In a small,grubby room at a cheap Parisian hotel, not far from the French capital'sriver, three seated men are chatting. Two of them are Jews, but all threeare immigrants. It is early February, 1957, the day is cold and cloudy.The ancient heating system in the room doesn't work most of the day. Junk,the chambermaid looks towards the river. Long, flat barges traverse theriver from one bridge to the other. The old, dark bridge bounds one's viewto the right while the new span, whose steel beams glint even on a winterday like this one, frames the view to the left.
Leopold Spitzer, a39 year-old Jewish movie director, is the divorced father of a young son.He left behind a small family when he immigrated from Israel, abandoningthe infant state after seven years. His last film, "A Stone on Every Mile",was a flaming failure trumpeted in every newspaper in the country. Rottenluck befell the film at its first and, sad to say, only showing. The dayof its premier, a heavy, suffocating Hamsin, the desert wind, descendedon the May Cinema in Haifa's Hadar Hacarmel quarter. How long ago was that?It's difficult to remember exactly, but it was approximately three yearsago, perhaps a little less. Offended film critics were infuriated, shamefullylashing out at both him and the movie. "This has been the most torrid Maythat Haifa has ever known". The spools of film were slow arriving fromthe studios in Herzliya, the taxi was held up on the road and the heatin the theater was unbearable.
Beside the small table,on which stands a bottle half full of cheap wine, several cups, an ashtray, packs of cigarettes and matches, sits the young Brazilian Jew DavidPerloff. A true cinematic visionary who grew up in the Zionist youth movement,he has decided to make a short visit to Paris on his way to Israel fromBrazil. He speaks Portuguese, Yiddish and a little French. From the Jewishpress and conversations with friends, envoys and artists, he knows almosteverything about the early days of Israel's Hebrew cinema. He even knowsof the "Czech" Spitzer, as he is known, and his work. Some in Israel, hehas heard, consider him an incorrigible poseur ambitiously seeking success,what they call a "Hochshtapler" in Yiddish. They're convinced that thecharlatan inevitably will meet his downfall. But even they never imaginedthat "A Stone on Every Mile" whose appearance on the big screen was soeagerly awaited in theaters around the country, would crash and shatterbeyond repair at its very first showing.
Perloff took no pleasurein Spitzer's misfortune. The flop of a new Israeli film didn't please him,and although no expert on the particulars, he felt a sense of closenessto the aspiring director. He'd heard that some people called him "the manof a thousand talents" while others held a different opinion of this wonderkind.He'd heard, too, that Spitzer spoke several languages, that he was a poetat heart, an esteemed scriptwriter and an indefatigable skirt-chaser. Andhe'd heard that Spitzer was a delightful raconteur. The chance meetingwith Spitzer greatly excited him. Since discovering two or three days earlierthat Spitzer also was lodging at the hotel, he had stayed close by, soakingup his comments and hypnotizing conversation, his charming gestures andwinning manners. He skipped excursions around the city to spend long hoursin Spitzer's room.
Across from them, leaningagainst the wall, in his hand a glass still containing wine, sits an agelessman. A thick lock of hair dangles over his forehead. Dressed like the good-lookingAmerican in the cigarette advertisements, he ceaselessly hums strains froma popular French tune played endlessly on the hotel radio. this is MarekHelasko, an expatriate Polish writer sojourning in Paris en route fromPoland to the west, whether it be London or New York or the loveliest cityin the world, the Red Sea coast town Eilat. Pictures of his well knownface often appear in the leading newspapers. Relishing his role as a freeintellectual who rejects the horrors of the communist regime, he lovesto be photographed and interviewed by famous reporters. He has writtenand published several short stories which, translated into various Europeanlanguages, have gained him the reputation of a man of great promise inPoland, Germany and elsewhere. But he is addicted when they call him "thePolish Hemingway".
He is an inveteratedrunkard. Scenes of his intoxication add much to his growing fame. He speaksPolish and a handful of words in English and German. Although he doesn'tcare for the Jews, he admires the Israelis. On hearing that a pair of Israelifilm men were in the hotel, he sought them out at once. He failed to findSpitzer's room and knew nothing of young David Perloff. And so, entirelyby accident, as happens in cheap hotels in vast cities, he encounteredthem at the door to the old elevator. He hasn't left them since and sitswith them now, between the young dreamer, who soon will leave for Israelseeking to realize his cinematic hopes, and the fledgling producer whonot long ago returned from Israel dejected, embittered and frustrated.
How do they conducttheir discussion? In what language do they speak? It would seem that theycannot possibly converse. They are separated by age and place of originand, even more, by their destinations. Nearer, however, as in a large close-upshot, everything is different and all is possible. Spitzer, of course,is the center of conversation. With Perloff chatters in colloquialGerman while David replies in his household Yiddish. Each rejoices whenevera stray word of Hebrew crops up, as though they suddenly have found thekey to a secret, intimate language.
With Helasko, he speaksin his native Slovak, which is very similar to Polish. Flustered, Helaskoanswers in new Polish. A word of German occasionally chances to enter theirconversation, and each rejoices at this as though they loathe the Slavictongues they must speak. Perloff apologies that he doesn't yet know Hebrewand is utterly inept in French. Helasko complains that his English is simplyawful. He was quite a dolt as a child, he laments. Instead of studyingEnglish seriously, he preferred to chase foxes in the forest near his home.Spitzer joins in their tipsy commiseration, griping about his failure tolearn Arabic during his years in israel. As a boy, he'd fallen in lovewith Arabic on a dreary trip to Algeria.
In all this melangeof language, which Perloff will soon discover, if he goes through withhis foolish decision to move to Israel, the wretched state of the Jews.What he will miss the most, says Spitzer, is Arabic. A peculiar atmospheremomentarily settles over the small room. Three artists drinking together:two movie directors, a pair of writers, two Jews, one gentile, three immigrantsand seven language.
Helasko breaks outinto a Polish folk song that was popular with the right wing undergroundin Poland after the war. He is still in shock, he explains to Spitzer,from the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising and the terribleslaughter the Russians carried out in Budapest. Tomorrow, he feels certain,this will occur in Warsaw as well. A ghastly carnage broadcast live beforethe television cameras of western European stations, he rages. Let theidiots die, he says, for he won't be there when a river of blood againflows through Warsaw. Now he must decide only where to roam. He asks ifSpitzer watched as French television broadcast the message in Hungary live.No, Spitzer didn't see the innocent dead littering the burning streetsof Budapest. He had still been in the Middle East, packing up his lifefor a new migration. There, too, war had occurred, and he hadn't wantedto abandon his young son before it ended. He reminds the youthful Perloffand the ageless Helasko that he has a young son in Tel Aviv. If he hadmomentarily hesitated to leave the country, it was only because of hisboy, for one simply doesn't forsake children in time of war. Perloff wantsto ask still another question but holds back. A bottle in his hand, Helaskonods his head in agreement. "True, very true. One cannot leave young childrenalone in time of war". He eventually will find the right moment and placeto tell them, his two Jewish companions, what it means to abandon childrenin time of war.
Perloff announces thathe regrets having been a young boy during the war of Independence. He'ssorry he couldn't volunteer to aid the kibbutz settlements under siegein the Negev. He does know several older boys from his youth movement branchin Brazil who went to Israel during the fighting. He intends to visit them.They'll be among the first he will see. Perhaps, if he is lucky enough,he'll make a major picture, a movie unlike any made before in the country,about the desperate struggle waged by a small group of Jews in the Negevagainst so many Arabs.
The conversation dragsa bit, and its natural rhythm is constantly interrupted, because Spitzermust translate everything. From German into Yiddish, as well as from Polishinto Slovak, the rendering is plain and simple. But he also must translatein the other direction and back again, and that is becoming ever more ofa strain. The talk becomes disjointed, murky and, most of all, wearing.And he has felt very tired lately, too. Although not yet 40 years old,he sometimes feels like 50, even more. At times he feels he'll never reachthe age of 50. Life is exhausting, the frequent travel wears on him, thewomen he must forever cast aside also tire him. If his friend the poet,the one killed in the partisan revolt, were to ask him now in the unique,personal language of their own making, he would answer in an honest, quaveringstatement, "Jerzy, please listen. I don't think I'll make it to 50".
He glances at Perloff'syoung, clever head. And there is Helasko with his fine face and thick curls.Later on, he peeks at the window pane, which shines his advancing baldnessback at him. This reflected self-portrait, a hostile image in glass, doesn'tupset him. He carries within himself at all times a picture of himself.Once, at a director's convention, he had marked that every director andfilm maker should keep such a picture of himself, a self-image update dailythat burns as an eternal flame within one's soul. That had been a longtime ago, when he still believed he possessed a rare talent as a director.He confidently had expected to make a provocative film, perhaps even oneor two more. And then the great, rotund director Otto Preminger would seethem and immediately summon him to California. These fine words, evidentlyspoken aloud to unexpected applause, he had declared in flawed, haltingHebrew in his heavy Slovak accent. They have no idea what is in my heart,he thought on hearing his colleagues, enraptured by his comments, praisehis work. No one could fathom what was in his heart because no one hadbeen there with him at the Novaki forced labor camp late that accursedsummer of 1942. No one knew that he by chance had escaped incinerationwith his mother and brother. His heart since then had been an empty vessel.
Helasko suddenly risesfrom his chair, ceases humming the hit French tune, walks to the windowand blocks their view of the river. The room, already dim, becomes evendarker. On the gray river long, black barges slip untouched beneath thebridges. Waving his hands, Helasko says that he yearns for the sun andlight of the Middle East. Sometimes, he even loves the Jews, too. He mocksSpitzer, who left the sun and warmth of the east to return, beaten andwounded, to the gray cold of Europe. "You're not even 50. Have you alreadygiven up?" he vehemently questions Spitzer without awaiting an answer.He turns to Perloff, entwines their hands and vows never to leave him.Wait, he'll finish his business at the Parisian hotel and leave with Perlofffor Israel. "You Jews have a wonderful country", he tells them. "Too badI'm such a Pole. If only I'd been a Jew".
"You're not even hearingwhat you're saying", says Spitzer with a dismissive wave of his hands."You don't understand what nonsense you're spouting. You're just drunk".
Turning to Perloff,he says in Yiddish, "He's a decent guy, and talented, too, but a drunk.A dear Goy and a drunk". Perloff stands up and politely helps the famousPolish writer sink back into his seat and lean against the wall. He takesthe glass and the bottle and puts them on the table. This for him is justa brief stop on his way to Israel. As a boy, he dreamed of Paris as hedid of Lisbon and Madrid and he is a great admirer of the French film directors.The mere mention of the great artists' names sends a shiver through him.The day before, friends had introduced him to a group of respected writerssitting at a cafe on the boulevard. He had written himself a few wordsabout the meeting. Anyone who wants to make an honest movie must constantlydocument his life; every day; every hour, even every second. The truthof life is so elusive it can escape even that strict a record.
He occasionally encounteredwhat he craved, a film that so meticulously documented and captured theephemeral moment that he became as excited as a maiden watching a romance.He suddenly starts to sweat, becomes restless, changes seats, taps hisfeet on the floor of the theater and unwittingly kicks the bottles of beerrolling beneath the seats. He even grunts as he breathes. The right imagesin the precise flow, the truth projected on the screen, it all goes pasthis mind like inspired flashes. And what maddens him is that he cannotat that moment make an accurate record of the powerful emotions seizinghim during the film.
Spitzer returns tohis gloomy thoughts and the oppressive ache in his heart. He won't reach50, he is certain of that. Besides, what does he care? Why is it so importantto live to 50? He has already seen more than enough in his short life.The tense decades of his youth provide plenty of material for full lengthfilms. And he hasn't even begun to make them. The painful adventure inIsrael has cost him seven years. Seven precious years of his life. Irreplaceableyears. Seven full years gone for nothing. The insult and humiliation heendured in his final years there hurt so much, he thought his heart wouldfill again. His "empty heart", from which everything had suddenly drainedthat bitter moment on the train platform at the Slovak forced labor camp.For that was when his friends told him that the Nazis had sent his motherto the crematory several hours earlier.