Tsili, in its U.S. Premiere at the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival, is Director Amos Gitai’s ambitious tribute to the Romanian-Israeli novelist and survivor Aharon Appelfeld, the author of Tzili: The Story of a Life. In this indie drama, Gitai tweaks Appelfeld’s work, which is about a 12-year-old Jewish girl hiding in the Ukrainian forests south of Chernivitsi during WWII. Tzili has been abandoned by her family as it attempts to flee the Germans. Tzili’s parents allow her to remain behind to watch over their house, believing she will not be harmed by the Nazis. Her family is caught and transported to the camps. Tzili cannot manage the place on her own, and also must flee, eventually taking refuge in the area’s forests while the war rages around her.
Gitai pares most of the original story’s plot and adds his own opaque and abstruse Beckett-like existential quality to Appelfeld’s Holocaust survivor tale. He morphs the characterization of Tsili aging her into a young woman. He divides aspects of her persona and represents them as three women played by three actors. Two actors, (Sarah Adler and Meshi Olinski), manifest different parts of younger Tsili’s personality as she attempts to intuitively survive in the forest. The third, (Leah Koenig), Gitai intrudes in a voice over at the conclusion of the film as Tsili, now an old woman, reflects upon the past and discusses the rationale for her abandonment by her family and her resilience living in the spare, wild terrain. As the old woman speaks, we watch the young Tsili (Sarah Adler), wander aimlessly in a room with other refugees who are alive but who now must confront and make sense out of what has happened to them.
Gitai spends the bulk of the film on Tsili’s life in the forest. He brings the two facets of the younger Tsili’s persona in and out, effecting a story logic that is more symbolic and evocative than concrete. We are introduced to the assertive, dominant Tsili (Sarah Adler), wild and unkempt; she rips off berries and leaves to eat from bushes and gobbles them down; she is hungry for life. These initial scenes are in long montages. Gitai makes it manifest that he is establishing the bestial quality into which Tsili’s life has devolved; she has become an animal in her hunt for food and in her preparation of a place to sleep and be safe. Details of setting, how long she has been in the forest and the exact location are not given; this elevates the perspective of the setting to one of amorphous universality and adds a surreal element of timelessness. This could take place at any time, at any place where there is war. Though we hear the continual sounds of explosions and weapons being fired in the background, we never see flashes of light, columns of smoke or troop movements. A trope Gitai suggests is that the threat of war is everpresent and life is a an increasingly tenuous struggle for survival, depending upon how looming the threat is.
Gitai imposes on our patience slowly and steadily; he familiarizes us with Tsili’s foraging in the woods. She hunts for food and does little else but gather brush and smash it down to make her own viable place of rest. Gitai films her collecting the straw, twigs and branches with no cut-aways. The scenes are long and the camera is steady on its subject, Tsili, as it slowly moves to close-up revealing how she works intensely. When Gitai in another scene, repeats footage and has her return to the same spot where she eats berries and leaves, he suggests days passing. Tedium and the boredom of a droll existence without play or interesting purposefulness is implied. Tsili is inured to the sounds of war that echo in the background. She has no apparent fear of them and ignores them, not even looking in the direction where the sounds are. These noises of violence are interchanged with the sounds of nature: birds and the wind rustling. The dull repetition of waiting for deliverance is never-ending.
Eventually, after an unspecified time, the filmmaker interrupts this flat-lined existence by interjecting another character into Tsili’s life. This is Marek (Adam Tsekhman), who has escaped from “the camps.” He intrudes on Tsili’s lair and discovers that he is, like her, a Jew in hiding. In a fit of lonely exasperation he chatters on and on attempting contact, though Tsili barely answers his questions and appears to be afraid of him.
Marek represents movement and action in her tedious life. To remain with her in the safety of this “shelter” she has created, he shares his bread. The scene shifts to another facet of Tsili’s persona (played by Meshi Olinski). This aspect of her character is more delicate, petite, passive and feminine. This Tsili, who inhabits the lair with Marek, inspires him to lust as she lies next to him. He “gently” forces himself on top of her, despite her protests, then rapes her.
She accepts this as part of her due as they must survive and perhaps wait out the war together. In a continuation of these scenes with these characters, in selected photography, Gitai prolongs an overhead shot revealing Marek and Tsili curled up in the fetal position asleep; they are attempting to comfort one another. From this overhead we see that their brush, cave-like home and bed is in the shape of a nest. They have become like wild birds in the forest. They depend upon their natural surroundings to succor them while the sounds of war and the killing machine echo in the distance.
In the remainder of the film, the first evocation of Tsili (Sarah Adler), is present after Marek leaves to find food in the village. Marek never returns; both he and the delicate Tsili have vanished. The strong, survivor Tsili who must confront “what is left” makes her way out of the forest when the explosions stop and the war has ended. She joins other refugees and they wend their way into open territory to salvation, silence, an absence of warfare. Eventually, they stumble upon the proof that the enemy has been thwarted as they witness the Soviets in uniform detaining Germans whose hands are raised. There is no more need for hiding.
Now they must return to what is left, if anything. In the process of Tsili’s joining other refugees, she remembers her relationship with Marek. He has become only a memory whose name Tsili whispers. But all has faded. That other part of herself that Marek brought out also disappears. What is left of her is the dominant, strong facet of her character that we saw initially. The hard, resourceful survivor has taken over. By the film’s conclusion it is the older woman in the voice-over who describes what happened and tries to make sense of what is insensible and irrational.
In adapting the novel to his own cinematic design, Gitai has taken liberties which don’t always cohere with sound storytelling for the medium. For example, perhaps he could have used dissolves and fade-ins when he brings in and out the two actors representing the different aspects of Tsili’s character. His use of realism, the flat shot, and the close-up of Tsili making her shelter are opaque. Those who are not Gitai fans may view these choices as pretentious and self-indulgent. Unless one enjoys the poetry of viewing symbols in what he has effected, the viewer may not appreciate his evocative efforts to distill Appelfeld’s work with such cinematography.
Gitai never clarifies or elucidates his meanings and stays in the realm of poetic suggestion. As he stated in the Q & A after the screening of Tsili, he prefers the interactive viewer to make the meanings. This is Gitai’s gift to his audience. However, the long montages in the beginning extending into the closeup become stale and actually hamper what he intends. For the intelligent viewer, a little bit goes a long way.
Though this is a drama about the Holocaust in World War II, there are the wider themes, especially involving the terrors of this war and any genocidal war impact memory and identity. It is this impact which the victims must confront before they reconstruct a viable life in peacetime. Gitai’s works are always interesting and thought provoking though to the less careful and viewer, the film may be perplexing. It is helpful if one knows that the novel inspired the film. It is never easy to adapt a highly poetic and beautifully written novel such as Appelfeld’s into a cinematic equivalent. In the Q & A after the screening Gitai revealed his great admiration for this author. In crafting a worthy adaptation, Gitai’s attempts are appreciable in translating the novel’s power and beauty.