Herz Frank & Maria Kravchenko: Beyond the Fear

This article is brought now because the film has its international premiere at HotDocs in Toronto , tomorrow, April 25.

A long prologue: On this site Herz Frank (1926 – 2013) has an iconic status. Co-editor Allan Berg and I met the director at the Balticum Film & TV Festival on Bornholm in the 1990’es, later on in Riga, where we contributed verbally and (a bit) financially (Allan as consultant for The Danish Film Institute) to “Flashback”. Personally I have had the pleasure to have met Herz (Frank) in Tel Aviv on a couple of occasions. He has been a huge inspiration for me in my understanding of what documentaries are and can be.

Allow me to quote Herz: In front of me on my work table is the central fragment from Raphael’s fresco “The School of Athens”. Plato and Aristotle discuss the philosophical meaning of life. Plato is pointing upwards – the essence is the Idea! Aristotle, on the other hand, has his palm pointing down to the ground – the basis is the material! Even earlier in the Old Testament (Genesis) both views are united. In the first book of Moses the first lines states: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. Read – the spiritual and the material.

As a documentarian, I follow these principles directly. Facts have to be the basis for documentary films. And if we want to uncover the truth in them, facts have to be portrayed not only on the surface and as purely informative, but also through sensitive, spiritual eyes. Even better if one eye is dry, and the other – damp… Life has to be filmed imaginatively, and only then will we understand its deeper meaning. There is an image hiding in every detail of each fact, in each living and inanimate thing. You only have to know how to see and record them. A documentary camera is not a video-recorder in the street…

The deeper meaning… is what Herz Frank was seeking in his entire oeuvre. With a constant doubt in his search. Like for this film project that became his last film, made together with Maria Kravchenko, who finished their work in a brilliant way as co-director and editor. Half way through the film Herz Frank formulates the following linked to the film, the two are making and to the work of a documentarian:

Was it necessary to intrude with the camera into the complexity of life? Will our inclinations result in something heartbreaking, moving and artistic? But it is beyond me to give it up! Do you get me? To give it up mean to say that I am not alive anymore…

A short prologue IN the film: You hear the voice of Maria Kravchenko to an image of Herz Frank telling us the audience that Herz started shooting this film about ten years ago; and that she joined him later to finish the film after his death. Cut to three persons on their way to a prison, a grown up Larisa and two children. Cut to archive material of November 1995, Rabin was shot. Cut to the murderer, Yigal Amir. Cut to a phone conversation between a small boy Yinon and his father Yigal. This opening of a film should be obligatory to watch for all documentary professionals.

These five minutes before the title “Beyond the Fear” appears on the screen, presents the story lines that are followed. Here is the synopsis, cited from a press release I received from the producer Guntis Trekteris, EgoMedia Riga :

Decisions made by the protagonists of the film change their life irreversibly. Yigal Amir at the age of 26 assassins the Israeli Prime Minister. He is sentenced to life imprisonment and becomes the most hated criminal of the state. Larisa, an émigré from Russia, a mother of four, divorces her husband to marry the assassin and give birth to his son. In the course of many years the authors of the film are trying to understand this complicated story until one of them – Herz Frank – does not live to see his film finished, remaining on the threshold of the eternal secret of life, death and love…

It’s a precise text that avoids any tabloid approach or sensational sales talk but conveys that the ambition of this dramatic, psychological film essay is to get closer “to understand”. Contrary to how the media in Israel covered the story (a crazy woman, a fanatic murderer, the fall of a nation, a marriage, a child is born…) this is presented as the eternal fight between Good and Evil, the subtitle of Herz Frank’s film from 1978, “Ten Minutes Older”.

Which is about children watching a puppet show with all their innocence readable in their faces. “Beyond the Fear” cleverly also takes us down that alley. Slowly the focus is put on the small child of Larisa and Yagil. What will his future be, the son of a murderer, who sits for life. The mother Larisa expresses her worry about having drawn her children into moments, where they are cursed in daily situations and knows that Yinon one day will experience that his father is in prison because… where she in the beginning told him that his father was away for work. Yinon learns why. The dramaturgical stroke of genius, actually what binds the film, the red thread in a way, that gives the emotional impact that Herz Frank wanted, is the phone calls between Yinon and his father- They have to be short, according to prison rules, but Yagil tells Yinon stories from the Bible – about Good and Evil and what God can do and has done. And Yinon asks questions as children do it. As the film grows he is taking more and more space. “Heartbreaking and moving” to think about his future.

That was two of the Herz words, the third is “artistic”. Yes, this film has a high artistic quality, even if (as Allan Berg noted the first time we saw it together) you lack the voice off commentary of Herz Frank, this quiet voice of reflection on “la condition humaine”. I could also have done without the predictable vox-pop reporting from the streets, where most people condemn Yagil and Larisa in short rude bites of aggression. On the other side Kravchenko has fully succeeded to give the film space for beautiful wordless sequences and a montage that is superb. I want to re-use the phrase “stroke of genius” to describe how the visual information of the death of Herz is connected to Yinon’s trying to understand what death is.

Do we get to a deeper understanding of the relationship between Larisa and Yagil? No, we get to know them, to have sympathy for them and their constant being in the media, but first of all we get to know that Life is a mystery, never to be solved but to be lived and experienced and interpreted by great artists.

A short epilogue: The film had its national premieres in Riga in December 2014 at the new Riga International Film Festival and in Moscow at the prestigious Russian documentary film festival, “Artdocfest”, famous for its free spirit and open turning against the official state policy.

According to the producer Guntis Trekteris it is a huge success in Russia, where we got two main professional awards – Laureal Breach (the National Prize for documentary and TV films, ed.) and Russian Film Critics guild prize for the best documentary.”

And now Canada and consequently many other festivals, I guess.

Latvia, Russia, Israel, 2014, 80 mins.

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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