In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare borrowed from a biblical passage and pondered how "the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children."
The mistakes of parents – and the repercussions for multiple generations – is at the heart, too, of Israeli director Avi Nesher's new film, Past Life, about a Polish physician and Jew who survived the Second World War, rebuilt his life in Jerusalem, only to have it come crashing down when his daughters begin to unearth secrets about his dark past.
Part family drama and part suspense thriller, the story begins in West Berlin in 1977, when singer and aspiring composer Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger) performs as a soloist in a choral concert. After the show, while being ogled by German fans – "30 years ago, they'd be waving, 'Heil,'" Sephi says – an old woman asks if she is the daughter of Dr. Baruch Milch. Sephi says yes. "Murderer!" the older woman screams. And so begins the quest to determine if the father, now a gynecologist in Jerusalem, is a healer, a killer or both.
Returning to Israel, Sephi tells her older sister, Nana (Nelly Tagar), a fiery journalist who has spent her life rebelling against her father's strict rules and taciturn manner. Unlike Sephi, who is reticent and soft-voiced, Nana is loud, perpetually agitated and more than willing to believe her father (Doron Tavory) may be capable of horrible things.
Matters get more complicated, when in the midst of the sisters' quest to uncover the truth, Nana is diagnosed with cancer and becomes convinced she's paying with her health for her father's crimes. Nana readily believes an embittered man – who hid in a cellar with Baruch to escape the Germans – that "the parents ate sour grapes and the children have rotten teeth."
Writer-director Nesher (The Wonders, The Matchmaker) based his film on Baruch Milch's real-life memoir, Can Heaven Be Void? As a child of Holocaust survivors himself, he understands Sephi's inability to ask her father about his traumatic past. He also gets Nana's anger – at herself and her parent – for keeping secrets that tear at the very fabric of the family unit.
The narrative is tightly written, fast-paced and delivered with a scorching, emotional intensity by the actors. The timeline – which moves from the dank cellars of wartime Poland, to concert halls in 1970s Berlin and Sephi's staid music academy in Jerusalem, is smoothly interwoven. Still, the drama seems overwrought at times, even cliché, particularly when placating wife, Lusia (Evgenia Dodina), succumbs to nosebleeds every time tension rises in the fractured house (which is often).
It also seems a stretch that Sephi's white knight, Polish-German composer Thomas (Rafael Stachowiak), invites her to Berlin to present her first musical composition and he also just happens to be the son of the same anguished old woman who got the whole ball rolling in the first place.
Eventually, however, the truth comes out. And the Milch family begins a journey of reconciliation, with each other and their collective past.