Bittersweet Story

The plot of Ethel Kubinska's life is as poignant as the character she plays in the film 'Valentina's Mother' .

In April 2007, while Ethel Kubinska sat in the hospital beside her dying husband she got a phone call. Her agent told her to audition for the lead role in a new Israeli film. At the time, the veteran actress - who was with Habima for many years - did not think too much of the call. Her bitter experiences as an actress in Israel had taught her to moderate her expectations. And more importantly, she was distracted and worried: her partner was fighting for his life. Still, later that night, when she went home from the hospital, she began reviewing the text that had been sent to her. "I learned it just like that, at midnight, in a very careless way," says Kubinska.

When she came to the audition the next morning the directors, Arik Lubetzki and Matti Harari, looked at her dubiously. She seemed confused and unfocused, they later said. But when it was her turn to audition, everyone in the room, including Kubinska herself, was surprised. "I finish the audition and then suddenly there is applause. And I hear people saying to me 'Bravo! You got the part,'" she recalls during a recent interview at her modest Jaffa apartment.

Ethel Kubinska - Ilia Malnikov - 02022012
Actress Ethel Kubinska at her home in Jaffa. She plays Paula in the film, which opens on Thursday. Ilia Malnikov

Lubetzki and Harari told her on the spot that they wanted her for the role of Paula, the lead character in their film, "Valentina's Mother" which opens at movie theaters in Israel today. But Kubinska wasn't sure she wanted the part.

"All I wanted then was to remain at my husband's side. Only then did I realize that this is the end and I must be with him until the end."

The next day at the hospital, she told her husband about her screen test. "I said to him, 'it's a very nice part and apparently a very serious and good film, but don't worry I'm not going to the filming.' And then, suddenly, with anger I had never been seen in him, he tells me: 'Are you nuts? Of course, you're going to the film shoot!' Then I realized he wants me to do it and that I have to dedicate the role to him," she says, her voice cracking.

When watching "Valentina's Mother", it is hard not to be impressed by Kubinska's performance. She plays Paula, an elderly Holocaust survivor living in Israel. A complicated relationship evolves between her and a young Polish woman, who starts to work as her home aide. The aide, Valentina, has the same name as a Catholic girl who was Paula's childhood friend in Poland and this stirs long-suppressed difficult memories.

Fragile and determined

The film, based on a novella by Savyon Liebrecht, is not flawless but Kubinska's performance is captivating. She manages to infuse Paula with convincing vitality, charge her with surprising energies and portray a character who is both fragile and determined, carrying the film on her shoulders. Two years ago, this role earned Kubinska - who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor - a nomination for the Israel Film Academy's Ophir Prize for best actress. Her energy on the screen is all the more surprising given circumstances in which the film was shot. Filming began in the summer of 2007 and Kubinska's husband, the musician Lev Kogan, was already dying. After the first day of shooting, she wanted quit the film to be with him, but director Lubetzki convinced her that it was too late to pull out.

"I'd get up at 5 A.M., and at around six or seven they'd pick me up and after the shooting I'd go to the hospital. Every day I'd come home at midnight and review the next day's script, and then get up at 5 A.M. again."

After three days of shooting, Kogan died and shooting was halted for a week. "Every day the crew came to my home. We became family. Only because of this afterwards, when we resumed shooting, was it easy for me to work. I didn't work at all, I simply lived the part. I don't know what happened or how, it just came out of me this way, without effort. They tell me what came out is good - I was a nominee for an Israeli Oscar. When the filming was all over, I was very sad because I knew that nothing else like this would be waiting for me out there anymore."

Russian roots

Kubinska was born in Poland in the 1920s. At age 14, before World War II she moved with her family to Russia and a few months later began to study acting there. Within a few years she was acting in leading Moscow theaters. There, she married Kogan, an esteemed composer. "Things were good for us then. He was a famous composer; I worked in the top theater in Moscow. We had an apartment in the center of town and did not lack money," she says. But then, in 1972, their fate changed, and their lives in Russia were no longer as charmed. The couple decided to immigrate to Israel.

At first they were sent to Pardes Hanna. "It was terrible. From Moscow we suddenly arrived in a village and our financial situation was awful. I didn't even have enough money to buy my little eight-year-old girl Coca Cola," she says. After a few months, the family moved to Tel Aviv and for a moment it seemed as if things were looking up a bit for them in their new country. Shimon Finkel, who was then the Habima Theater's artistic director, invited Kubinska to perform with the national theater and she began to thrive. Then, some two years later when Finkel left his position, the attitude toward her changed. "From that moment, after every play I received a letter of dismissal so that I wouldn't ask for tenure," she says. "Even after I performed in a play and was favorably reviewed, I also received a letter of dismissal."

Kubinska acted with Habima for about 15 years and then joined Shmulik Atzmon in setting up the Yiddishpiel, a Yiddish theater company in Israel. Both she and her husband realized they would not be able to replicate the status and success they had had in Moscow.

They performed together abroad in classical music shows in which Kogan composed and played, and Kubinska sang. In addition to her theater performances, Kubinska also had small television and movie parts. But it was only during the shows abroad that she felt appreciated again, she says.

Her role in "Valentina's Mother" is indeed her first leading part in a movie.

"I got into this part pretty easily. I saw so many people who survived the Holocaust, and each one carried baggage and did so in a different way. My mother decided we will live a new life. But there were others who didn't manage to leave the past behind them, like Paula. That wasn't foreign to me."

After receiving many accolades for her work in the film, including the Ophir Prize nomination, she admits to being upset that recognition came so late in her career. "I was sorry, but I didn't tell anyone that," she says.

The work on the film ended almost five years ago, but Kubinska has yet to recover. Since her husband's death, she has withdrawn into herself. "My mother, who faced a firing squad three times and watched her entire family fall into a pit during the war, taught me to be strong in the most difficult situations. But I did not succeed. My husband died five years ago, and I still can't bring myself to get off of this sofa."

She is curious to see how "Valentina's Mother" will be received by Israeli audiences, but she is not optimistic. "It's a hard movie, and the people here don't like hardships. I don't blame them. Life here is so tough that when the audience is sitting in front of the screen, they want to laugh. But it hurts me, because then you forget things that must not be forgotten."