Arik Einstein the Film Actor: The Essence of Israeli Masculinity

While he appeared in very few movies, these were some of the most important in the history of Israeli cinema.

In almost all the eulogies heard since Arik Einstein's death, along with praise for his musical talents there was an emphasis on his considerable ability as a film actor. Although Einstein was gifted with an ability to behave naturally in front of the camera and to reveal a multifaceted personality, the surprising fact about the history of the cinematic chapter in Einstein’s life is that between 1963 and 1992 he appeared in only eight films, including two films of skits - “Shablul” (Snail) in 1970 and “Kevalim” (Cables) in 1992 - and in only one film did he appear in a starring role in the full sense of the concept: his first film, from 1963, Shlomo Suriano’s “Nini.”

In the film, whose amateurish script and direction occasionally arouse affection, Einstein played the son of a wealthy industrialist who falls in love with a young Christian woman from Jaffa. Already in that film, despite its limitations, one could sense the charm exuding from the handsome young Einstein.

So what is the source of the recognition of Arik Einstein’s importance as an actor in the history of Israeli film? His appearance alongside Uri Zohar in two of the most important films directed by Zohar: “Metzitzim” (Peeping Tom) in 1972 and “Einayim Gedolot” (Big Eyes) in 1974.

Between “Nini” and “Metzitzim” Einstein played secondary roles in three films that were screened in 1964: He appeared in a short guest role in the film by Israel (Pucho) Wisler and Amatsia Hiuni “Ulai Tered Sham” (Maybe You Should Go Down There), in which he played a young boy trying to act mature, who walks along the beach with his girlfriend and ignores the cries for help of a boy who was buried in the sand by friends. In “Dalia and the Sailors” by Menahem Golan, Einstein played a sailor on a ship on which the daughter of emigrants to Canada who wants to come on aliya is a stowaway. The young man played by Einstein in the film was sly and crafty, but naive as well, and there was something about his narrow eyes and his crooked smile that enabled him to play such characters, whose development reached a peak in the films directed by Zohar.

Einstein won more widespread recognition as a film actor in his third film that year, when he appeared in a role that placed more emphasis on the naive side of his character. It was “Sallah Shabati,” Ephraim Kishon’s first film, in which Einstein played Ziggy the kibbutznik who falls in love with Habuba, the daughter of Sallah, a resident of the nearby transit camp; but eight years went by until Einstein’s talent emerged in full force, in Zohar’s two films.

In both films the plot focuses on the characters played by Zohar, and just as the two films complement one another, the characters played by Einstein in the two films are meant to complement those played by Zohar, in a type of narrative reversal. While in “Metzizim” Zohar is a bachelor and Einstein is the cheating married man, in “Big Eyes” their roles in the plot are reversed. Both of the male characters in the two films are a kind of dual male entity.

Einstein’s role in those two films is secondary to Zohar’s but the combination of the two of them forms a portrait of Israeli machismo - exposed, weak, hurt and vulnerable, and sometimes ridiculous as well. This combination is the source of Einstein’s importance as an actor in Israeli cinematic history and its representation of manhood. Einstein had all the qualities it took to be one of our most important film actors: a dramatic and comic talent, a talent for singing and an attractive, and mainly photogenic, appearance.

I won’t presume to know why it didn’t happen. Maybe it’s connected to Einstein’s attitude to his status as a star, an institution and an icon, but in a sense it was a missed opportunity for Israeli cinema. In his two most important films he immortalized, together with Zohar, a portrait of Israeli manhood that remains immature, even if the ends of these films hint at the start of such maturity.

Uri Zohar left for his own realms a long time ago. Arik Einstein has now disappeared forever; but thanks to the two films that the two men created together, the recognition of Arik’s Einstein central importance in the history of Israeli film, despite the fact that he appeared in it so infrequently, is justified.