Ritualistic contradictions, moral complexity, and minimalism shed light on issues of inequality in Policeman.
In Policeman, writer-director Nadav Lapid’s invigorating debut feature, Yaron (Yiftach Klein) balances his role as leader of an elite Israeli counterterrorist unit and that of expectant father, with a tantalizing mix of masculine bravura and sensitivity. The close-knit, five-man combat team, already under trial for civilian collateral damage—death and permanent injury of family members during the routine elimination of a suspected Palestinian terrorist—faces a special challenge when a group of young, upper-class Jewish radicals stage a kidnapping at the wedding of a billionaire’s daughter. Their aim is to draw attention not to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict per se but to sky-rocketing income disparities which have provoked widespread unrest in Israel. A morally complex, Bressonian film, which telegraphs its fractured storyline through minimalist but intensely physical scenes, Policeman draws the maximum power from its shrewdly observed characters, exploiting the irony of their situations. The film’s impact is enhanced by Shai Goldman’s pristine cinematography and the sparing use of dialogue or added soundtrack.
Winner of the Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival and of the Special Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival, Policeman is now playing for a week at the Film Society, New York, and in Los Angeles prior to a more extensive roll-out. Nadav Lapid discussed the genesis of the film with me in depth after its screening at the New York Film Festival in 2011 and during the height of the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park.
Liza Béar So, where do you live, and how did you start making films?
Nadav Lapid I live in Tel Aviv. My mother’s a film editor and my father’s a writer. I followed in the path of my parents; no rebellious spirit there! When I was four years old, I was painting the well-known stairway scene from Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein. The connection to film was quite natural. However, right after the army I was more attracted to literature; I worked as a journalist and wrote novels, two of which were published. About a year later, while I was studying philosophy, I decided I didn’t want to live in Israel anymore.
LB Why not?
NL It’s hard for me to say. It wasn’t a precise state of consciousness. It’s not that I had a traumatic experience in the army. But at the age of twenty-two or twenty-three, after finishing my military service, I took a cab to the airport with my stuff and bought a ticket to Paris because from quite a young age I’d become a fan of French culture, French cinema, French Football, French whatever. I felt that I didn’t belong to my country, that it was only by accident that I was born in the Middle East and that actually I was European, and secondly that attaching my future to Israel would be a disaster. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to have inscribed on my grave, “Lived during the administration of this or that Prime Minister...” I wanted my life to revolve around the sky, trees, love, sex, human nature, and not whether or not to have a peace contract with the Palestinians, whether to give them Gaza, and so on. Israel is so isolated. I felt strangled by this place. So I left. Landing in Paris, not knowing anyone, with really mediocre French, was an adventurous step. But in order to improve my French I studied obsessively with a dictionary of synonyms. For each word I would learn ten synonyms. The idea was that, now I’m French and since my tool is language I must replace my Israeli identity with another identity. I avoided the company of any Israelis. And if I had to make trips to Israel for some bureaucratic reason, I would walk around the streets of Tel Aviv talking to myself in French to set myself apart. And yet, in the biggest cliché, I’ve never felt myself so Israeli as when I was in Paris. It was my most Israeli period.
LB Policeman is your first feature. Before that, you made shorts and you went to film school?
NL All of that. I studied at the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem. During my two years in Paris I was quite poor. I didn’t have much money. I lived in horrible apartments, worked in horrible jobs, and ate the worst food in my life.
LB (laughter) How can you eat bad food in Paris?
NL Well, I succeeded! But during this period I watched thousands of films. I shouldn’t sound so tragic, but I was quite lonely, walking in the streets talking to myself about questions of cinematic style, form. Being a bit isolated, with no Internet, I could easily imagine that the main concerns of humanity were sequence shots, or speed editing...
LB Master takes.
NL Yes, master takes, shot-reverse shot.
LB Did you like Bresson?
NL Bresson? Yes, very much. And I learned his commentaries by heart. While I was at Sam Spiegel I made two shorts, Border Patrol and Road—one went in Berlin, the other to Cannes—and a fifty-minute film, Emile’s Girlfriend, which also went to Cannes and was theatrically distributed in Paris in French. Then I developed the idea for a feature film during this residency at Cannes...
NL Exactly. In 2005, my short film at the Berlinale was about four Palestinian workers who kidnapped their Jewish employer. They put him on trial, blaming him for the crimes of the Occupation. On my day off, someone told me that near the Berlinale there was a marvelous gallery exhibit about Baader Meinhof and the aesthetic aspect of political terror. In a way, seeing that show was the genesis of Policeman.
LB Did your initial concept have both elements of the story, the elite counterterrorist unit and the young anarchist group?
NL Not exactly. In that gallery show the walls were full of posters and manifestoes written by members of Baader Meinhof and other political militants of the period. They were writing about injustice in German or Western society in the late ’60s-early ’70s, yet what struck me back then was that each word was a precise and accurate depiction of Israel in 2005. And yet, this phenomenon, this enormous white elephant in the room—social injustice, the income gap in Israeli society—it’s not mentioned at all, either in the Israeli media, or in cinema in fiction films. I tried to think why. And given my freedom as an artist/filmmaker, I decided to make a dramatic film in which someone would do something about this injustice, knowing that in the real world no one is doing anything about it. So this was the birth of the radical group in my film. At the beginning, they were the focus of the movie, not the policeman. But in developing the script, I realized that if you are kidnapping people, at a certain moment a policeman will show up to put a stop to everything. Then I would imagine this policeman eating breakfast, having dinner with his wife. Okay, so he’s married, or not married. What does his apartment look like? Then his beeper goes off...
LB So from the situation you went in depth into his character.
NL Exactly. I became fascinated with this policeman. In fact, for years I’ve found the concept of manhood, and in particular Israeli manhood, quite fascinating. Maybe I have some unfinished business in that area. What’s unique for Israel is that you cannot imagine an Israeli man without imagining him as a soldier.
LB A very macho concept.
NL Yeah. And Israeli manhood passes through the battlefield, wars, the patriotic feeling, and killing and dying in the name of the motherland. I mean, the political, the physical, and even the sexual merge in the clearest way.
LB But there’s another side to Yaron, this policeman, a very tender one.
NL During the last months of my military service I was stationed in a post on the frontier with Syria. There was a rising tension on the border. I was with an infantry brigade. While we were guarding together at night, the soldiers were telling me horrible and terrifying stories about what they did in the Palestinian territories. What made it even worse was that they didn’t see what they did as horrible and terrifying, for them it was business as usual. Each third weekend, we would go back to our homes on the Israeli mainland, sharing the same bus. Everyone would fall asleep from exhaustion. Then, I noticed that each soldier, one minute before his bus stop, would wake up as if by miracle, pass between all the other soldiers and hug them very tenderly, saying “Good-bye, fighters.” I found this to be moving and complex: these people are doing horrible things yet act with tenderness towards each other. I didn’t want to try to resolve this tension. Because the soldiers are tender with each other doesn’t make the terrible things they do better, and the fact that they do horrible things doesn’t invalidate this tenderness. I wanted to show both aspects on the screen.
LB The apparent contradiction.
NL Right, the apparent contradiction. I dedicated the first part of the movie to the leader of the antiterrorist unit, Yaron. Since he’s not a person of words and he doesn’t indulge in small talk, I tried to create a mise-en-scene with physical gesture which would convey both sides of his character through a series of rituals. I felt that the key to understanding this person is the endless repetition of rituals. The only way that a person like this, thirty-five years old, about to become a father, and a killer in the name of the state—who gives devoted massages to his wife, which makes the other wives jealous when they see this devotion, but who kills people at night—the only way he can handle it is by this endless repetition of rituals, where tenderness is one ritual and killing is another ritual. It’s a minimalist mise-en-scene because he knows the rules exactly. He’s so well-trained that everything in his life is clear cut.
LB Disciplined. At what point were you able to bring the two halves of the story together? At the beginning there’s no intimation of what’s to come.
NL The second group in the film is a group of bourgeois radicals. I was fascinated by the forever embarrassing, complicated, intimidating relationship between the almost-always-bourgeois radicals and the people in whose name they speak in order to redeem them. Well, it’s not clear that those people want redemption. The scene with the violinist in the film...
LB He’s on the street, playing a folk song—“Greensleeves”—out of tune.
NL Yes. For me this was an attempt to deal poetically with this forever-unresolved relationship. The only people who pay attention to the violinist are these two young radicals. At the same time, their way of trying to help him is by one of them taking the violin from him and playing better than he does.
LB Showing off his virtuoso technique. What a metaphor!
NL It’s a sad irony because their intentions are positive and yet they are condescending. Is it better to be condescending and at least try to help than to pass by, indifferent, like everyone else? But what will the violinist do after they leave? At least, since the radical had tuned his violin, from now on he’ll play in tune, which gives him a kind of tool.
LB In a way the violin tuning is a stand-in for giving him political awareness, which the radicals assume a street musician wouldn’t have.
NL Exactly. And perhaps to make others hear his voice. Also this radical group who physically are young, beautiful, blond—their best quality and their tragedy is that they are completely detached from the current Israeli context. Their heads are in another time and place, which is why they can doubt the biggest Israeli consensus, national unity against an external enemy; it’s why no one will listen to them.
LB Though what they say about income inequality in Israel is true.
NL While I was in film school I worked for three years as a wedding cameraman.
LB Like the Chinese director Zhang Yimou!
NL I assume in the United States a wedding is still important. In Israel it’s major. For me, there’s always this tension between the idea that it should be the happiest day of your life, and at the same time when, like me, you’ve filmed 500 weddings, what you see is the repetition of rituals. People feel that if they don’t adhere to the rituals down to the minutest detail, they’ll lose that possibility of extreme happiness and never regain it.
LB Like Jewish religion, right?
NL Exactly like Jewish religion in that you should stick to the rituals. So in Policeman, placing the kidnapping at the wedding of a billionaire’s daughter was a way to deal with nuptial rites but also with ritual in general. What unites all the parts of the film, the antiterrorist unit, the radicals, and the billionaires at the wedding—they’re all engaged in codes of behavior or rituals, trying to fill the frame with their ceremonious presence. It’s not clear that real values, the raison d’etre for the rituals, exist any more.
LB They’re going through the motions.
NL Rituals of brotherhood and friendship for the policemen; rituals of resistance and protest for the young radicals; rituals of love and family for the billionaire’s wedding. When they are organizing the photo shoot, they’re resting on two thousand years of Jewish history, a place for each Jewish heart, the tension of ancient Jerusalem. For the billionaire this is a postcard memento for the wedding of his daughter. It’s also an affirmation that not only do billionaires rule society, not only do they rule the economy and politics, they also rule your history, your religion, your values, your identity, and all of this will be expressed as an iconic representation of their wedding.
LB So no one has any freedom of choice any more. They just follow the book, right?
LB Except the artist.
NL Except the artist.
LB But perhaps as a filmmaker you have your rituals too?
NL Perhaps! Some. My mother—she’s also the editor of Policeman—tends to say that there are no survivors in Israel and that we are all contaminated by the same disease. For me the most important thing in the film—it’s in part a critique, of course, but condemning either policemen or radicals doesn’t interest me. I tried to create a rounded portrayal of their existence through the slightest nuance of expression or physical gesture, the way they move their bodies. Sometimes their actions are plain horrible. I tried to put on screen what exists in the Israeli soul.
Nadav Lapid is an Israeli novelist and film director. Policeman won the Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2011, and will receive wide release in the US this year.
Liza Béar is a writer and filmmaker, the author of Beyond the Frame: Dialogues with World Filmmakers (Praeger, 2007) and a contributing editor in film at BOMB. Her photography is currently on view in the group show Mating Society at The Lodge Gallery, New York.