Cinematographer Michel Abramowicz, AFC, discusses his work on Avi Nesher’s film "Past Life"

By François Reumont for the AFC

[English] [français]

Avi Nesher’s latest film, shot between Łódź and Jerusalem, is in competition for the Golden Frog at Camerimage this year. Michel Abramowicz, AFC, discusses the making of this period film that plunges viewers into Israeli society of the 1970s.
Michel Abramowicz et Avi Nesher, en Pologne
Photo Michał Grzeszczakowski

You’ve known Avi Nesher for quite some time…

I met Avi in 1979, while shooting Dizengoff 99, which was a sort of chronicle about Israeli youth in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. We were both nearing our 30s and this was his 2d feature-length film. Dizengoff 99 was incredibly successful in Israel, and has become a cult classic that is shown on TV there at least once a year. After that, we lost touch, but met entirely by chance in Paris about ten years ago. We decided to work together again, even though I must admit, he’s not an easy director to work with ! And there you go, now we’re screening Past Life, which is our fifth film together.

What sort of a director is he ?

He’s someone who’s really into the 70s. He sees the 70s as a major moment in Israeli history, the tipping point when you had a huge influx of Russians and the political Right taking power… It marked the end of the period of the first settlers who built the country. Almost all his films have a link to that period and Past Life is no exception to the rule, since it discusses a major topic from that time, post-war trauma, through a transgenerational story. I must also admit that his films are often very popular in Israel, and often sell as many as 500,000 tickets at the box office, which is an excellent performance given the number of cinemas in the country. Besides that, one of Avi’s main specificities is that unlike most other Israeli directors, he doesn’t discuss politics in his movies. He’s like a cross between Sautet and Truffaut, combining the human chronicles of the first with the second’s tendency to adapt books to screen. He’s also someone who is highly demanding in terms of casting. He’s got a thorough background in history and always knows his subject inside and out, so we often work with the same production designers and costume designers who are becoming perfectly adept at recreating the 70s !

What was particular about Past Life ?

Shooting in between two different countries, Israel and Poland. Even though filming at home is something the team is completely comfortable with, Poland was an opportunity to discover new people, new places, and sometimes even new ways of working. Although the Israeli part was mostly like shooting in a studio, especially the big set inside the mansion that was entirely reserved for us in an expensive neighbourhood of Jerusalem, the Polish part was mostly on location. Since the film takes place in two different time periods (the 70s and the after-war period), we were also able to benefit from a number of locations in Lodz that literally seemed frozen in time. Streets, rear courtyards, and even a basement in which we recreated a cabaret, you don’t have to do much to feel like you’re in the 50s. The Polish team that had worked on Ida also worked with us, and they’re really professionals. Objectively, I don’t think it’s ever a problem working with technicians in big countries that have their own national cinemas. You can always speak the same language and create a movie together !

What were the differences in method ?

They work in a way that’s more American than we do, in a way, especially insofar as the relationship between the gaffers and the grip team is concerned. I personally met a young gaffer who had just graduated from the school in Lodz, named Emil Kalus, who was able to speak English and who became the interpreter to manage the rest of the team.
On the many scenes that take place in classical concert halls, I was also able to meet local lighting designers who were specialized in this area, and who taught me a lot and showed me how to use the consoles to the best advantage.

What about your way of working with Avi ?

There weren’t any major difficulties, except for the rapidity with which we had to work given the constraints of the production. Since we already went through the transition from film to digital together, I was able to take stock of how great the influence of this new way of filming was on us. Of course, we’ve got much greater freedom in how many takes we can do or how long they should be if he decides to let the camera run to get what he wants from the actors. But especially, he’s learned to handle the flexibility very well, and it causes him to demand ever-faster setups. From that point of view, I’ve begun to insist more and more on the preparatory aspects of the film, how critical it is to choose the sets, and how much time we spend on prelighting so that we can get the most out of digital filming.

What equipment did you choose ?

I chose to shoot with a Red Dragon using 2K most of the time, but 4K for the closeups. For the Polish part, I choose to use a Ronin stabilizer because there were a lot of shots where the camera was being carried. The rest in Israel was done using a dolly or simply shot from the shoulder.
A Zeiss G.O. series was chosen for its slightly “vintage” and soft feel with a pastel side to the colours and the image. I didn’t use any filters except for Hollywood Black Magics occasionally, and often had the camera set on 4000K.
The film was saved in RAW format (R3D) because I think if you don’t, the film ends up looking like a made-for-TV movie. The only real technical challenge on this film was a maintenance error on the cameras that were shipped from Israel to Poland, which resulted in a slight discrepancy on the back focus and a lot of the close-ups being sort of soft when we got home.

How come you didn’t see that straight away in the all-digital age ?

Despite the Ultra HD monitors, no one noticed on set. And even the film editor who was receiving dailies back in Tel Aviv didn’t notice anything. It was only at the end of the production chain, when we did a proper screening on a big screen, that we noticed the problem ! Our insurance company sent an expert out and they decided they’d cover the damage. So we could have gone back to Poland and filmed all of those scenes over again. But Avi didn’t have the energy to go back and start all over again, especially for the concert scenes. So we repaired the blur by adding contour to the closeups and the result was perfectly acceptable.

Synopsis :
Jerusalem, 1977. Two thirtysomething sisters realize their doctor father had another family during the war that he’d always kept hidden. Bit by bit, they decide to lift the veil on this family secret between Poland and Israel.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)


In the portfolio below, some set pictures, followed by film’s photograms.