Ronit Elkabetz Was Our Garbo, Our Dietrich

The Israeli actress and director who died last week was a riveting, mythic figure, a one-woman extravaganza, whose presence declared with such force: I am here!

Elkabetz at the 2008 Ophir Prize ceremony, Israel's version of the Oscars.
Tomer Appelbaum

In an interview with the Hebrew news website NRG published on January 25, 2006, Ronit Elkabetz was asked what frightens her. Loneliness, she replied, adding “I would not like to end up like Dietrich or Garbo.” It’s interesting that she chose Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich as examples, two stars whose mythic force was unmatched by others, both during their lives and after their deaths. In Israel, too, there has never been a film actress whose mythic force — which we at times surrendered to or recoiled from — equaled that of Elkabetz.

Her death was a shock. It felt as if a great, magnificent tree had been uprooted from the Israeli film landscape. She was talented, beautiful, magnificent— a one-woman extravaganza who was able to transcend herself and embrace the art of filmmaking and the place and society in which the films were made. Even when I had reservations about her performance or direction of a film, it was never possible to ignore her. There has never been another Israeli movie actress or artist whose presence declared with such force: I am here!

Now that she is gone, the empty space that remains is acutely felt. There has never been, in the history of Israeli movies, an actor — male or female — who aroused such contradictory and conflicting reactions; sometimes I experienced those contradictory responses simultaneously, while watching her. With the passage of time, the contrasts and contradictions in her evolving character accumulate and blend into an increasingly softer, and therefore increasingly impressive, totality.

Elkabetz had a face that was impossible to look away from, a voice that sometimes erupted from the depths of her body and her soul.

It was not for naught that I once compared her with the legendary stage actress Hanna Rovina. Israeli cinema has never had another star with a face that caught and held viewers’ attention like hers, and a voice that etched her into our consciousness no less than did her face. From that aspect, Elkabetz was a star in every sense of the title, and her presence in Israeli film celebrated her star quality. As time went by, her humor, grace and pleasantness joined the celebration.

Ronit Elkabetz in an artistic film by cinematographer and artist Yosef Joseph Dadoune.
Yosef Joseph Dadoune

Elkabetz’s choice of Garbo and Dietrich in that 2006 interview is interesting also because the careers of both were shaped by men — Mauritz Stiller in the case of Garbo and Josef von Sternberg in the case of Dietrich. At the start of her career, Elkabetz’s image was linked in the public’s mind to men who worked with her: Shuli Rand, who played opposite her in Daniel Wachsmann’s “The Appointed” in 1990 and in Gidi Dar’s “Eddie King” in 1992, followed by Haim Bouzaglo, who directed her in “Scar” in 1995. Perhaps, then, it was not by chance that many of her best movies contained a protest against the patriarchy, whether it was Dover Koshashvili’s “Late Marriage” from 2001, the movie that began the second and most important phase in her career; Keren Yedaya’s “Or” (2004), Michal Aviad’s “Invisible” (“Lo Ro’im Alaykh,” 2011) or of course the trilogy of films that Elkabetz directed, together with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz: “To Take a Wife” (2004), “Shiva” (2008) and “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (2014). That equal partnership enriched the work she did in what turned out to be the final phase of her career.

Elkabetz’s figure as an actress and as a filmmaker is an important component in the history of female representation in Israeli film in general and the representation of Mizrahi women in particular. Elkabetz burst forth as a mysterious, exotic figure. In her first movie, “The Appointed,” she played a character with magical powers who wears black and pushes her way into the life of the son of a celebrated rabbi, who puts on magic shows in sleazy nightclubs. In “Eddie King” she was Yulia, the woman and the myth, who bewitches an unemployed actor who also possesses a mythical name. Like “Scar,” these movies were outliers in the local film industry of the period, and they symbolized Elkabetz’s gradual journey from the margins to the center.

Before “Late Marriage,” the 1994 movie that changed her trajectory as an actress and which also addressed the relationship between center and the margins, there was “Sh’chur,” which was written by Hanna Azoulay-Hasfari and directed by Shmuel Hasfari. In this movie, one of the best films ever made in Israel, Elkabetz played the mentally disturbed sister of the main protagonist. This character also had magical powers. With a blink she could turn a television on and off and switch channels, but in “Sh’chur” these powers went beyond the merely exotic and carried symbolic social power in the wider context of the movie, where magic ruled in the past and weighed on the present.

It sometimes seemed that Elkabetz’s performances were over the top, but she could also be light, as she proved in movies including “The Band’s Visit” (Eran Riklis, 2007), where she played the owner of the canteen in the fictitious southern Israeli town where an Egyptian delegation arrives by mistake. Her performance was charming.

Ronit Elkabetz in the 2012 film “Testimony," directed by her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz.
David Adika

Elkabetz was also a witness to her surroundings, as she proved in what turned out to be her final film, “Gett,” in which she portrayed, for the third time, Viviane Amsalem, a woman who is fighting in a rabbinical court for freedom from her husband. Much of the time, she simply follows and responds to the goings-on in the movie’s primary — almost its only — setting.

Elkabetz became an increasingly more varied actor with time. She succeeded in imprinting the feeling of newness that she brought to the Israeli screen — the unique appearance, the impressive voice, the showiness, the mystery and the exoticism — on a growing body of work. If at the beginning of her career her character seemed to embody a threat, with the years that threat turned into a developing statement about the role of women in Israel.

In “Sh’chur,” the heroine follows her sister’s magical powers with an astonishment mixed with amusement. Since the heroine is a famous TV broadcaster, the thought must cross her mind that if she herself were to appear on the screen in that moment, her sister could make her disappear in the blink of an eye. In the same way, it seems as if Alkabetz disappeared from our lives in the blink of an eye.

In his 1957 essay “The Face of Garbo” (anthologized in “Mythologies”), Roland Barthes writes that whereas Garbo’s face is an idea, Audrey Hepburn’s is an event. And where would the face of Ronit Elkabetz be within this dichotomy? To my mind, it was both an idea and an event. The event is over. The idea continues.