“Past Life” chronicles the daring late 1970s odyssey of two sisters. Sephi (Joy Rieger) is an introverted classical musician and a scandal sheet journalist and Nana (Nelly Tagar) as they deal with a shocking wartime mystery that has cast a dark shadow on their entire lives. They begin an investigation of their father’s, Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory), activities during the Second World War.
When the two young women make their way to a choral choir concert being held in Berlin where at the reception afterwards, a woman confronts Sephi telling her that she is the daughter of a murderer. The shocking incident leads to Sephi telling Nana what she heard and the two sisters go about a personal investigation to discover whether the accusation is true.
This is a coming of age tale for Sephi who has to deal with the weight of history and forge a future for herself. Nana convinces Sephi to investigate the matter and find out whether their father was a war criminal, or it was some sort of accident. Nana, on the other hand, disagrees with her sister, but embarks on her own journey to try to understand the choices that her father had to make.
Nana was invited by Thomas Zielinski, a German conductor to perform at a concert in Warsaw. It seems that Thomas was tied to the event that happened in the past. It just so happens that the accuser is the mother of Zielinski.
For a number of reasons (including her father’s often excessive discipline), Sephi cannot dismiss the encounter, so she shares it with her sister Nana who has not had a great relationship with her father and assumes that there is some truth in the accusation. The sisters start investigating their father’s past and when Baruch is made aware that there are inquiries being made about him, he offers to reconstruct the lost diary of the years he spent hiding in the Zielinski farm. However, the combination of the sisters’ lingering doubts and accumulated bad karma, this could bring tragic results to the Milch family.
There is significance to setting the film in 1977 should not be lost on anyone and director Nesher does not belabor the parallels between the thaw with Sadat and the efforts of Sephi Milch and Thomas Zielinski to reconcile their parents. This is a richly detailed period production that reminds us of both the good and the bad of the era.
Joy Rieger is rather remarkable as the initially naïve and submissive Sephi Milch. Her expressive face is like an open book. Nelly Tagar brings more attitude and angst as the razor-sharp but profoundly sad Milch-Kotler. Doron Tavory deftly walks a fine line as Dr. Milch, establishing his severity as a parent, but also a deep sense of his fundamentally decent but scarred psyche. It is good to see him back on the screen.
This is an emotional drama where each of us have something to learn from. It is, in a way, an educational movie that shows that pain is sometimes not caused by physical suffering or discomfort caused by illness or injury, but by traumatic past events. We need redemption, understanding and willingness to let the past go. I have tried very hard not to write any spoilers here so if this review is, in places, somewhat incoherent that is the reason why.