In a small, grubby room at a cheap Parisian hotel, not far from the Seine, three seated men are chatting. Two of them are Jews, but all three are immigrants. It is early February of 1957; the day is cold and cloudy. The ancient heating system in the room doesn’t work most of the day. Junk, the chambermaid calls towards the river. Long, flat barges traverse the river from one bridge to the other. The old, dark bridge bounds one’s view to the right while the new span, whose steel beams glint even on a winter day like this one, frames the view to the left.
Leopold Spitzer, a 39-year-old movie director, is the divorced father of a young son. He left behind a small family when he emigrated from Israel, abandoning the infant state after seven years. His last film, "A Stone on Every Mile," was an abject failure trumpeted in every newspaper in the country. Rotten luck befell the film at its first and, sad to say, only showing. The day of its premier, a heavy, suffocating hamsin, the desert wind, descended on the May Cinema in Haifa’s Hadar Hacarmel quarter. How long ago was that? It’s difficult to remember exactly, but it was approximately three years ago, perhaps a little less. Offended film critics were infuriated, shamefully lashing out at both him and the movie. "This has been the most torrid May that Haifa has ever known." The spools of film were slow to arrive from the studios in Herzliya, the taxi was held up on the road, and the heat in the theater was unbearable.
Beside the small table, on which stands a bottle half-full of cheap wine, several cups, an ashtray, packs of cigarettes, and matches, sits the young Brazilian David Perloff. A true cinematic visionary who grew up in the Zionist youth movement, he has decided to make a short visit to Paris on his way to Israel from Brazil. He speaks Portuguese, Yiddish and a little French. From the Jewish press and conversations with friends, envoys and artists, he knows almost everything about the early days of Israel’s Hebrew cinema. He even knows of the "Czech" Spitzer, as he is known, and his work. Some in Israel, he has heard, consider him an incorrigible poseur ambitiously seeking success, what they call a hochshtapler in Yiddish. They’re convinced that the charlatan inevitably will meet his downfall. But even they never imagined that "A Stone on Every Mile," whose appearance on the big screen was so eagerly awaited in theaters around the country, would crash and shatter beyond repair at its very first showing.
Perloff took no pleasure in Spitzer’s misfortune. The flop of a new Israeli film didn’t please him, and although no expert on the particulars, he felt a sense of closeness to the aspiring director. He’d heard that some people called him "the man of a thousand talents," while others held a different opinion of this wunderkind. He’d heard, too, that Spitzer spoke several languages, that he was a poet and writer, an esteemed scriptwriter, and an indefatigable skirt-chaser. And he’d heard that Spitzer was a delightful raconteur.
The chance meeting with Spitzer greatly excited him. Since discovering two or three days earlier that Spitzer also was lodging at the hotel, he had stayed close by, soaking up his comments and hypnotizing conversation, his charming gestures and winning manners. He skipped excursions around the city to spend long hours in Spitzer’s room.
Across from them, leaning against the wall, in his hand a glass that still contains wine, sits an ageless man. A thick lock of hair dangles over his forehead. Dressed like the good-looking American in the cigarette advertisements, he ceaselessly hums strains from a popular French tune played endlessly on the hotel radio. This is Marek Helasko, an expatriate Polish writer sojourning in Paris en route to London or New York or the loveliest city in the world, the coastal town of Eilat. Pictures of his well-known face often appear in the leading newspapers. Relishing his role as a free intellectual who rejects the horrors of the communist regime, he loves to be photographed and interviewed by famous reporters. He has written and published several short stories which, translated into various European languages, have gained him the reputation of a man of great promise in Poland, Germany, and elsewhere. But he is addicted when they call him "the Polish Hemingway."
He is an inveterate drunkard. Scenes of his intoxication add much to his growing fame. He speaks Polish and a handful of words in English and German. Although he doesn’t care for the Jews, he admires the Israelis. On hearing that a pair of Israeli film men were in the hotel, he sought them out at once. He failed to find Spitzer’s room and knew nothing of young David Perloff. And so, entirely by accident, as happens in cheap hotels in vast cities, he encountered them at the door to the old elevator. He hasn’t left them since, and sits with them now, between the young dreamer, who soon will leave for Israel seeking to realize his cinematic hopes, and the fledgling producer, who not long ago returned from Israel dejected, embittered, and frustrated.
How do they conduct their discussion? In what language do they speak? At a remove, it would seem that they cannot possibly converse. They are separated by age and place of origin and, even more, by their destinations. Nearer, however, as in a large close-up shot, everything is different and all is possible. Spitzer, of course, is the center of conversation. With Perloff he chatters in colloquial German while David replies in his household Yiddish. Each rejoices whenever a stray word of Hebrew crops up, as though they suddenly have found the key to a secret, intimate language.
With Helasko, he speaks in his native Slovak, which is very similar to Polish. Flustered, Helasko answers in "new" Polish. A word of German occasionally chances to enter their conversation, and each rejoices at this as though they loathe the Slavic tongues they must speak. Perloff apologizes that he doesn’t yet know Hebrew and is utterly inept in French. Helasko complains that his English is simply awful. He was quite a dolt as a child, he laments. Instead of studying English seriously, he preferred to chase foxes in the forest near his home. Spitzer joins in their tipsy commiseration, griping about his failure to learn Arabic during his years in Israel. As a boy, he’d fallen in love with Arabic on a dreary trip to Algeria.
In all this melange of languages–which Perloff will soon discover, if he goes through with his foolish decision to move to Israel, is the wretched state of the Jews–what he will miss the most, says Spitzer, is Arabic. A peculiar atmosphere momentarily settles over the small room. Three artists drinking together: two movie directors, a pair of writers, two Jews, one gentile, three immigrants, and seven languages.
Helasko breaks out into a Polish folk song that was popular with the right-wing underground in Poland after the war. He is still in shock, he explains to Spitzer, from the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising and the terrible slaughter the Russians carried out in Budapest. Tomorrow, he feels certain, this will occur in Warsaw as well. A ghastly carnage broadcast live before the television cameras of Western European stations, he rages. Let the idiots die, he says, for he won’t be there when a river of blood again flows through Warsaw. Now he must decide only where to roam. He asks if Spitzer watched as French television broadcast the message in Hungary live. No, Spitzer didn’t see the innocent dead littering the burning streets of Budapest. He had still been in the Middle East, packing up his life for a new migration. There, too, war had occurred, and he hadn’t wanted to abandon his young son before it ended. He reminds the youthful Perloff and the ageless Helasko that he has a young son in Tel Aviv. If he had momentarily hesitated to leave the country, it was only because of his boy, for one simply doesn’t forsake children alone in time of war. Perloff wants to ask still another question but holds back. A bottle in his hand, Helasko nods his head in agreement. "True, very true. One cannot leave young children alone in time of war." He eventually will find the right moment and place to tell them, his two Jewish companions, what it means to abandon children in time of war.
Perloff announces that he regrets having been a young boy during the War of Independence. He’s sorry he couldn’t volunteer to aid the kibbutz settlements under siege in the Negev. He does know several older boys from his youth movement branch in Brazil who went to Israel during the fighting. He intends to visit them, they’ll be among the first he will see. Perhaps, if he is lucky enough, he’ll make a major picture, a movie unlike any made before in the country, about the desperate struggle waged by a small group of Jews in the Negev against so many Arabs.
The conversation drags a bit, and its natural rhythm is constantly interrupted, because Spitzer must translate everything. From German into Yiddish, as well as from Polish into Slovak, the rendering is plain and simple. But he also must translate in the other direction and back again, and that is becoming ever more of a strain. The talk becomes disjointed, murky, and, most of all, wearing. And he has felt very tired lately, too. Although not yet forty years old, he sometimes feels like fifty, even more. At times he feels he’ll never reach the age of fifty. Life is exhausting, the frequent travel wears on him, the women he must forever cast aside also tire him. If his friend the poet, the one killed in the partisan revolt, were to ask him now in the unique, personal language of their own making, he would answer in an honest, quavering statement, "Jerzy, please listen. I don’t think I’ll make it to fifty."
He glances at Perloff’s young, clever head. And there is Helasko with his fine face and thick curls. Later on, he peeks at the window pane, which shines his advancing baldness back at him. This reflected self-portrait, a hostile image in glass, doesn’t upset him. He carries within himself at all times a picture of himself. Once, at a director’s convention, he had remarked that every director and filmmaker should keep such a picture of himself, a self-image updated daily that burns as an eternal flame within one’s soul. That had been a long time ago, when he still believed he possessed a rare talent for direction. He confidently had expected to make a provocative film, perhaps even one or two more. And then the great, rotund director Otto Preminger would see them and immediately summon him to California. These fine words, evidently spoken aloud to unexpected applause, he had declared in flawed, halting Hebrew in his heavy Slovak accent. They have no idea what is in my heart, he thought on hearing his colleagues, enraptured by his comments, praise his work. No one could fathom what was in his heart because no one had been there with him at the Novaki forced labor camp late that accursed summer of 1942. No one knew that he by chance had escaped incineration with his mother and brother. His heart since then had been an empty vessel.
Helasko suddenly rises from his chair, ceases humming the hit French tune, walks to the window and blocks their view of the river. The room, already dim, becomes even darker. On the gray river long, black barges slip untouched beneath the bridges. Waving his hands, Helasko says that he yearns for the sun and light of the Middle East. Sometimes, he even loves the Jews, too. He mocks Spitzer, who left the sun and warmth of the east to return, beaten and wounded, to the gray cold of Europe. "You’re not even fifty. Have you already given up?" He vehemently questions Spitzer without awaiting an answer. He turns to Perloff, takes his hand, and vows never to leave him. Wait, he’ll finish his business at the Parisian hotel and leave with Perloff for Israel. "You Jews have a wonderful country," he tells them. "Too bad I’m such a Pole. If only I’d been a Jew."
"You’re not even hearing what you’re saying," says Spitzer with a dismissive wave of his hands. "You don’t understand what nonsense you’re spouting. You’re just drunk." Turning to Perloff, he says in Yiddish, "He’s a decent guy, and talented, too, but a drunk. A dear Goy and a drunk." Perloff stands up and politely helps the famous Polish writer sink back into his seat and lean against the wall. He takes the glass and the bottle and puts them on the table. This for him is just a brief stop on his way to Israel. As a boy, he dreamed of Paris as he did of Lisbon and Madrid and he is a great admirer of the French film directors. The mere mention of the great artists’ names sends a shiver through him. The day before, friends had introduced him to a group of respected writers sitting at a cafe on the boulevard. He had written himself a few words about the meeting. Anyone who wants to make an honest movie must constantly document his life: every day, every hour, even every second. The truth of life is so elusive it can escape even that strict a record.
He occasionally encountered what he craved, a film that so meticulously documented and captured the ephemeral moment that he became as excited as a maiden watching a romance. He suddenly starts to sweat, becomes restless, changes seats, taps his feet on the floor of the theater, and unwittingly kicks the bottles of beer rolling beneath the seats. He even grunts as he breathes. The right images in the precise flow, the truth projected on the screen–it all goes past his mind like inspired flashes. And what maddens him is that he cannot at that moment make an accurate record of the powerful emotions seizing him during the film.
Spitzer returns to his gloomy thoughts and the oppressive ache in his heart. He won’t reach fifty, he is certain of that. Besides, what does he care? Why is it so important to live to fifty? He has already seen much in his short life. The tense decades of his youth provide plenty of material for full-length films. And he hasn’t even begun to make them. The painful adventure in Israel has cost him seven years. Seven precious years of his life. Seven full years gone for nothing. The insult and humiliation he endured in his final years there hurt so much, he thought his heart would fill again. His "empty heart," from which everything had suddenly drained that bitter moment on the train platform at the Slovak forced-labor camp. For that was when his friends told him that the Nazis had sent his mother to the crematory several hours earlier.
Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks