Hedonist to Haredi: Iconic Israeli Filmmaker's Works Still Project Truth

Decades after Uri Zohar swapped cinema for ultra-Orthodox Judaism, the existential crisis of his films can still be seen in today's society.

Acharismatic actor and director, popular television star and icon of bohemian Tel Aviv, Uri Zohar set off shock waves in Israel’s secular society when he decided to become a practicing, observant Jew. Since that time, in the late 1970s, he has become an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and has denied his cinematic past, describing it as a dark period in his life.

Yet his works have a life of their own. Many of the movies he directed, starting in the mid-’60s − some of which have become part of the canon of Israeli cinema − reveal extraordinary talent, inspiration and sensitivity, and they function as a tragicomic, pitiless and sometimes disillusioned mirror of Israeli society of that era.

Born on November 4, 1935, Zohar was one of the prominent figures of the New Sensibility movement active in Israel in the 1960s-’70s. The movement was greatly influenced by modern European cinema, especially the French New Wave. He began his artistic career in Nahal’s army entertainment troupe, where he met singer-actor Arik Einstein (who, over the years, would become one his closest and most loyal collaborators). After the end of his military service, Zohar became one of the founders of the satirical cabaret Batzal Yarok ‏(Green Onion‏), based in Tel Aviv, which garnered enormous success in the early ’60s.

Zohar began his career in film, acting in movies promoting the Zionist ethos such as Larry Frisch’s “The Pillar of Fire” ‏(1959‏) and Raphael Nussbaum’s “Blazing Sand” ‏(1960). He also had a minor role in Otto Preminger’s Hollywood epic “Exodus” ‏(1960‏), which was filmed in Israel.

In 1962, Zohar tried his hand at producing and directing a full-length feature. Together with Nathan Axelrod and Yoel Zilberg, he made “The True Story of Palestine” ‏(“Etz O Palestina”‏), based on Axelrod’s newsreels documenting different chapters of the Zionist adventure up to the establishment of the State of Israel.

Despite the patriotic tone of its images, Chaim Topol’s humoristic voiceover is imbued with a certain ironic distance that hints at the direction Zohar’s future cinematic career would take.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, Israeli cinema was typically ideological, even propagandistic (Prof. Ella Shohat called it “national-heroic”). Most of the movies were a megaphone for the country’s Zionist, socialist values, dealing with subjects such as the integration of new immigrants into society, the blossoming of the desert, and collective life on the kibbutzim. A few movies, such as “Pillar of Fire” or “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer,” directed by Thorold Dickinson (1955), focused on the War of Independence, one of the central epics amplified by Israeli cinema of the ’50s.

Parody of Zionism

Starting in the mid-’60s, the New Sensibility movement veered away from Zionist filmmaking and its propaganda. In 1965, the movement’s first cinematic effort, “Hole in the Moon” − which was also Zohar’s first full-length dramatic feature − appeared on the silver screen.

It was a work of radical modernism and sent shock waves through the local cinema scene. Bringing together several talented artists from different disciplines (the journalist and novelist Amos Kenan wrote the screenplay; sculptor Yigal Tumarkin designed the set; and the French composer Michel Colombier wrote the score‏), “Hole in the Moon” relies on the reflexive movie-within-a-movie structure and is made up of two separate parts.

The first follows the adventures of two new immigrants in Israel − one European, one of Middle Eastern origin − who find themselves stuck in the desert. There they create an imaginary cinematic city where, in an anarchic burlesque, scenes and characters from different genres of classical American movies are all mixed together (the Western, the film noir, the melodrama, the musical comedy, and so on). The second part takes place after the destruction of the cinematic city made of cardboard. A Zionist functionary shows up and, in a pathos-laden speech, encourages the participants in the movie-within-a-movie ‏to rebuild the city − but this time in concrete and on the basis of Zionist ideology.

The movie’s reflexive structure, pitting cinema against politics, allowed Zohar to create a parallelism between the cinematic mechanism and the Zionist discourse. Both are revealed as artifice, as ideological constructions.

Zohar’s film is also a parody of Zionist films and their tendency to laud the Zionist enterprise by mystifying the pioneer. The sabra ‏(the native-born Israeli‏) or, alternately, the new immigrant who represses his Diaspora identity, is a tough, pragmatic figure totally dedicated to his mission as soldier or farmer. This character was constructed to be the antithesis of the religious Jew or merchant from the Diaspora, who is unable to defend himself, and therefore is introverted and lives in fear in a hostile environment.

Thus, the meta-narrative of Zionist cinema, repeated in movie after movie, would show the Diaspora Jew arriving in the land of Israel, undergoing a process of transformation, and finally emerging as the New Jew: a pioneering farmer and soldier.

Fragmented montage

The opening scene in “Hole in the Moon” thrillingly expresses the movie’s subversive power, both politically and aesthetically. In that scene − a fragmented montage that shatters the unity of time and space − Zohar goes back to the Zionist meta-narrative and shows the arrival in Palestine of the Diaspora Jew ‏(played by Zohar himself‏). As soon as he disembarks ‏(from a raft!‏) at the port in Jaffa, the newcomer is dispatched to the arid Negev Desert − the barren tract of land Zionism wanted to blossom, according to the vision of David Ben-Gurion, the prestate political leader and country’s first prime minister. But the immigrant is dressed like a European bourgeois, mummified in a finely tailored suit, a patently nonpioneering appearance that he refuses to abandon even in the sweltering desert. There, amid the sand dunes, instead of working the land and making it bloom he prefers to open a kiosk, a modest, “Jewish” business, in diametric opposition to the Zionist-socialist vision.

The scene may be seen as a parable for Zionism’s failure to create, overnight, the New Jew who is completely severed from his past and Diaspora way of life.
“Hole in the Moon” subverts Zionist cinema also in terms of its form by distancing itself from the realistic schema characterizing that genre. The movie is based on a choppy, fragmented narrative that subverts chronology and the causality of the classic realistic narrative. The connections between the sequences are associative, based on a dream-like, poetic logic, systematically contrasting with the codes of the classic narrative.

“Hole in the Moon” uses stylistic features such as slow motion, rapid motion, freeze-frame and superimposition, ceaselessly shattering the illusion of reality while constructing a surreal, abstract cinematic vision.

The aesthetics of the movie are also enriched by authentic documentary footage, which methodically chops up its fictional fabric, as inspired by cinéma verité, the revolutionary school of filmmaking developing at that time in Europe, Canada and the United States.

In these scenes – some filmed at the legendary Cafe Cassit in Tel Aviv – we watch Zohar ostensibly interviewing young women auditioning for a role in the movie. Zohar’s insistent, aggressive tone, laced with more than a touch of misogyny, ironically exposes the hollow vacuity of the women’s dreams of fame and fortune.

The movie’s title, “Hole in the Moon,” comes from a famous Hebrew song ‏(actually based on a Czech folk melody‏), but it also pays homage to the classic silent by Georges Méliès, “A Trip to the Moon” ‏(1902‏). Both movies are innovative in their form and burlesque humor, which were groundbreaking in their eras.
Zohar’s other source of inspiration was “Hallelujah the Hills” by the brothers Adolfas and Jonas Mekas ‏(1962), a film Zohar saw at the French Cinematheque and which, like “Hole in the Moon,” is notable for incorporating a reflexive structure as a nod to classical American cinema. ‏(“Hallelujah the Hills” tells the story of two brothers and their journey into the heart of American cinematic genres, in which by turn they become cowboys, Indians, soldiers or gangsters.‏)
Generally, Zohar’s systematic references to classical American genres in “Hole in the Moon,” and the way they are processed through the modernist filters of reflexivity and abstraction, are reminiscent of some of the exemplars of the French New Wave. Movies such as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” or François Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” were homages to great American directors, whose strong personalities became inspirational models for critics ‏(among them Godard and Truffaut themselves‏) who were writing in the French cinema magazine Cahiers du cinéma. Movies by directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock served as the foundation for the militant vision crafted by Cahiers’  critics (which came to be known as “la politique des auteurs” – the auteur theory).

Over the years, “Hole in the Moon” attained the status of Israeli cinema classic, a cornerstone of the modernist movement that revolutionized Israeli cinema. As noted by veteran director Yehuda “Judd” Ne’eman, the movie may be seen as the manifesto of New Sensibility since it expresses one of the movement’s basic ideas: the desire to liberate the national cinema from the shackles of Zionist ideology, and to defend the auteur’s artistic autonomy.

Existentialist trend

It is, however, also important to note that “Hole in the Moon” was Uri Zohar’s last political movie. Like many New Sensibility directors, he turned his back on explicit political content and channeled his creativity into dealing with individual and existential questions.

This is true of “Three Days and a Child” ‏(1967‏), based on a short story by A.B. Yehoshua. In Zohar’s third full-length film, he again uses modernist narrative models and draws his inspiration from contemporary European cinema. The movie focuses on a young university student, whose painful memories of his first love continue to torment him, have a decisive effect on his present life, and prevent him from forming normal relationships with the outside world.

The dominance of those memories is sharply highlighted when the woman he loved asks him to watch her young child for three days – the little boy is apparently the result of a union between her and her current partner. ‏(The movie, like the short story on which it is based, does not, however, completely rule out the possibility that the university student is the real father of the child‏.) Over a period of three days, the main protagonist alternately heaps on the child the love he still feels for the woman and the rage he suffers for not having been able to realize his youthful romance.

“Three Days and a Child” used a stream-of-consciousness narrative model, inspired by the French Nouveau roman of the 1950s and ’60s, and was undoubtedly also influenced by several of Alan Resnais’ movies − such as “Hiroshima mon amour,” “Last Year at Marienbad” and “Muriel” ‏(Zohar greatly admired Resnais and even published an essay on “Hiroshima mon amour” in the literary quarterly Keshet‏). “Three Days and a Child” takes place in an ambivalent, uncertain world, moving with ongoing hesitancy between present and past, reality and dream ‏(or memory‏), and often erasing the borders separating different levels of time and consciousness.

Thus, scenes in which the hero and the child are walking around Jerusalem are methodically fragmented by memories of the relationship between the man and the child’s mother − scenes that take us back several years to the time the protagonists lived in the kibbutz. In turn, these memories affect the protagonist’s relationship with the child in the present ‏(several times he endangers the child’s life by allowing him to cross the street by himself or to walk along the top of the wall of the public swimming pool‏).

In certain scenes, the transition from the present to the past and from reality to memory is stressed aesthetically by means of contrasts of black and white. The sharp contrast between the colors imbues some of the memories of the past with the feel of a nightmare.

Unlike most of the New Sensibility movies, which were shot in Tel Aviv − a cosmopolitan, modern, secular city that correspond to the cultural identity of the movement − “Three Days and a Child” is set in Jerusalem. But Zohar opted to marginalize the elements reflecting the historical, religious and political dimensions of the city. Instead, he presented it as a more or less ordinary place, with a university and swimming pool, modern buildings and bourgeois apartments.

As discussed by scholar Nurit Gertz, Zohar deviated from A.B. Yehoshua’s text, in which a whole set of symbols and metaphors hints that Jerusalem is actually a political powder keg, liable to explode at any moment, making Zohar’s movie of a piece with most of the films of the New Sensibility movement.

These movies often chose to ignore Israel’s social and political reality, and to stress universal, existential themes enveloping the individual and focusing on questions of modern society’s loneliness, alienation and lack of communication.

This approach may be seen as a critical reaction to the several decades in which Israeli cinema was dominated by the country’s national collective values, and during which any personal and artistic expression was sidelined. Igal Burstein, one of the New Sensibility directors, perfectly described this trend by saying, “At that time, there was a very intense, ideological atmosphere in Israel. First came the poetry of the Palmach generation, and only afterward did the individual expression come to the fore. After the Zionist cinema, a film like ‘The Dress’ [by Judd Ne’eman] was the inevitable next stage. For us, being apolitical was a political act.”

The new and very different trend was undoubtedly also connected to Israel’s socioeconomic development in the 1960s, to the gradual abandonment of the socialist, Zionist values of yore, and the mass penetration of free-market values into the local society and economy.

By the end of the 1960s, Israeli society was becoming more liberal and, to a great extent, more bourgeois. Thanks to unprecedented economic growth, an upswing in manufacturing and consumption, more and more Israelis started to appreciate personal comfort and welfare; of the collective, pioneering spirit that had characterized society in the 1940s and ’50s, only nostalgia remained.

Most of the New Sensibility directors failed to direct more than one or two movies in the 1960s and ’70s, and almost all of them were commercial flops. It is worth remembering that at that time there was no support funding mechanism for noncommercial cinema ‏(the Israel Film Fund was founded only in 1978, at the end of the New Sensibility period).

Commercial successes

By contrast, Zohar directed some 11 movies during that decade, an extraordinary output and the result of his astuteness in grasping the developments in local cinema. Zohar realized early on that he would be unable to survive and to enjoy creative continuity if he limited himself to modernist and radical filmmaking. He exploited both his talent as an actor and his experience in popular filmmaking to develop a career that constantly zigzagged between commercial comedies, such as “Moishe Ventalator” (1966) ‏or “Our Neighborhood” (1968), which also featured the hugely popular Hagashash Hahiver comedy troupe, and more personal, experimental movies, such as “Hole in the Moon,” “Three Days and a Child” or “Take Off” (‏(1970, again with Hagashash Hahiver‏ – “Hitromamut” in Hebrew. The commercial successes of the popular movies allowed Zohar to assume risks in his more personal, ambitious projects.

Zohar often worked with the same groups of actors and technicians ‏(in eight of his movies, he joined forces with cinematographer David Gurfinkel, who was, without doubt, a major influence on Zohar’s work as director‏). To cut production costs, many of Zohar’s collaborators worked for free and signed contracts promising them a percentage of proceeds from local distribution ‏(“the friends’ method,” as Zohar once called it‏). Most of his films were shot with relatively small budgets ‏(often for less than $200,000‏), and some of them, like “Take Off,” were filmed in the more economic 16-mm format and only enlarged to 35-mm when distributed to cinemas.

The truth is that Zohar made a point of working in all Israeli cinema genres of the time. In 1968, he directed “Every Bastard a King,” a war film that was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time in Israel. This ambivalent, disturbing movie, showing the wave of euphoria and pride that swept the nation after the Six-Day War victory, moves between a patriotic, heroic tone and ironic questioning of one of the bases for Israel’s militant spirit ‏(it was also one of Zohar’s most successful movies, with some 650,000 filmgoers).

His versatility brought him to television, where he produced several episodes  of “Lul,” a series of parodic sketches with musical interludes that eventually became a staple of Israeli culture. In the series, Zohar worked with many actors and musicians, including Arik Einstein and Shalom Hanoch. With some he also collaborated on several daring cinematic projects, including “Snail” (“Shablul,” 1970‏), a cinéma-vérité exercise directed by Boaz Davidson, which documented the life of some members of the local bohemian community, and the unreleased “A Flower in the Engine” ‏(1971‏), an experimental film shoot without a script, whose editing was never completed.

In the 1970s, Zohar’s filmmaking became increasingly preoccupied with lust, sexuality and the nuclear family. His work followed the sexual revolution of that era, and offered a satirical, often cutting, look at the new freedom offered by a society pretending to be “sexual liberated.” In “Take Off,” three married men in their 30s have had it with monogamy and family life, and decide to arrange a wife-swapping orgy. But the event rapidly degenerates into a mass brawl, as none of the men is capable of seeing his wife in the arms of another.

This insightful parody of Israeli machismo is also one of Zohar’s most daring films from an aesthetic point of view. Bringing to life the heroes’ sexual fantasies, the different erotic scenes in the film are loose in stylistic terms; they show extensive use of slow motion and superimposition, lending the movie a strong dose of abstraction. In this movie, the director once again makes use of the reflexive motif, insinuating himself into the plot as a kind of Greek chorus. In bad Italian, Zohar constantly interrupts the narrative with declarations about sexuality and cinema, and with a methodical  analysis of the plot and characters.

After “Take Off,” and apparently because of its poor box office, Zohar’s filmmaking evolved into a successful synthesis between personal and popular cinema. In “The Coq” (1971‏) and especially his Tel Aviv trilogy − “Peeping Toms” ‏(1972), “Big Eyes” (1974) ‏and “Save the Lifeguard” (1976) ‏− he created a sort of fictional autobiography that showcased characters in their 40s, married and with kids, who refuse to assume responsibility and commit themselves to their families, preferring instead a life of loafing, hanging out at the beach and chasing women.

In these movies, Zohar succeeded in portraying an authentic, natural Israeli everyday life, led in harmony in a Mediterranean, Tel Avivian, liberated and uninhibited space. While most of the New Sensibility directors preferred to depict a more refined European environment in their work, Zohar’s cinema celebrated the vital, sometimes vulgar existence of the quotidian Israeli domain and its populace. He was the first director who made the beach into an icon of the new local culture – the natural habitat of a joyful society, hedonistic to the point of self-oblivion.

He was also the first director to recognize the unique qualities of the Israeli sun, turning its violent glare − threatening to burn through the plastic strips of film − into a realistic, flat, gritty aesthetic.

In 1986, as part of “The Want of Matter,” a seminal exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, historian-curator Sara Breitberg-Semel described a prominent school of local art in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s as being characterized by material poverty.

This school was typified by the use of cheap, partly recycled materials − arranged in innovative, coarse, unrefined and sometimes rough stylistic compositions that reflected the essence of the local landscape.

Taking its cue from the Italian Arte Povera movement, but transposed to a typically Tel Aviv environment, according to Breitberg-Semel Israeli art succeeded in overcoming its own lack of iconographic tradition, partly the result of the biblical prohibition on making graven images. Thus, the material poverty created an original vision of Israeli materials and landscapes, and one of its chief proponents was the painter Raffi Lavie, whom Breitberg-Semel called “a child of Tel Aviv.”

She also viewed Zohar as cinema’s prime representative of this aesthetic. He outdid all other Israeli directors in capturing the unique beauty of Tel Aviv − a city with a fairly simple, functional appearance; a city of disorder and architectural anarchy; a city whose balconies are crumbling and whose exposed air-conditioning units are stunningly ugly, but also a city that is intimate and scaled to the needs of human beings, and which, with all its imperfections, reflects the energy and vitality of its residents.

In this context, Breitberg-Semel, in her essay in the exhibition’s catalog, cites film director Renen Schorr’s article The Image of the Sabra in Uri Zohar’s Cinema: “He feels right at home in the Tel Aviv of later films. Tel Aviv is hardly a paradise for cinematographers: a level landscape without remarkable topographic features, young but demolished for the sake of demolition. It’s built as an amalgam of styles ... Uri films and documents Tel Aviv on the beach ... Tel Aviv without social criticism, without pandering to the Israeli or Jewish audience, a lively cauldron of people rooted in their environment, striding through it like local sheriffs, in total command of the codes of conduct in their habitat. People whose interaction with their environment give it and them their beauty.”

During the 1986 exhibition, Breitberg-Semel chose to show Zohar’s “Peeping Toms,” which over the years became a cult favorite and whose popularity refuses to die out, more than 40 years after it was made. Zohar plays the role of Gutte, the beach inspector ‏(his friends call him “the sheriff”‏) and lifeguard, one of whose duties is to chase off voyeurs gathered outside the women’s locker room and showers, but who is himself just as guilty of being a Peeping Tom. The hero’s regressive, juvenile sexuality − which includes voyeurism, attempts at forcing sex on women, and frequenting prostitutes − reflects his inability to grow up and extricate himself from his endless cycle of infantile behavior, and mirrors an unsatisfied, frustrated, helpless personality.

The Peeping Tom motif is also treated as a reflexive element. When portraying the voyeurs − the object of their peeping is never shown − Zohar turns the viewers’ attention to the act of peeping itself, the very act that also stands at the heart of the movie-going experience. The streams of light emanating from the ramshackle structure that Gutte and his pals are peering into, do, in fact, remind one of the rays emitted by a film projector in the darkened movie theater as we watch/peep at the characters − the objects of our desire − on the screen.

Autobiographical fiction

In 1974, Uri Zohar directed his most personal movie, “Big Eyes,” in which he portrays Benny Furman, a married basketball coach and father of two, whose obsession with sex and random love affairs gradually make him lose control of his family life and career. The film is shot in grainy black and white, and systematically incorporates improvisation, both in the directing and dialogues, undoubtedly under the influence of the French New Wave. The autobiographical dimension of the movie is partly expressed by the fact that Elia Zohar, the director’s real-life wife, plays the part of the wretched basketball coach’s spouse.

When they were released at the beginning of the ’70s, the movies comprising the Tel Aviv trilogy were generally seen as lighthearted, escapist beachside comedies. But today they have completely changed their significance and are viewed as the disillusioned, sometimes tragic reflection of the life of Uri Zohar himself and, to a certain extent, of an entire generation – the generation of sabras raised on the socialist, Zionist values of yesteryear, whose collapse in the ’70s left them in a gaping void. These movies contain a direct, self-conscious criticism of Israeli manhood, the machismo and misogyny typical of it, and of a society incapable of functioning beyond the militarist or other collective male reality ‏(whether represented by a group of pioneers or the bohemians of Tel Aviv‏). The sense of discomfort given off by “Peeping Toms” and “Big Eyes,” the motif of self-loathing expressed by the characters played by Zohar, hint not only at the director’s future decision to turn to ultra-Orthodox Judaism, but also to a more extensive ideological and cultural crisis in all of Israeli society – a simmering crisis that was destined to break through the surface after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Whether speaking of creating movies, or of one’s sexual and family life, Uri Zohar’s art is frequently preoccupied with the question of limits, or their absence. The heroes of his movies are typically endowed with unbridled sexual lust and nonstop, over-the-top energy. But their inability to set limits makes them sink into atrophy and veer out of control. Thus, Zohar’s cinema reflects existential crisis and ideological vacuum – not only his own and that of his characters, but that of the society in which he was living then and, to a great extent, also today.

This is the text of a lecture given by Ariel Schweitzer in French on October 12, 2012, at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, as part of a retrospective of Uri Zohar’s films curated by Dr. Schweitzer, professor and film historian.

Haim Taragan