By: Ran Tal & Anat Even

ENG: TR Aryeh

For this issue we decided to interview veteran filmmaker Herz Frank. We looked for him in Jerusalem where he's lived since the mid-70s, but it turned out he was on the road between Latvia and Western Europe and nobody knew when he was coming back. Herz Frank, 85, is constantly traveling between Israel, where he lives in almost total anonymity, and Russia, Latvia and Europe, where he's a maestro. He was the venerated teacher of Koskowski, Lozniza, Dvortsevoy and many others, and they miss no opportunity to talk about him. He wrote two books that were published in the USSR and he's still invited to present his prizewinning films at international festivals and teach at universities and film schools. When he immigrated to Israel he hoped to find his place among Israel's documentary filmmakers and teach at the film schools, but he wasn't accepted.

Herz has been filming and directing for over forty years. His expressive black-and-white cinematography and the tone and tempo of his films are taken from realms which, unfortunately, modern cinema has left behind and may never return to.

Herz returned to Israel a little while ago after teaching in Italy, visiting his son in England and participating in a festival in Latvia. We managed to meet him and talk to him, but unfortunately we haven't had a chance to write about any of his films. We plan to do so in the future. We came to see him in Jerusalem on a wintry morning. Frank, in a hat and big glasses as always, greeted us cordially but let us know immediately that he was sorry, but he had only an hour and ten minutes for us.

It came as a big surprise, Herz, when you told us your time was short because you're shooting today. Are you making a film?

Whenever I make a film I don't say I'm making a film, I say I'm trying to make a film, to this day. For forty years I've been trying, trying to touch the world, to speak to people, and maybe a film will come of it and maybe it'll be good. If not, then something will remain, footage.

Can you be more specific?

I'll only give you the name: Larisa Trembovler, Larisa Amir, Yigal Amir's wife. I've known her for ten years now, but let's talk about films I've already made. What I'm going to do is still up in the air.

Let's begin with Riga's poetic school of cinema, of which you're one of the founders. Can you tell us about the school and how it developed?

Documentary film is, first and foremost, information. What has happened and what is happening in a person's life, that's documentation. But I think and I'm sure that documentary film can also be artistic. Because reality itself, without stage direction, hides within itself artistic beauty; moreover, it has a beauty of its own. Every time I film something I think: What is a poetic documentary film? If I see a stone, and the stone is still a stone from the beginning to the end, that's information. If the stone becomes an extension of my feelings, then it's an artistic film. It all depends on how and what we see.

Take, for instance, my film Ten Minutes Older. What happens there? I went to a theater and saw a hundred children there, all watching a play. Of course I could do reportage, how children watch a play. But I had a different goal in mind – I didn't just come to see how they watch, I came to see what happens to their souls. And in that theater I didn't create anything. There was a play, a puppet show, and there were a hundred children. In one of those children, the one I observed for ten minutes in one shot, I found artistic value. I simultaneously convey information and create art. I observe a child's face as he watches a play for ten minutes. Every genre of art deals with man and especially with his soul, what happens to his soul. It doesn't really matter if he's a doctor, an engineer or a laborer. To me what matters is what he feels.

How do you define "point of view" in this type of cinema?

Point of view includes the reality in my soul, not just in my eyes. And in the greater sense I put all of myself into it. As a child I studied the Bible and the Pentateuch, and I remember that in the Pentateuch God created Adam from the soil, He breathed the spirit of life into him, and he became a living being. I went to the theater to observe a living being. You know what I mean? I came with my… baggage, my knowledge of the Bible. I read Genesis as a boy. Adam and Eve started by knowing good and evil. They were forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but they ate from it. And like God, they knew good from evil. And this little boy sitting in the theater, only three years old, already understood. On the stage was a struggle between good and evil, okay? And he understood. We see it on his face, in his tears, and we realize that he already knows good from evil, and he's for good and against evil. That's the film.

How do you approach a film?

I believe that a documentary film shouldn't begin with the camera. The camera comes later. It should begin with a relationship, face to face with the person I want to film. I tell him: Hello, my name is Frank, I'm a film director, I make movies, let's make a film together, you and me. And if he says: I can't, I don't know how to make movies, I tell him that I don't either, I'm always learning, but once we get going it'll be all right.

You still don't know after all these years?

What does "making a movie" mean? I know how to press the button, that much I know, but that isn't documentary filmmaking. You can learn that in a day. Especially now that cameras are so good and so simple. When I say I don't know, I mean I don't know how to touch a person. How to make him forget about the camera, not to think about the camera so that he doesn't pretend to be better than he really is, and that brings up a lot of questions. When to start shooting, when to finish shooting. How to deal with light – in all my films it's very important that the light be beautiful. We see the light on the person's face, we see the contour, the light aimed at his back, that's the art of cinematography. I've been filming all my life and I still don't know when cinematography changes in a single second from being informative to being something else. That's the secret, what happens in that second. I don't know what happens in that second but I see it when it happens. That's why I say I don't know when to press the button, but I'm always observing. That's the foundation of poetic documentary film, observation. We have to observe. To observe like children who see something for the first time and we see it as a wonder. As long as it we see it as a wonder, we're making good films. When it isn't a wonder, we're better off making a chair.

How did your filmmaking fit in with Soviet Era cinema? How unusual was it?

In the Soviet Era documentary film was supposed to propagandize the Soviet regime. But I didn't make propaganda as they demanded. They didn't understand my films, especially the ones that had hardly any words. They aren't about the government or anything else; I'm observing the person's face. I was often asked: Whose side are you on? I answered that I'm on the side of the living soul – you too claim to be on the side of man. That's why, during the Soviet Era, when everyone in documentary cinema – those in Moscow as well as in Leningrad – made propaganda, I made films about people. Films about laborers, fishermen, tinsmiths. But the way I filmed them they weren't just fishermen or tinsmiths, they were human beings, they were philosophers, and that's the foundation of poetic film.

Tell us about production conditions during the Soviet Era.

During the Soviet Era everything was government-run. We had a film studio in Riga, a big building with all the necessary equipment. About 800 people worked at the studio. The vast majority worked in dramatic film – that was considered more important. Documentary film was a negligible part of what went on. I remember we had one little corridor with five rooms in this huge building, and that's where we worked. Decades have passed and the only work anyone remembers now is the work and the films we did in our little corridor.

Which filmmakers influenced you, inspired your work?

My best teacher was reality, then my father. He was a very famous photographer in Latvia. He was an actor, a director, and an excellent photographer. From the age of five I worked with him, saw how he took pictures, how he developed and printed his photos, so I can say that the art of photography is my mother tongue, my father tongue. I didn't study it, l got it from life, from my father, directly.

You didn't study film?

No, no… Thank God I didn't study. I wanted to study. After eight years in the Soviet army I went to Moscow where I wanted to study film. Then a terrible thing happened. My sister, who was a member of Beitar, wanted to emigrate illegally to Israel. She was caught and sent to a concentration camp in Siberia. She served ten years in Siberia.

When was this?

This was after the war in '46, '47. She was in Siberia until '58. I served in the army not far from there and she was in a concentration camp in the Gulag. I'm telling you this so you'll understand that when I went to the film academy I had to tell them, too. And even though I was a candidate for the Communist Party the school didn't accept me. Usually after a year of candidacy you were accepted to the party. I was a candidate for seven years… But I'll say it again, thank God I wasn't accepted. It enabled me to study documentary film through experience. Life taught me. And I realize that the fact that I didn't study film gave me the courage to do a different kind of filmmaking.


Another highly admired and famous film of your is The Last Judgment.

The Last Judgment. In the former USSR, if a person was put on trial, he was guilty. Guilty or not, he was guilty. In Stalin's time they shot so many people without a trial that one more made no difference. For The Last Judgment I filmed a murderer who was sentenced to death, in the prison, I filmed it fifty years ago and the film is still alive. Why? Because it isn't a film about a murderer. It's about a person who confesses, and it's the confession of a murderer. It's no longer a film about murder, it's a film about what happens to the soul of a murderer. True, he murdered, he fired a gun, but after all the time he spent in jail he was a different man, and in my film he talks about his love of man, including those who are going to shoot him when he's stood against the wall. He speaks like Christ, he's never read about Jesus Christ but he talks about love, he speaks in his own words, and that's why the film is alive to this day. It's the No. 1 subject that concerns civilization. I believe that poetic documentary cinema can't be like literature, but it can get close. We still read Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev and others, and they wrote a hundred years ago. But to this day we read them as if they wrote yesterday. And the same can be said of documentary film. We shot these films fifty years ago and it's as if we filmed them yesterday. Because man doesn't change as quickly as his environment. Man is the same today, yesterday and fifty years ago, the same blood flows in his veins. And that's that.

Why do you choose to film in black-and-white?

Folks, the color in our films changes over the years, it turns red, it fades, but black-and-white will be the same a hundred years from now. And I don't see it as black and white, there are grays and there are shades of black and of white. I made the film Diagnosis about an autopsy. They operate on a cadaver. I didn't want the blood to be red, we can imagine that it's red. What I'm interested in is the soul. Now, you'll ask, what soul? They're cutting open a dead man. I filmed the autopsy but I wanted to say: You can cut the body as much as you want but you'll never see the soul, you'll never understand why this person laughed, why he cried, why he loved, why he got angry, or why he has a tattoo. All you see is the flesh. Maybe he died of love, maybe he died of hate, but you can only imagine that. I filmed the body but I was thinking of the soul.

Do you usually shoot your own films or do you work with other cameramen?

In every film I've had a cameraman but I also filmed because I've filmed since I was a boy and there are situations where by the time you explain to the cameraman what to do, the moment is gone. I usually use a cameraman but I have another camera for myself.

In one of the interviews you gave in Israel you said that films are made in the director's image.

Of course, just as God created man in His image. In the Bible they understood everything. Even the first verse, "In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth." As I understand it, the Heavens are an ideal, they're spiritual. Earth is material. You know the painting by Raphael? "The School of Athens," all the philosophers are there and in the middle are Plato and Aristotle. Plato is pointing up and Aristotle is pointing down. Because Plato was an idealist and Aristotle was a materialist, and that's the whole story. That's all, folks, that's what we do in documentary filmmaking. We film the Earth but we remember that Heaven is above us. We film the material world, reality, but we always bear in mind that there's spirituality too. Just as the heart beats, there's a pulse from fact to spirituality and from spirituality to fact. And if that pulse exist, there's also a pulsation in our film, so it's alive, alive today and alive tomorrow. If there's no pulse, then it's dead to begin with.

Flashback is an oddity in your filmography, it's an autobiographical film to which you added a lot of footage from your previous films as if they're part of your autobiography.

My previous films were made in my image and Flashback is a film about my life. It's more associative, like in real life. Life isn't a calendar, January, February, March… Our lives work differently, sometimes what happened ten years ago is more important now than what happened one year ago. For me, what happened eighty years ago could be more important.

The films you make are different from contemporary documentary cinema. How are they received in general and how do students receive them?

I was in Italy a month ago, I was also in Germany, in Luxembourg, and whenever I meet European students it's no problem. At first I'm afraid. They're young; the oldest is twenty-five and I'm eighty-five, that's a sixty-year difference. But when we start watching movies I tell them I'm only old according to my passport; in films I'm a terrorist, I'm young, I break the rules. And that's why I think and hope that we'll be able to communicate. And that's what happens. So there's no problem, I've never had a problem with any film, they understand everything with no need of words. And that's a wonder too. Because usually when you make a film you have to explain. I don't talk. I'm not saying that it's bad to talk in films, it isn't bad, it's very good and very nice if the word is appropriate. But to begin with I want brown bread. Then I can spread a little butter on it and add some honey, but the foundation is the brown bread.

Were you a Communist?

I come from a poor family, a Jewish family, but we were impoverished, "Kabtzunim" in Yiddish. My mother was a doctor but she got sick early on and couldn't work. My father was a photographer, as I said, but he was a dreamer. So he didn't work much and we had no income. It was a big family, we were five children. And you have to go to school, and eat, and have warm clothing – Latvia is a very cold place – and we had no money. I attended yeshiva and Hebrew school, that's where I learned Hebrew. I grew up, not with hatred but with dreams that things shouldn't be this way. We had poor people and rich people. People shouldn't be poor, there should be equality between people. I remember recess at school when you had to eat something. I had brown bread with a little butter. And there were kids who had white bread with sausage, and I can still remember the smell of the goose fat in their sandwiches, and I could only smell it.

What was your experience of the 1950s, when they started putting the intelligentsia and Jewish writers on trial?

I had no problem with it because the films I made weren't dissident, they didn't protest against the government and the state. But don't forget that my sister was in the Gulag and we were a very Zionist family, I had a Zionist education. When I was seven we had a swearing-in ceremony at a bonfire and I swore that when I turned 18 I'd move to Israel. I had one sister in Beitar and one sister in HaShomer HaTzair and at home we were always arguing and shouting, like in the Israeli Knesset (parliament). That's how I knew, when I came to Israel, that I was home – always the same arguments between leftists and rightists.

Did you believe in the Soviet regime, in its ideas, its ways?

I never believed in the Soviet regime, I believed in the idea. I saw what was happening with the Soviet regime. I saw the lie, but the idea isn't the Soviet regime, it's broader than that. When I went to HaShomer HaTzair with my sister we studied Marxism and we believed that we would go to Israel where we'd have true Socialism, unlike in the USSR.

And now that you're here, how do you feel?

I'll tell you, I'm happy, because to this day, when I take my little camera and I want to film, I feel a certain joy in the fact that I'm still alive. I film, I see, I wonder, and I still haven't lost the feeling that everything I see in the world is a wonder, and that's the most important thing. I don't know what I'll do if I ever lose that. But I'm still full of wonder.

Ran Tal - Director

Ran Tal independent director and producer. BA in Film and Television at Tel Aviv University in 1994.
Films, records are engaged in the Israeli reality through social... Read More

Anat Even - Independent filmmaker

Anat Even independent filmmaker, studied film and art in UCLA live in Tel Aviv.
Among her films: Duda (1994), Fozitibos (1995), Abram's Grocery (1996), compromise (1996), Forbidden... Read More

Download this article in PDF