Last sunday morning I showed Ten Minutes Older to filmmakers from Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Algeria and Morocco. They had not seen Herz Frank’s masterpiece from 1978 before, they loved it and lined up to make a copy so they can show it to colleagues back home.
This sunday morning I learned from friends in Riga that the old master had passed away the night before. 87 years old.
In Beirut last sunday I introduced the film mentioning Juris Podnieks as well, the cameraman of Herz for this film and the man who later became the Perestroika filmmaker, and who got a much shorter life than Herz: 1950-1992. After the screening I came up with the often used banality about the film: You are ten minutes older now, you have just watched the story of our lives. And it is what it is. The director himself has formulated it like this: For ten minutes, uninterruptedly, we were looking into the face of a little boy on the third row… And in the half-dark of the theatre hall we were watching the depths of the human soul as reflected in this tremulous face.
Herz Frank has died. One of the most important documentary directors ever has died.
Personally I had the privilege to meet Herz Frank many times in the last 20 years, and every meeting left me inspired by his charisma, the way he talked about films and his total commitment to what was his profession. Always with a camera at hand, be it to catch a moment in life or in his own film life, like the wonderful group photo on my wall, from Bornholm in 1999 with him in the middle wearing his beret.
Bornholm because of Balticum Film/TV Festival that went on 1990-2000. Herz Frank was there two or three times and slowly you discovered an oeuvre of great importance and significance. Film people in the USSR knew of course
how important he was, and you had seen some of his films in Leipzig or in other Eastern European festivals. But our Western European knowledge of documentary films from the East was pretty limited before the fall of the empire.
The festival on Bornholm, not only in connection with Herz Frank, but very much with him as a central character, opened the eyes for a documentary film tradition far from mainstream rationality. And Riga was in the 60’es the place for poetic originality and innovation in documentaries.
The Film Museum in Riga had until October last year a fine, precise exhibiton named “Herz Frank Code”, to which the director himself contributed with photos and texts. The organisers wrote the following on the site of the museum:
Herz Frank is the prophet of documentary cinema – a philosopher, moralist, researcher, having explored the secrets of the joy and the tragic of being, an artist whose works allow the truth to gleam with a thrill of revelation. His films encompass the human life from the sacred moment of birth to the mystery of death and enable to look into the abyss between the good and the evil, the truth and the lie. It is really stunning how fragile the human heart is in front of the look of the camera of Herz Frank.
Before and after 1990, big difference. Herz Frank and others had been employed at the Riga Film Studios during Soviet times, but after Latvia got its independence he had to find his way to funding through production companies. Where all his previous films had been shot on 35mm films, with skilled camera operators, he started to shoot on his own with small video cameras. In 1993 he went to live in Israel, made a couple of films there, gave his films prints to the Jerusalem Cinematheque, had some retrospectives but was never really recognised as he was in his home country Latvia.
Herz Frank’s filmography is full of great titles. Let me mention the 1967 film 235.000.000, a film he wrote, the director was Uldis Brauns, for the 50 year celebration of the 1917 revolution, a beautiful modern “nouvelle vague” cinematic work, totally non-propagandistic, and probably therefore put on the shelf by the authorities before it got its rightful circulation. And the 1989 Once there Were Seven Simeons about the jazz family, which hijacked a plane to escape the USSR.
Flashback, however, from 2002, stands out as a superb autobiographical documentary, essaystic, reflective, touching. Herz Frank had with Guntis Trekteris met a producer, who found the necessary funding for the big film to which, let’s be proud of that, also the Danish Film Institute gave a bit of money, when my filmkommentaren colleague Allan Berg was film consultant there. Herz Frank writes about the film:
This is a confession in film. I have dedicated it to all the cameramen whom I had the honor of working with, and whose one eye was dry and the other one – in tears. Every single shot out of 400 shots this film consists of is a true document. Altogether, they form an imaginative weave of a dramatic plot, unique philosophy, personal world perception, and certainly, visual culture. All the rest – words, music, noises, silence, all having their own voice – have grown together with the images dwelling in this film… A person’s inner life, personality, and the eternal problems – love, birth, death, and destiny – are what have always attracted me as a documentary filmmaker… And I have always doubted if we, documentary filmmakers, have the right to expose other people’s life? I was doubtful, still I went on filming.
The original idea behind the film was to go and find the boy from 10 Minutes Older, and Herz did so, but the film took another road as his wife passed away and he himself had a herz operation performed, which by the way is filmed close up! He turned the camera to himself.
In 2012 Herz taught at the Zelig documentary film school, and in March he re-pitched his newest film project that he worked on for years and told me about, when we met in Tel Aviv in March 2011. In September same year he presented the film in Riga, here is the catalogue text: ”In 2004 Larissa Trembovler, philosophy professor and mother of four, leaves her husband and marries Yigal Amir – the assasin of Yitzhak Rabin. Three years later she gives birth to their son.” Lot of footage has been filmed and when I talked to Guntis Trekteris this morning, he said that the film definitely will be finished by co-director Maria Kravchenko and himself.