Jonathan, Roy Mayer, the eldest son descends into his dad’s freshly minted books and “The House of the Rising Sun,” er, son?, chords outlines on his guitar to maintain some sort of sanity) and wounded parents in an entirely supportive way. The off-key, missed-pitch trumpet of Moishe’s upstairs neighbour (replete with mangled quotes from Carmen and “Ode to Joy”) provides a rich, musical metaphor. Only the grade-school recorder-ensemble scene fails to pass as the over-eager “maestro” scolds Hilik for being out by a perfect fourth while the ear sends teacher to the corner with the aural unison evidence.
Never lurking far from the foreground is the image of Kirk Douglas as Spartacus. The film serves as an escape for the bedeviled Tel Aviv inhabitants that populate this compelling film, but also provides its best moment of verisimilitude when everyone picks up the let-us-all-share-the-burden confession: “I am Spartacus.” Alas, that wasn’t enough to spare his life; will mutual confession save others? JWR