Putting a small number of people together in a situation in which they become dependent on each other is a quick way to jumpstart a drama.
It becomes higher drama if they are family or in a family-like relationship. There have been many films about the Shoah that play on this simple formula, but in the right hands, with the right protagonists, it does not grow stale.
Avi Angel’s brief documentary, “Here I Learned to Love,” focuses on two brothers who survived the Shoah, revisiting the Poland of their tension-fraught childhood. Given how many similar documentaries we’ve seen in recent years, one would expect that “Here I Learned” wouldn’t have much new to tell us, but this film, just under an hour long, has virtues that belie its brevity. Indeed, brevity is one of those virtues.
Avner and Itzik Weinberg were 3 and 2 years old, respectively, when the Jews of their native Krakow were rounded up and forced into a ghetto by the Nazis. The brothers survived through a series of lucky accidents and the life-affirming actions of a series of incredibly courageous women, eventually making it to Israel where they live now. The older brother, Avner, is the proverbial strong, silent type, a man with a face like a rock sculpted by pain. He has never discussed his experiences with anyone. Itzik is a round-faced man with a face like a newborn baby, steel-rimmed glasses and a ready, if ironic, smile. He wrote a novel about their childhood that was the starting point for Angel’s film.
In its first two shots, Angel sets up a series of dichotomies, but they are not what they seem. We see the desert outside Eilat, a lone figure in extreme long shot walking on a desolate, sun-baked road, then a cut takes us straight into a closer shot of a man immersed in blue water, swimming. The swimmer is Avner, and from their introductions you might expect him to be the more placid and open of the pair, until you see the close-up of his face in the next shot, a mask of what seems to be sullen, almost shell-shocked, self-protective silence.
But it is Avner who guides us on the trip through the brothers’ past, who cries openly, who expresses, in the most open and child-like ways, his love of the women who cared for the two little boys. When he visits a hotel room that once had been part of a children’s home where he and Itzik spent time after the war learning to respond to the world like real children once more, Avner plunges his face into a pillow with a mixture of grief and release that is profoundly moving. If “Three Mothers for Two Brothers,” Itzik’s novel, is his version of their story, “Here I Learned” is truly Avner’s.
Angel and cinematographer-editor Yuval Cohen have learned well the lessons of Claude Lanzmann’s monumental “Shoah,” reconstructing a vanished world through the words of the living rather than the images of the dead past. The film is beautifully shot and cunningly edited, and the result has an impact far beyond its spare 54-minute running time.
“Here I Learned to Love” runs opens on March 1 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-8800 or go to www.quadcinema.com.