Herz Frank

(17.01.1926.-3.03.2013.)

One of the most famous documentary filmmakers of Latvia who at the beginning of 1960 was among the first to establish the so-called Riga poetic documentary school – the Latvian “new wave”. Since then Herz Frank’s filmography includes more than 80 films, many of which have justly been included in the golden funds of Latvian film history. During his life Herz Frank has received Life contribution award in cinema, among which is also the recognition by the Latvian National film festival (2001).

Before and beyond fear

“I have not filmed anything extraordinary. All my films are about life, love and death”. This is a statement made by Herz Frank, a world-scale documentary filmmaker from Latvia and a significant figure in film history of the world. Apparently his method is also as “simple as that” enabling to make shattering films that leave their impact not with a sensational plot but by posing ethical questions with harsh and existential edge. For example – are there any themes about which films are not to be made?

Although one cannot deny that there is a certain element of sensationalism also in films by Frank – the main characters of his last film Beyond the Fear (2014) are a murderer sentenced for life for assassination in the name of an idea the prime-minister of Israel Yytzhak Rabin becoming the most hated man in the country and a mother of four who divorces her husband, marries the killer and gives birth to his child. One may or may not believe in love born between Yigal and Larisa but hatred of the surrounding people is obvious, and it wedges this story into permanently explosive territory – if it does not explode now it will explode after years when his son grows up.

30 years earlier the character in Frank’s film Supreme Court (1987) was also a murderer sentenced to death for killing two people with a purpose of robbing them. Herz Frank went into his death row cell and talked about life, and the murderer’s confession irrevocably influenced both interlocutors. Hijackers of a plane have also been among characters of Herz Frank’s film – mother and her sons who choose death at the moment of failure of their murderous plan (film Once Upon a Time There Lived Seven Simeons, 1989). Herz Frank is perhaps the only documentary filmmaker in the world who has shown his heart to the spectators literally – he asked his cameraman to film his heart operation and included the footage into his most personal film “Flashback” (2001), in which he tells about all his life through his own films; at the end of this film Frank’s wife dies.

It might seem there is too much death in films of one documentary filmmaker but the power of Herz Frank is the ability to keep the balance – his films are as strongly life assertive as well, both at the moment of the birth of life (Song of Songs, 1989), as well as at the moments of experiencing good and evil which is the fundamental motif in his most famous film Ten Minutes Older (1978) – in a ten minutes long, single shot film the camera observes the face of a small child and it becomes a mirror to his soul that experiences the whole range of emotions from fear to a sigh of relief, from sadness to joy. This very simple but significantly meaningful idea about ten minutes that can become decisive in a person’s life was later played around by the most outstanding auteur filmmakers from Europe and the USA Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismeki and others in a series of films premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

The concept of auteur film has an essential role in the creative life of Herz Frank. In 1960s and 70s when Frank started making documentary films, professions were distinctly defined in the soviet film industry in accordance to the staff lists of the film studio but already in the credits of his 1972 film Lifetime Frank called himself “auteur-director”. Till the very end of his life he was always also the script-writer and the author of the concepts of his films and exactly for the reason that Frank’s films have been made in close interaction with the character and carefully watching the development of the process. “It is not interesting for me if it is known in advance what could be the film’s ending and the character simply would tell me his pre-conceived thoughts. For me film begins when you see the thought being born while shooting, in front of my eyes, when we feel that the character has doubts and we feel he is alive! If you know in advance the beginning and end of the film it’s not worth making it at all… But a film about man is always a film about the life of his soul.”

The film Beyond the Fear was certainly not made by Herz Frank as his deliberately last film. His co-author, director Maria Kravchenko who finished the film after Frank passed away, even says in a voice-over at the opening of the film – we never really believed that this will become a film at all. At that moment Herz Frank keeps silent in the frame and perhaps he still knew how it would all end.

Because in the film Beyond the Fear themes from many Frank’s films recur and it again poses the question how far a documentary filmmaker can go by entering with his camera another person’s life. “But you must understand I could not refuse to make this film. That would have meant to say that I do not live anymore,” says the documentary film classic Herz Frank in the film Beyond the Fear.

Kristīne Matīsa,
translated by Viktors Freibergs