The script within
In late 2000, German actress Maria Schrader received a phone call. It was the representative of a Berlin publisher, proposing that she take part in a public relations campaign for a new book. He asked her to accompany the author on a tour through Germany and to read passages from the book before an audience, for a handsome fee, of course.
But Schrader was not enthusiastic. The successful actress, who a year earlier had won a Silver Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival for her role in the film "Aimee and Jaguar" (in which she played a Jewish underground member who falls in love with a German woman during World War II) had not performed on stage for about 10 years. Only after the publisher's representative begged her to take a look at the book did she agree.
She carried the book around for several days, and then one afternoon, when she was sitting in a Berlin cafe drinking cappuccino, waiting for someone who didn't show up, she said to herself, "Okay, I'll look at the book, I'll read 10 pages and then I'll inform the publisher that I'm not going to do it," she recalls. She started to read, but couldn't stop. Her daughter was young at the time and she had a lot of things to do that day, but she canceled all her plans, because all she wanted to do was continue reading.
Schrader stayed in the cafe until the evening, fascinated by the German translation of "Love Life," by Israeli writer Zeruya Shalev. She says it was a rare experience for her, and that same night at the cafe, very late, she tried to call the publisher in order to make sure that they didn't give the job to anyone else, but of course there was no answer. She felt that she had to meet the writer.
At the time, Schrader did not imagine that that intense experience in the cafe would eventually lead to her debut as a director. Now, eight years later, the film "Love Life," a full-length feature she directed based on the book, is coming to Israeli theaters.
In an interview at a Tel Aviv cafe three months ago, Schrader recalls that long night she spent with "Love Life." Although the book came from another part of the world, and although she was not at all familiar with life in Israel at the time, having visited only once as a girl, she felt that she understood the story and identified with the heroine, she says. Something beyond the words made the book very special to her.
A few weeks later, she was already in the midst of a promotional campaign in Germany and Switzerland with Zeruya Shalev. Every evening, the two would appear in a different city - Schrader would read passages from the book, and Shalev would sign copies.
It is evident that Schrader enjoys recalling those days and retelling the "romantic story of the film," as she puts it. Romantic, because there was no master plan. There was no producer who wanted to turn it into a film, and she was not looking for a subject for her first film; she had no such goal. It was simply a chain of powerful and intimate encounters, she recalls. Every evening they were together on stage, and although Shalev does not understand German, she followed Schrader's reading, which took place in front of an audience, yet was an intimate experience for the actress.
The joint campaign lasted 10 days, and they women spent intensive hours together on trains, on planes and on stage. Schrader called it an unusual situation, and an opportunity to get to know one another well. Among other things, they spoke about Schrader and her cinematic background, and about the possibility of making a film based on the book. Zeruya suggested, "You have to be the actress, because in any case you're doing it every evening on stage." Schrader says that they laughed and said great, they would do the film. She was flattered by the idea. When Zeruya returned to Israel, Schrader couldn't stop thinking about it.
Schrader began to write a script based on "Love Life." She had written scripts in the past; for years, she was the partner of German director Dani Levy and helped write scripts for his films. But after a month or two, when Shalev's book became tremendously successful in Germany, Schrader started to get nervous.
She says that directors and producers suddenly began to approach her, saying, "We heard you know the writer," and seeking to turn the book into a film. Then she understood that she needed to speed things up if she wanted to turn her idea into a reality. She decided to become more serious, fearing somebody could offer a great deal of money for the rights to the book, and she didn't want Zeruya to find herself in a conflict because of a promise to a friend.
Schrader approached a German production company owned by Dani Levy, which helped her to purchase the rights to "Love Life."
Writing the script of "Love Life" took about a year. During this period Shalev and Schrader embarked on several additional reading trips. Every time they met, Schrader briefed Shalev on the writing. She laughingly says that she particularly recalls one evening in Switzerland when Zeruya had to leave very early in the morning and there was no point in going to sleep, so they sat together in the hotel lobby and Schrader explained what she had done, what she had left out, what she had written and how. Because she had no English translation, she simply described everything scene by scene.
Schrader says she doesn't know why, but from the start Shalev expressed a great deal of confidence in her and was not worried that she might ruin something. From the beginning, Shalev told her that whatever she did would not harm the book, and that she really did not insist that the film be a copy of the book. She encouraged Schrader to find her own story in the book, which Schrader feels was very nice and noble.
After she finished the writing, Schrader visited Israel. She walked around Jerusalem with Shalev, who showed her the streets and the buildings that inspired the book, but both of them discussed the possibility of filming abroad. Schrader says she remembers that Shalev told her, "Look at the book, it has no street names, it has no roots in my natural surroundings. We all know it takes place in Jerusalem, but it's a universal story."
But nevertheless, in the end Schrader decided to film in Israel. She said that after seeing Israel, she felt that the book was very strongly connected to this country, maybe even more so than Shalev was aware. Sometimes, she says, there is an advantage to having the perspective of a stranger, who can see how strongly a story is connected to a place.
Schrader, who preferred to concentrate on directing and therefore did not act in the film, put together a cast of actors from Israel and the United States, and chose to make the film in English rather than Hebrew.
The film, like the book, follows Yaara (Netta Garti), a young Jerusalemite who meets a childhood friend of her father's (Croatian-American actor Rade Sherbedgia), who undermines not only her inner serenity but the stability of her marriage as well. They embark on a journey of humiliation and domination, attraction and repulsion. In Germany, where the film was screened at the end of last year, the critics praised it warmly. In Israel, on the other hand, it is not certain that the local audience will respond with the same enthusiasm to the caressing external view of the local landscapes, to the fact that the local story is told in English, and to the plot that is sometimes overly dramatic.
Schrader was very afraid of Shalev's reaction to the film. In a private showing, Shalev cried and cried and cried throughout the film, Shrader says. She understood that it was a kind of shock for the author, because she had carried all these characters and situations with her for years, and suddenly they had become real faces and real places, their images displayed before her.
And in fact Shalev herself says: "It was very exciting for me to encounter characters who were a product of my imagination and to see them on screen, not at all how I imagined them, but nevertheless with such vivid reality." The crying, she says, was the result of excitement and surprise.
"And the fact is that I also cried because the story is very sad. I felt really sorry for Yaara. And surprisingly, I was also anxious to learn how this story would end," she laughs.
"I was also happy for Maria," says Shalev. "I accompanied her throughout the process, out of friendship, and I was happy for her that it turned out well, that she had succeeded in creating such an experiential work. I felt that her connection to the book is so strong and special that it was easy for me to trust her."
Schrader adds that Shalev calls the film more Israeli than her book. She also asked Schrader about one of the scenes: "Did I write that or is that your invention?" And when Schrader told her that it was a scene she had added, Shalev laughed and said, "What a shame, I would have liked that to be in the book."
Of course it's not longer her story, says Schrader - many things are different in the film, even the ending is different.
In recent months, the women have set out on another joint campaign, but this time it was Shalev who accompanied Schrader to publicize the film. The two were present at the screening of the film in Rome and Germany, among other places. Schrader says that she really hopes Shalev's agreement to help publicize the film is a sign that she's pleased with the result. She wants to believe that otherwise, Shalev wouldn't have done that.