In a small,
grubby room at a cheap Parisian hotel, not far from the French capital's
river, three seated men are chatting. Two of them are Jews, but all three
are 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 the
river from one bridge to the other. The old, dark bridge bounds one's view
to the right while the new span, whose steel beams glint even on a winter
day like this one, frames the view to the left.
Leopold Spitzer, a
39 year-old Jewish movie director, is the divorced father of a young son.
He left behind a small family when he immigrated from Israel, abandoning
the infant state after seven years. His last film, "A Stone on Every Mile",
was a flaming failure trumpeted in every newspaper in the country. Rotten
luck befell the film at its first and, sad to say, only showing. The day
of its premier, a heavy, suffocating Hamsin, the desert wind, descended
on 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 years
ago, perhaps a little less. Offended film critics were infuriated, shamefully
lashing out at both him and the movie. "This has been the most torrid May
that Haifa has ever known". The spools of film were slow arriving from
the studios in Herzliya, the taxi was held up on the road and the heat
in the theater was unbearable.
Beside the small table,
on which stands a bottle half full of cheap wine, several cups, an ash
tray, packs of cigarettes and matches, sits the young Brazilian Jew David
Perloff. 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 from
Brazil. He speaks Portuguese, Yiddish and a little French. From the Jewish
press and conversations with friends, envoys and artists, he knows almost
everything about the early days of Israel's Hebrew cinema. He even knows
of the "Czech" Spitzer, as he is known, and his work. Some in Israel, he
has heard, consider him an incorrigible poseur ambitiously seeking success,
what they call a "Hochshtapler" in Yiddish. They're convinced that the
charlatan inevitably will meet his downfall. But even they never imagined
that "A Stone on Every Mile" whose appearance on the big screen was so
eagerly awaited in theaters around the country, would crash and shatter
beyond repair at its very first showing.
Perloff took no pleasure
in 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 closeness
to the aspiring director. He'd heard that some people called him "the man
of 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 poet
at heart, an esteemed scriptwriter and an indefatigable skirt-chaser. And
he'd heard that Spitzer was a delightful raconteur. The chance meeting
with Spitzer greatly excited him. Since discovering two or three days earlier
that Spitzer also was lodging at the hotel, he had stayed close by, soaking
up his comments and hypnotizing conversation, his charming gestures and
winning manners. He skipped excursions around the city to spend long hours
in Spitzer's room.
Across from them, leaning
against the wall, in his hand a glass still containing wine, sits an ageless
man. A thick lock of hair dangles over his forehead. Dressed like the good-looking
American in the cigarette advertisements, he ceaselessly hums strains from
a popular French tune played endlessly on the hotel radio. this is Marek
Helasko, an expatriate Polish writer sojourning in Paris en route from
Poland to the west, whether it be London or New York or the loveliest city
in the world, the Red Sea coast town Eilat. Pictures of his well known
face often appear in the leading newspapers. Relishing his role as a free
intellectual who rejects the horrors of the communist regime, he loves
to be photographed and interviewed by famous reporters. He has written
and published several short stories which, translated into various European
languages, have gained him the reputation of a man of great promise in
Poland, Germany and elsewhere. But he is addicted when they call him "the
He is an inveterate
drunkard. Scenes of his intoxication add much to his growing fame. He speaks
Polish and a handful of words in English and German. Although he doesn't
care for the Jews, he admires the Israelis. On hearing that a pair of Israeli
film men were in the hotel, he sought them out at once. He failed to find
Spitzer's room and knew nothing of young David Perloff. And so, entirely
by accident, as happens in cheap hotels in vast cities, he encountered
them at the door to the old elevator. He hasn't left them since and sits
with them now, between the young dreamer, who soon will leave for Israel
seeking to realize his cinematic hopes, and the fledgling producer who
not long ago returned from Israel dejected, embittered and frustrated.
How do they conduct
their discussion? In what language do they speak? It would seem that they
cannot possibly converse. They are separated by age and place of origin
and, even more, by their destinations. Nearer, however, as in a large close-up
shot, everything is different and all is possible. Spitzer, of course,
is the center of conversation. With Perloff chatters in colloquial
German while David replies in his household Yiddish. Each rejoices whenever
a stray word of Hebrew crops up, as though they suddenly have found the
key to a secret, intimate language.
With Helasko, he speaks
in his native Slovak, which is very similar to Polish. Flustered, Helasko
answers in new Polish. A word of German occasionally chances to enter their
conversation, and each rejoices at this as though they loathe the Slavic
tongues they must speak. Perloff apologies that he doesn't yet know Hebrew
and is utterly inept in French. Helasko complains that his English is simply
awful. He was quite a dolt as a child, he laments. Instead of studying
English seriously, he preferred to chase foxes in the forest near his home.
Spitzer joins in their tipsy commiseration, griping about his failure to
learn Arabic during his years in israel. As a boy, he'd fallen in love
with Arabic on a dreary trip to Algeria.
In all this melange
of language, which Perloff will soon discover, if he goes through with
his foolish decision to move to Israel, the wretched state of the Jews.
What he will miss the most, says Spitzer, is Arabic. A peculiar atmosphere
momentarily settles over the small room. Three artists drinking together:
two movie directors, a pair of writers, two Jews, one gentile, three immigrants
and seven language.
Helasko breaks out
into a Polish folk song that was popular with the right wing underground
in Poland after the war. He is still in shock, he explains to Spitzer,
from the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising and the terrible
slaughter the Russians carried out in Budapest. Tomorrow, he feels certain,
this will occur in Warsaw as well. A ghastly carnage broadcast live before
the television cameras of western European stations, he rages. Let the
idiots die, he says, for he won't be there when a river of blood again
flows through Warsaw. Now he must decide only where to roam. He asks if
Spitzer watched as French television broadcast the message in Hungary live.
No, Spitzer didn't see the innocent dead littering the burning streets
of Budapest. He had still been in the Middle East, packing up his life
for a new migration. There, too, war had occurred, and he hadn't wanted
to abandon his young son before it ended. He reminds the youthful Perloff
and the ageless Helasko that he has a young son in Tel Aviv. If he had
momentarily hesitated to leave the country, it was only because of his
boy, for one simply doesn't forsake children in time of war. Perloff wants
to ask still another question but holds back. A bottle in his hand, Helasko
nods his head in agreement. "True, very true. One cannot leave young children
alone in time of war". He eventually will find the right moment and place
to tell them, his two Jewish companions, what it means to abandon children
in time of war.
Perloff announces that
he regrets having been a young boy during the war of Independence. He's
sorry he couldn't volunteer to aid the kibbutz settlements under siege
in the Negev. He does know several older boys from his youth movement branch
in 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 Negev
against so many Arabs.
The conversation drags
a bit, and its natural rhythm is constantly interrupted, because Spitzer
must translate everything. From German into Yiddish, as well as from Polish
into Slovak, the rendering is plain and simple. But he also must translate
in the other direction and back again, and that is becoming ever more of
a 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 reach
the age of 50. Life is exhausting, the frequent travel wears on him, the
women 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, quavering
statement, "Jerzy, please listen. I don't think I'll make it to 50".
He glances at Perloff's
young, 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 baldness
back at him. This reflected self-portrait, a hostile image in glass, doesn't
upset him. He carries within himself at all times a picture of himself.
Once, at a director's convention, he had marked that every director and
film maker should keep such a picture of himself, a self-image update daily
that burns as an eternal flame within one's soul. That had been a long
time ago, when he still believed he possessed a rare talent as a director.
He confidently had expected to make a provocative film, perhaps even one
or two more. And then the great, rotund director Otto Preminger would see
them and immediately summon him to California. These fine words, evidently
spoken aloud to unexpected applause, he had declared in flawed, halting
Hebrew in his heavy Slovak accent. They have no idea what is in my heart,
he thought on hearing his colleagues, enraptured by his comments, praise
his work. No one could fathom what was in his heart because no one had
been there with him at the Novaki forced labor camp late that accursed
summer of 1942. No one knew that he by chance had escaped incineration
with his mother and brother. His heart since then had been an empty vessel.
Helasko suddenly rises
from his chair, ceases humming the hit French tune, walks to the window
and blocks their view of the river. The room, already dim, becomes even
darker. On the gray river long, black barges slip untouched beneath the
bridges. Waving his hands, Helasko says that he yearns for the sun and
light of the Middle East. Sometimes, he even loves the Jews, too. He mocks
Spitzer, who left the sun and warmth of the east to return, beaten and
wounded, to the gray cold of Europe. "You're not even 50. Have you already
given 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 Perloff
for Israel. "You Jews have a wonderful country", he tells them. "Too bad
I'm such a Pole. If only I'd been a Jew".
"You're not even hearing
what 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 famous
Polish writer sink back into his seat and lean against the wall. He takes
the glass and the bottle and puts them on the table. This for him is just
a brief stop on his way to Israel. As a boy, he dreamed of Paris as he
did 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 writers
sitting at a cafe on the boulevard. He had written himself a few words
about the meeting. Anyone who wants to make an honest movie must constantly
document his life; every day; every hour, even every second. The truth
of life is so elusive it can escape even that strict a record.
He occasionally encountered
what he craved, a film that so meticulously documented and captured the
ephemeral moment that he became as excited as a maiden watching a romance.
He suddenly starts to sweat, becomes restless, changes seats, taps his
feet on the floor of the theater and unwittingly kicks the bottles of beer
rolling beneath the seats. He even grunts as he breathes. The right images
in the precise flow, the truth projected on the screen, it all goes past
his mind like inspired flashes. And what maddens him is that he cannot
at that moment make an accurate record of the powerful emotions seizing
him during the film.
Spitzer returns to
his gloomy thoughts and the oppressive ache in his heart. He won't reach
50, he is certain of that. Besides, what does he care? Why is it so important
to 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 length
films. And he hasn't even begun to make them. The painful adventure in
Israel has cost him seven years. Seven precious years of his life. Irreplaceable
years. Seven full years gone for nothing. The insult and humiliation he
endured in his final years there hurt so much, he thought his heart would
fill again. His "empty heart", from which everything had suddenly drained
that 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 mother
to the crematory several hours earlier.