The first picture of the film shows the director’s desk at a window in his home in Jerusalem. The next enigmatic, black-and-white picture of a tall prison cell wall with light from above is from the film The Last Judgement, shot by Frank in 1987. This symbolic picture represents the entire idea behind the creation of Flashback, a film that took Herz Frank three years to make. Or perhaps ‘come to grips with’ would be more fitting. He is the man in the cell, on his way to leaving life. ‘Have I sinned?’ he asks. This film is a ‘dreamlike flight to the past,’ as the director put it when he screened the film for colleagues at “European Storytellers” in Stockholm.
But the film was prompted by quite a different story, as he states in the first part that opens with a warm, generous tribute to Juris Podnieks. Full of sadness, he looks at Podnieks’ face and then creates a parallel to the film that more than any has made the name Herz Frank part of the history of documentary film with Ten Minutes Older from 1978. Juris Podnieks was the cinematographer of this film classic, a ten-minute, uncut sequence studying the faces of a boy and other children as they watch a puppet theatre performance. In Flashback, Frank shows ten seconds of Juris Podnieks’ face – a sequence filmed in January 1991, one week after the Soviet Army’s black brigade had gunned down two of his cameramen in a park in Riga. Frank looks at the face of a man filled with pain. A man who one week before had held his dying cameraman, Andris Slapins, in his arms. A ten-second look at a man who himself died one year later in a tragic drowning accident. The student, who became synonymous with Perestroika filmmaking, died before his teacher.
Ten Minutes Older is the starting point of Flashback, made over a three year period, from 1999 to 2002. It started as a film project in a more classic sense: Frank wanted to see what had happened to the boy who had been watching the puppet theatre. He discovered that he had turned into an (excellent) gambler and bridge player – and some twenty years later, Frank was in Prague filming him playing in a tournament. He saw that he still bites his lower lip when he concentrates, but that he has also managed to evoke a smile when Frank took him and his parents to the cinema to watch the twenty-year-old Ten Minutes Older. Paradoxically, this boy had chosen a profession where you are not allowed to show your emotions!
Frank’s own life made him change the whole idea of the film. His beloved wife Ira contracted a terminal illness, and he himself had to undergo major heart surgery. He was no longer capable of continuing to take a genuine interest in other people’s lives and decided to turn the camera around and point it at himself and his life as a filmmaker. From that point on, Flashback becomes a very personal film, a synthesis of themes permeating a long career, and a synthesis of his own life during a period of time when he lost his wife: vignettes reflecting on life and death with himself in the picture and with clips from his films that demonstrate his exquisite sense of style and precision.
The film becomes autobiographical, as he exploits photos from his private archives to the utmost, even inviting the audience to attend (literally) his heart surgery; it never seems private, but always personal.
To the Heart
The film revolves round the hospital scene. Frank lies in his bed prepared for surgery; he introduces the doctors who have prolonged his life and the gentle nurse, one of many women who have taken care of him through a long life. He comments from a prone position, and the camera documents in detail how the operation proceeds. It is quite painful to watch as the director is cut open so the doctors can work on him. The director knows this, so he inserts a shocking metaphor to make us relax (!): the sequence from The Awakening about the sculptor who created a work on Eisenstein. The sculptor, a big man, carves a trunk with a saw that resembles the surgical instruments.
This long sequence is about how to get through to the heart, or soul, that has been the director’s aim throughout his professional career. In his opinion, this mission resembles the work of the surgeons who struggle to get to the core of the matter. In this film, too, Herz Frank demonstrates his masterful skill of filming faces. “Old people have everything written on their faces,” he says showing clips from The Last Celebration (1980) about Kaulins, the head of a collective farm who believed in the socialist idea. He reads the face of this man, as he reads the face of the boy watching the puppet theatre, the same grown up person playing bridge, or himself ’the lucky sad one’ as he is photographed by his father, whose photographer career he has carried on.
A Love Story
“Maybe I was quite hard-hearted,” he says recalling his life with Ira, the main character and clearest recurring theme in Flashback. Full of melancholy, the love story between Ira and him unfolds. He does not film her, apart from once when the snow is falling in Jerusalem, but he cannot refrain from taking photos of his wife in her bed as the end of her life draws near. He says he is sinning by taking these pictures, but he does so with the affection of a husband who is not only a great filmmaker, but who has also taken still photos throughout his life. And he makes the pictures universal and poetic as he films still photos and tilts to her hands stretching to the ceiling in the bed. He also shows us photos of Ira when they were younger and she wanted to become a clown.
Frank’s father was a photographer in Ludza, taking pictures of other peoples’ lives. “Other peoples’ lives, yes. The object of the documentary maker,” as he says as he removes glass, photographic plates from the soil around the family house in Ludza.
Contrasting this theme of death, he inserts clips from his film The Song of Solomon (1989), which follows a childbirth. Starting out as a black-and-white report, it transforms into colour when the child is born. A miracle has happened, a magical moment taken from the art of living. And yet back again – through clips from the film The Last Judgement (1987) – to death waiting for the prisoner in his lonely cell. To the tragic story Once there Were Seven Simeons (1979), about a jazz family from Irkutsk who tried to escape from the USSR in a hijacked plane. They did not reach their target.
From that perspective Flashback has the same duality. It is an old master’s film for his colleagues, i.e., other documentary makers, an essayistic reflection on key questions related to the profession of being an observer and interpreter of reality. And at the same time the film is accessible to everyone, because it is also an old man’s memory of a long life seen from a perspective that has been altered by the death of his wife.
Herz Frank is clear in his documentary approach. As you are filming, you have to know exactly what you are looking for, but you also have to wait for it to come. You have to be humble and wait for the magic moments. They are there – which Frank has indeed shown us several times. You have to extract those artistic elements of life that can make us think about life’s big, existential questions.
It is indeed film history. It also reminds documentary buffs of the dynamic period of Latvian filmmaking known as the Riga School of Poetic Cinema. In Flashback, Herz Frank returns to the Riga Film Studios now empty after the fall of the Soviet Union. He finds Maija Selecka, his colleague during 25 years who edited his films on celluloid one after the other on a film editing table. Frank himself now totes a video camera as he searches for his roots in My Jewish Street (1992), shot in his wonderful Riga, a second home after he left for Jerusalem in the early 1990s to move in with his wife. In a sequence from this city, he integrates scenes from Man at the Wall (1998), his impressive record of religious people (a film that includes a magnificent opening shot: a tour through the walls of the old town).
Gently Stepping Backwards
One little sequence is unforgettable: a woman stepping backwards from the wall. You see her feet searching for safe ground but the searching feet do not know if any safe ground is there. Let that sequence stand as a symbol for the old master who walks back in his life without knowing where it will take him. He doubts, he hesitates, he reflects, he is searching, he goes all the way back to his childhood looking for answers he knows are impossible to find. As a text in the film says, ”I delved into the past like in a dream. And it was not important what had happened before or later. Everything went on inside me.”
From 1959 he worked at Riga Film Studios as a photographer, editor and documentary scriptwriter and director. He directed more than thirty documentaries. His debut as a director of documentary films was The Salt Bread (1965). He has been living in Israel since 1993. He has received many international awards and has published more than 160 articles in books, magazines and newspapers all over the world. Herz Frank is one of the founders of the Riga School of Poetic Cinema.
1962: THE WHITE BELLS
1963: YOU AND ME
1965: THE SALT BREAD
1967: WITHOUT LEGENDS
1971: YOUR PAY-DAY
1972: THE TRACE OF SOUL
1973: THE CENTAUR
1974: THE JOY OF BEING
1975: THE PROHIBITED AREA
1978: TEN MINUTES OLDER
1979: THE AWAKENING
1980: THE LAST CELEBRATION
1984: TILL THE DANGEROUS VERGE
1987: THE LAST JUDGEMENT
1989: THERE LIVED SEVEN SIMEONS
1989: THE SONG OF SONGS
1992: THE JEWISH STREET
1998: THE MAN OF WALL
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).