Dr. Pomerantz and Mr. Dayan

Israel's most controversial filmmaker is working on his first movie in six years - and it's a black comedy.

After a long cinematic silence, Assi Dayan is back, directing a black comedy about a psychiatrist who rents out his apartment to patients who want to commit suicide. On the set, one of the most important Israeli filmmakers, the hero of whose new film is a very intelligent individual, describes a story of missed opportunity.

Dr. Pomerantz hangs up the telephone. He has called the police to the Tel Aviv street where he lives. Someone has jumped from his apartment, on the 12th floor, and his corpse is lying on the sidewalk. The balcony of the apartment is seen behind him. The doorbell rings. Pomerantz, his shock of hair disheveled and wearing a faded, buttoned shirt that does not manage to conceal a sloping potbelly, hastens to the front door and opens it wide.

dayan - Amit Berlowitz - December 14 2010
Amit Berlowitz

An elderly man stands opposite him. "I'm back," says Yitzhak Brenner, and proffers money, a packet of rolled-up bills held together by a rubber band. "May I come in? Is the balcony available?" he asks.

"Yes, but the sidewalk isn't. The police are on the way here and I need to go down to them for a moment. In about half an hour you'll be able to jump," replies Dr. Pomerantz.

"Do you have any cards? I'll play some solitaire in the meantime. It's a game suited to loneliness."

"Really?" wonders Pomerantz, handing him a deck of cards. "Okay. I'm going downstairs for a few minutes. I have to pop out to talk to the police. In the meantime, sign here on the rental agreement. It says the apartment is in your possession for one day, because I don't want people jumping from my apartment."

Pomerantz hands Brenner the documents. "This will suffice for the police. Thanks," he says, exiting the apartment to wait for the elevator.

Brenner sits down on the living room sofa, starts arranging the cards on the coffee table and calls out to Pomerantz: "It's a pretty good business you've opened here. How many jumpers a day do you get?"

"So far, including you, barely NIS 4,000," replies Pomerantz.

Brenner, whose shirt bears the slogan "Life's a bitch and then you die," returns his gaze to the cards. "It's a better deal than psychology," he mutters, "but even so, you have to wait. Even in order to jump to your death, you have to wait. What a country." Cut.

The crew swoop into the living room space, feverishly readying it for the next take. Thursday of last week, 9:30 in the evening, in an apartment in a residential building in Ramat Aviv. The filming of the movie "Dr. Pomerantz" is in full swing. Shlomo Vishinsky, who plays Brenner, waits in the living room for his turn to leap from the balcony while Dayan, who plays Dr. Pomerantz, lumbers into the adjacent room to sit in front of the monitor and watch the material that has just been filmed.

Dayan, who wrote the screenplay for the film and is also directing it, collapses onto the plastic chair waiting for him in front of the monitor, next to producer Eyal Shiray. Boaz Yakov, the cinematographer, enters the room and consults with him about close-up shots in the scene. At the end of a brief conversation they agree on a few changes to be made in the next take.

dayan - Amit Berlowitz - Deember 14 2010
Amit Berlowitz

Dayan looks tired. "I'm not feeling well. Take my temperature," he asks of Shiray. A fever strip is produced out of nowhere and placed on the director's forehead.

"You're nearly 38 [degrees Celsius]," says Shiray.

"Then let me go," proposes Dayan.

"On the weekend, don't worry, I'm not leaving you here on Saturday," replies Shiray.

"If I was [filmmaker] Avi Nesher, you would already have let me leave a long time ago, straight into a limousine waiting downstairs for me," smiles Dayan.

"But you aren't Avi Nesher and I'm not [producer] Moshe Edery," replies Shiray, laughing along with everyone in the small room.

Business on the 12th floor

It has been more than six years since the release of the last film Dayan directed, "The Gospel According to God." Since then he has played in any number of films and television shows - among them "Things Behind the Sun," "My Father, My Lord" and the television series "In Treatment," has won two Ophir prizes and the Israel Film Academy's prize for his life's work - but he was also convicted of assaulting his life partner, was sent to house arrest at Kushi Rimon's inn, was hospitalized in psychiatric wards, consumed drugs and medications and was portrayed in the media as someone deep in economic, health and mental difficulties.

However, since Dayan is one of the most important and interesting figures on the Israeli film scene, a new film of his coming after such a long time arouses intense curiosity. And this curiosity only increases when it emerges that the plot of the new film, "Dr. Pomerantz," is connected to some extent to his private life.

Dr. Yoel Pomerantz is a psychiatrist who lives with 25-year-old son in an apartment on the 12th floor of a building in Ramat Aviv. He works at a center that offers first aid services over the phone to people who want to commit suicide, and to make some money he invites some of those suicide proponents for a therapy session at his home.

One day he returns home, where one of his patients is waiting for him, and is surprised to find the fellow is not content with a therapy session but rather chooses to hurl himself off the apartment's balcony to his death. In the wake of this Dr. Pomerantz has an idea: He can rent out his apartment to people who want to kill themselves and in that way pocket several thousand more shekels. Along with Dayan the cast of the film includes Shmil Ben Ari, Rivka Michaeli, Shlomo Vishinsky, Yosef Carmon, Tzofit Grant, Lucy Dubinchik, Shlomo Bar Shavit, Michael Hanegbi, Yevgenia Dodina and Anat Waxman.

To anyone who doubted Dayan's ability to function these days in filming a movie - and in the double role of director and lead actor - he proves on the set that the screen animal in him is still alive and kicking. Though he moves ponderously, he takes decisions, instructs the actors and improvises dialogue.

During the break in filming Dayan finds the time to relate how he began writing the screenplay about a year and a half ago, when he was under house arrest at Rimon's inn in the Arava. "It was meant to be a comedy but gradually became a kind of tragedy," he says.

Was the decision to put the character of a psychologist at the center of the film a reaction to the successful television series "In Treatment," in which he played psychologist Reuven Dagan?

"No, quite the opposite," he says. "My character in this film is a man who is a beast, someone who belongs to the school of anti-psychiatry, a school of which the greats are [R. D.] Laing and [Thomas] Szasz."

He explains the long time that elapsed since he wrote and directed his last film by saying he was writing other things. "I wrote two plays that haven't been produced and a book of poetry that hasn't yet been printed. I specialize in things that nothing will happen with," he says.

"I also had a long period when I wasn't interested in films. They didn't interest me and I didn't go to see any. The last film I saw was 'The Hours.' Since then I haven't seen a film. Oh, sorry - I did see "Five Hours from Paris," which a friend of mine made. But now I don't like cinema so much."

Sprawled on a bed, conserving his strength for the renewal of filming at the end of the break, Dayan explains that "Dr. Pomerantz" is a black comedy.

When asked how it feels to direct again after such a long hiatus, he says: "At the moment I have a fever and am breaking down into shreds, but not because of the film. I have had operations on my back and this is radiating to my legs. I have also got very fat. Incidentally, it's good for the role, because in the film I'm this kind of a beast: 'Why are you crying? What are you crying about?' I yell at Shlomo Bar Shavit, who is my patient. 'What happened? Who died?' And he replies, 'My father, my mother, my brother, his wife and their daughter.' 'What, in the Holocaust?' I ask, and then he says to me, 'At Mesubbim junction, what Holocaust?' It's this kind of absurd humor."

However, Dayan has also woven into the film more serious, somewhat philosophical moments. Thus, for example, according to the screenplay, at a certain stage in the scene described above, Pomerantz reads the following passage from a book: "From the perspective of the individual committing suicide, his deed is a perversion of morality because he abandons those who remain alive so they will feel shame, guilt and regret. Suicide is the metaphysics of the phrase 'Got you' - it always constitutes an attempt to kill or wound the other."

Dr. Pomerantz, explains Dayan, is a very intelligent person. In fact, he is a story of missed opportunity.

Between Agfa and Halfon

"Dr. Pomerantz" is being produced with support from the Israel Film Fund, with a budget of about NIS 1 million. Shiray relates that he didn't even try to raise money from broadcast organizations.

"They would have said to me, 'Is Assi even able at all to make a film?' when they read in the newspaper that he was in jail, that he's a drug addict, so go convince them now," he says. "So I'm making the film with what there is. The Film Fund is giving Assi the respect he deserves, so am I going to run after the television companies? When it's done they'll be chasing us. This is a very funny film but it also has depth, a strong statement about life, about preferences in life."

Shiray believes "Dr. Pomerantz" will be an interesting film that will hover in the space between two other famous works by Dayan, "Life According to Agfa" and "Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer."

"In this film there's the philosophy of "Agfa" and the humor of "Halfon," but more sophisticated," he says. "But this film kicks harder than "Halfon" - it won't be possible to broadcast it on a Saturday afternoon. It's a film for adults, not a cult film for the whole family."

Though some had doubts as to Dayan's ability to make a film now, Shiray had no reservations: "With Assi Dayan there aren't any doubts. Anything he wants to do - I'll do. I have complete faith in him. His professionalism and his desire to do - for me that's what's most important. Ever since I've known him he has been hospitalized here, arrested there. I've already made several films with him as an actor, and even if he was hospitalized two weeks before the film he always showed up for the filming. And on time. Apart from that, filming is always faster with him than with anyone else. I've never seen a director who works faster than he does. He's a professional and he knows exactly what he wants."