Director of Film on Rabin’s Assassin: A Legend, but Not in Israel

The late Herz Frank won high praise around the world for his films, but didn't get noticed in his adopted home of Israel until he touched a taboo subject.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Herz Frank. Never studied filmmaking.
Herz Frank. Never studied filmmaking.Credit: Photoagency Interpress / Global Look / Corbis
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

In all the commotion in recent weeks around the screening of the documentary "Beyond the Fear", one fact seemed to escape everyone’s attention: The film about Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir was directed by one the most respected and greatest documentary filmmakers who worked in Europe during the 20th century.

The much acclaimed prizewinning Latvian director and filmmaker Herz Frank, who established the Riga School of Poetic Documentary Cinema, has featured his films at numerous international festivals, winning high praise from documentary filmmakers around the world. He is also the revered teacher of esteemed directors such as Victor Kossakovsky and Sergei Loznitsa. He died two years ago at the age of 87, missing the stormy finale to his career. His death prevented him from raising his head and taking pride in a movie he worked on for many years, finally attracting attention from those who insisted on remaining indifferent to him during the last decades of his life, in which he lived in Israel in an anonymity that was surprising for a filmmaker of his caliber.

In spite of the discovery that one of the world’s greatest documentary filmmakers had been living in Israel since the 1990s, the local film establishment did not rush to embrace him. Frank continued making films on his own, usually with foreign financing. He was never asked to teach at any of the numerous local film schools and, aside from a token gesture awarded him every few years he remained disconnected from local filmmaking. He continued making movies and garnering respect in Europe, but in Israel the maestro was an outsider.

A still image from Herz Frank's 'The Last Judgement,' made in 1987. Photo by Reproduction: Kobi Gideon

When one looks at the entirety of Frank’s oeuvre, one can detect that "Beyond the Fear" is but a natural continuation of his former work. In his movies he often took interest in people who had taken extreme steps or who had been trapped in extreme circumstances, trying to shed light on dark corners of their souls. He loved investigating the human soul, looking into its hidden recesses while exposing all its aspects. Nevertheless, it’s hard to escape the thought that perhaps his choice to focus in his last movie precisely on such an explosive topic as Yigal Amir’s family is not just a natural progression of his career but rather a parting message as well, an angry act of defiance – perhaps unconsciously – addressed to a society that persistently refused to embrace him.

A bedtime story

Frank’s bad fit into a Middle Eastern country he chose to emigrate to in 1993 was apparent at first sight. Eight years ago, he gave an interview to Haaretz in his Jerusalem apartment. He showed up dressed in his usual way, familiar to all his acquaintances: a light brown beret covering his hair with seeming carelessness, dark glasses hiding his eyes, kept on even in closed rooms, and a well-groomed beard adorning his face.

He continued making films throughout the years, winning prizes and wandering from festival to festival, teaching filmmaking. Only the country he lived in refused to recognize his talents. His last film, "Beyond the Fear," was made together with director Maria Kravchenko. She completed the editing after he died. Frank managed to gain the confidence of Larissa Trimbobler, the wife of Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. Along with his camera he became a household guest in her home. Based on this confidence he managed to film some intimate family moments, such as a phone conversation between Amir, in jail, and his son.

A still image from the movie 'Beyond the Fear.' Photo by Courtesy

When his son asks him if he wanted to be in jail Amir answers: “I didn’t want to be in jail – nobody wants to. But if you’re going to do something like that you should take into account that you might end up in jail.” And when his son asks “why don’t you tell them that he was a bad man”, referring to Rabin, his father answers: “I do tell them, I do.”

“So why don’t they believe you?” asks the son.

“Because they are also bad,” responds the father.

The film’s producers kept their movie close to their chests in recent weeks, not showing it to anyone, refusing to let us see it in preparation for this story. The inevitable result was that the endless discussions around it often missed the truth.

“The movie is about the inexplicable love story between Larissa and Yigal Amir,” says movie director Nurit Kedar, who was part of the team that recommended adding the movie to the Jerusalem Film Festival’s competition. “Frank accompanied her for a long period, perhaps six or seven years, trying to establish why she fell in love with him, how it happened. I didn’t feel any sympathy towards Amir while watching the film. All his images are known from media stories, and the only new thing is his voice during the conversations with his son.”

A still image from Frank's '10 Minutes Older.' Photo by Courtesy

Frank’s daughter Ilana Bogomolny, who watched the movie, says similar things. “The movie really isn’t about Yigal Amir. The part where he talks to his son is repulsive, evoking anything but sympathy towards Amir.”

Frank, according to Kedar, doesn’t stay behind the camera, and is also present in the movie. “He presents her (Trimbobler) with his questions very delicately, questioning himself on camera, asking whether these are the right questions to ask, if he could have delved deeper, and whether this movie should have even been produced in the first place,” explains Kedar. A curiosity to understand the human soul in a non-judgemental way, a readiness to expose himself to an audience and a strict maintenance of the visual language and quality filmmaking were always the cornerstones of Herz Frank’s movies.

The director as confessor

Herz Frank was born in 1926 in the town of Ludza in Latvia. His father was a stills photographer and owned a photography studio. His mother was a nurse or a doctor (there are conflicting versions on this point). Yiddish was the language spoken at home and religion played a central role. Frank was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom went to a religious cheder and then to Hebrew school. There he learned Hebrew, which served him well in later years, when he moved to Israel. He and his brothers belonged to the Beitar and Hashomer Hatzair youth movements. After serving for a few years as an officer in the Red Army, Frank went to Moscow in 1945 to study law. After completing his studies he abandoned that field and turned to journalism. For several years he worked as a correspondent and news photographer in Russia and later in Riga.

Frank never studied filmmaking. He became familiar with the field in 1959, while working as a photographer, editor and screenplay writer for documentary films produced in Riga. He learned things on his own, progressing from stills photography to making movies. In 1964 he directed his first short film, “The Salt Bread.” He would go on to make more than 30 documentaries, short and long, publishing dozens of articles and two books that dealt with the theory of documentary films.

He was one of the founders of the Riga School of Poetic Documentary Cinema. This movement arose there in the 1960s, demanding of its members to view documentaries as art, paying special attention to the visual language of the film.

“A documentary is first of all information” said Frank in an interview to the online magazine Takriv in 2011. “However, I think it can also be artistic since reality, without any directing, conceals within itself artistic beauty. Furthermore, it has intrinsic beauty. Every time I film something I think about what a poetic documentary film is.”

One of his most famous films, "Ten Minutes Older," was produced in 1978. It’s a beautiful ten-minute black and white film, during which the camera constantly dwells on a group of spectators at a marionette show, focusing on one three-year-old boy.

Another famous movie of his is “Judgement Day” from 1988, which came after an exceptional permit he obtained – an alleged first in the USSR – to enter a prison with a camera and interview a prisoner condemned to death. The topic of that film, which won a prize at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, links directly to Frank’s final documentary.

In his movies, Frank didn’t make do with delving into the darker recesses of the soul. He was also interested in the human body. He found a poetic dimension in the carving open of a corpse and the emptying out of its internal organs. In the 1975 short film "Diagnosis" he followed a post mortem procedure, not switching off the camera even during parts that were hard to watch. In “Flashback” (2003) there is a summary of his life which raises philosophical questions about his life and work. In it he documents his dying wife, as well as himself on the operating table undergoing open heart surgery.

In 1993 he came to Israel. According to Israeli filmmaker Leonid Lev, “he was a modest man living a modest life. He didn’t eat more than he had to, money and being prominent didn’t interest him."

Lev added, "He was interested in reading Jewish holy books. He came from a religious family, he had a Jewish spirit.”

Ludmilla Kogan, a director who was married to documentary filmmaker Pavel Kogan and a long-time friend of Frank says that he was “a good Jew.”

“He has a phenomenal memory and he memorized large Torah tracts. He always explained things in the Torah to us," she recalled. "My husband Pavel used to call him ‘my rabbi.’”

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