The Fifth Heaven

 Rotem Zussman
Rotem Zussman
as “Bertha”

Written by Dina Zvi-Riklis
Screenplay by Dina Zvi-Riklis & Alma Ganihar
Based on the novel Be-Rakia Ha-Hamishi by Rachel Eytan
Key Performances: Yehezkel Lazarov
with Aki Avni, Amit Moshkovitz, & Rotem Zussman

Summary: Dina Zvi-Riklis’s new film “The Fifth Heaven” is set in Palestine at the close of World War II. Jewish residents, terrified by the Nazi advance across Europe and North Africa, have been giving their all to their British protectors for years, but now that the defeat of the Third Reich appears imminent, their thoughts turn back to the business of statehood.

One hot day in 1944, just before summer turns into fall, a man brings his teenage daughter to an orphanage and leaves her there under the care of the director, who is his childhood friend. The girl, “Maya,” abruptly finds herself in an all-female world; with the exception of “Markovsky,” the director, all the staff members are women, and all the residents are girls. Thus all the momentous events depicted in “The Fifth Heaven” are seen from the perspective of those stuck on the sidelines.

History, patriarchy, the struggle of man against man for dominance, these forces conspire to crush the women of “The Fifth Heaven,” and yet the girls like Maya who watch all of this unfold become, in their turn, the mothers of a new nation. It is not the job of a narrative filmmaker to defend the policies of a sovereign state, but it is her job to explore how it all came to be, and in this respect Dina Zvi-Riklis has done a superlative job.

The title “The Fifth Heaven” refers to a biblical verse: “Look forth from Thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Thy people Israel, and the land which Thou hast given us, as Thou didst swear unto our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 26:15)

Jan’s Review

One hot day just before summer turns into fall, a young girl barely in her teens arrives at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere. Worse yet, the person who brings her and then abandons her there is her father. He tells the director of the orphanage that his new wife is now pregnant, and there is simply no room for a troublesome adolescent in their small apartment. But that is only half of the story.

It turns out these two men, the father “Hermoni” (Alon Padut) and the director “Markovsky” (Yehezkel Lazarov) are childhood friends, and Hermoni has brought his daughter to the orphanage on the advice of a third friend named “Wolfson” (Aki Avni). The benefactress of the orphanage is Wolfson’s mother, and so, as her son, Wolfson feels entitled to treat it as his personal fiefdom.

Once Hermoni leaves, “Maya” (Amit Moshkovitz), like all the other residents, becomes completely dependent on the Wolfson family’s largess. And so Markovsky does his best to feed, cloth, and educate a ragtag group of girls that no one else will care for, aided by a few adult staff members—also all female—who likewise seem to have no other place to be. But everyone knows that Wolfson enjoys humiliating Markovsky, making him beg for sustenance and repeatedly treating him as a puppet on a string.

So far this all sounds so bleak that only a masochist would want to see The Fifth Heaven, but a bit of historical context quickly turns the mundane into the metaphorical. The date is 1944; the place is Palestine; and the orphanage is a fascinating microcosm of embryonic Israel about to emerge from its British womb and enter the world stage as an independent nation.

Once the past has been reduced to names and dates, it’s hard not to see historical events as fait accompli. That is why we need great narratives like The Fifth Heaven to remind us that everything might well have been otherwise; the people who actually lived through these fraught times had no idea how their story would end.

What was happening in the world at large in 1944 as summer turned to fall? The Allies had landed on Normandy Beach on June 6, slogged their way across France, and liberated Paris on August 25. By this time, the Soviet army had also pushed the Nazis out of Russia and begun chasing them across Eastern Europe. It would take until May for the Germans to finally capitulate, but by fall of 1944, almost everyone believed that the end of the Third Reich was imminent.

For Jews, this meant that the Yishuv (the Hebrew term for Jews living in Mandate Palestine) had been spared. Today we usually think of the Holocaust as something that only occurred in Europe. We forget that Nazis also occupied most of North Africa until they were finally stopped at El Alamein—only 66 miles west of Alexandria, Egypt—in November of 1942. No, there were no gas chambers in Libya and Tunisia, but there were numerous concentration camps. And in Iraq, a Pro-Nazi government had issued discriminatory laws which culminated in pogroms in Baghdad in 1941. Until the Allies won World War II, Iraq’s large Jewish community was also imperiled.

What The Fifth Heaven actually shows us is Jews in the Yishuv getting back to the business of statehood. At the start of 1944, the British were more than allies; they were protectors, defending the Yishuv from the Nazis primarily in order to maintain their control over the Suez Canal. But one year later, at the start of 1945, the same British who have vanquished the Nazis have become the Yishuv’s new enemy. And Markovsky’s orphanage—so isolated and remote—turns out to be a perfect spot for the underground to build a weapons cache.

This background is essential to understanding what is really at stake in The Fifth Heaven, but since it’s an Israeli film, everything is implicit and never fully explained. (Does Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln stop to explain the politics of the Civil War to non-Americans?)

What differentiates The Fifth Heaven from other stories I’ve seen about these same events is that it’s told from a female point of view. We see everything through Maya’s eyes, as she struggles to orient herself in a hostile place at a precarious time, and although she could not know all the details we get to see played out on screen, she certainly knows each outcome. One day a teacher thought to be Markovsky’s mistress is at the orphanage and the next day she isn’t, and everyone soon knows that she is now living in Tel Aviv with Wolfson. One day the janitress is dressing for a date with a British officer, a few days later a photo of her shaved head appears on a poster warning Jewish women not to consort with the enemy. One day the cook is reminiscing about her pre-War life in Warsaw, the next day Maya watches as she hoists her bulky body into a truck and heads off once again to parts unknown.

Enormous things are happening in her world, but Maya, like most women, is stuck on the sidelines.

Amit Moshkovitz is very good as Maya, but her role is essentially a passive one. Like “Scout” in the much-loved film To Kill a Mockingbird, Maya can see many things that she can’t quite understand. But looking at the adult world through her eyes, we have access to all the information we need. And just like in To Kill a Mockingbird, the true subject of The Fifth Heaven is Markovsky, an Atticus Finch-type hero who continues to fight the good fight long after those around him have traded their youthful idealism for what adults call pragmatism.

I’ve seen actor Yehezkel Lazarov in prior films, but they didn’t prepare me for this powerful performance. Lazarov as Markovsky shoulders the weight of someone responsible for many lives, communicating all of this man’s inner torment (his loneliness and thwarted dreams), and all the while, he’s so sexy that in several scenes I had to catch my breath. And Aki Avni, once equally virile, plays his foil Wolfson with just the right touch of oily elegance. For sure, Wolfson is the villain of the piece, but if he weren’t such a charming seducer, he’d never succeed in life as easily as he clearly does.

The plot requires all of the women to submit, and each actress does an excellent job of showing how and why fate has trapped her so. The only one who actively tries to fight back is Bertha, the doomed janitress, and Rotem Zussman plays her with such gusto that the inevitable becomes truly heartbreaking. History, patriarchy, the struggle of man against man for dominance, these forces conspire to crush the women of The Fifth Heaven, and yet the girls like Maya who watch all of this unfold become, in their turn, the mothers of a new nation. It is not the job of a filmmaker to defend the policies of a sovereign state, but it is her job to explore how it all came to be, and in this respect Dina Zvi-Riklis has done a superlative job.


The Fifth Heaven Group Photo
Yehezkel Lazarov (center) as “Dov Markovsky”
with Amit Moshkovitz as “Maya” on the far right

Spoiler Alert: From Page to Screen
Please do not read until after you have seen The Fifth Heaven

When a film is based on a book, many people believe that the book is always “better.” People often say this to me even if they haven’t read the book in question. They just assume it as a general principle.

Many people continue to say this (“The book is always better.”), even though film is now well into its second century as an independent art form. But it simply isn’t true. Some books definitely are better than films that are made from them, but some films are actually better than their source books. In every case, however, they are necessary different, precisely because books and films are different art forms. Filmmakers always have a responsibility to make a story their own (no matter what its source), utilizing all the tools and techniques of cinema to best advantage in crafting a unique adaptation.

In this specific case, the film is definitely better than the book. Or to be more specific: Dina Zvi-Riklis’s film version of The Fifth Heaven (co-written with Alma Ganihar) is much better than Philip Simpson’s English translation. Since I can’t read Hebrew, I really shouldn’t judge Rachel Eytan’s original novel. My guess is that the language is very poetic and Eytan captures Maya’s interior life in exquisite detail. But all the narrative gaps present in the English translation are likely there in the Hebrew version as well. To be blunt: Zvi-Riklis tells a much better story in her film than Eytan tells in her novel. The characters are better constructed, the plot is more absorbing, and the metaphors are more evocative.

It wasn’t easy to acquire an English translation of The Fifth Heaven but I did. I got it, I read it, and I can now tell you with complete confidence that you needn’t bother.

But I know what your question is: Is Dov Markovsky Maya Hermoni’s real father? Answer: I still don’t know for sure, but I doubt it.

In the film, two people (Wolfson and Hermoni’s second wife) explicitly say that Markovsky is Maya’s father, but they both have their own reasons for wanting this to be the case, and they both state this as a fact in very self-serving contexts. Clearly there was “something” between Markovsky and Hermoni’s first wife (Maya’s mother), but Eytan tells you even less about her than Zvi-Riklis does. Everything having to do with Markovsky writing letters to America after Hermoni abandons Maya at the orphanage has been invented for the screenplay. Zvi-Riklis also presents Markovsky as a lover who is easily thwarted. It’s easier to see him passionately lusting after Hermoni’s first wife from afar than deserting her (and their child) after a consummated relationship. But who can be sure?

If, in fact, Hermoni’s first wife (who never gets a name) was having an affair with Markovsky while still having marital relations with Hermoni, then either one of them could be Maya’s father. But having seen The Fifth Heaven three times now, I just don’t think so. Markovsky doesn’t act like a father; Hermoni does.

In the novel, Markovsky’s arc ends when he joins the army. Seriously! The last chapter (chapter 35) begins: “Batya Wolfson was taken ill. Markovsky joined the army.” Once Batya Wolfson stops funding the orphanage, everyone goes their separate ways. No final conflagration, no arrest, no toilet paper factory… in short, no catharsis.

Yes, but: What does the title mean? The novel begins with an epigraph from the Talmud that is carried forward for the film. “The Heavens are seven and they are: curtain, firmament, clouds, abode, refuge, foundation, paradise…” So the fifth heaven is “refuge” and when you google the actual Hebrew word (ma’on), you get this:
Deuteronomy 26:15

“Look forth from Thy holy habitation (ma’on), from heaven, and bless Thy people Israel, and the land which Thou hast given us, as Thou didst swear unto our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

This reference totally fits Dina Zvi-Riklis’s haunting film, but Rachel Eytan’s source novel? Alas, not so much.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (10/15/12)—Special for WomenArts
Photo credit: courtesy of Go2Films