It’s been a long time since a first feature has displayed such masterly direction as Nadav Lapid’s Policeman (Hashoter), such a sense of connection to the films of Godard, Bresson, Fassbinder, Kubrick, and Haneke, and giving those more perceptive viewers such a conviction of witnessing the arrival of an outstanding filmmaker while also discovering a major film as brilliant in formal terms as in its ideas. At a time when all the best new directors (Serra, Gomes, Alonso) are implicitly demonstrating a political dimension to their work through the very act fact of producing and filming in a different way—usually steering clear of the big issues and rejecting a frontal approach to historical, ideological, and social concerns—Lapid dares to make explicitly political films. One might say that as an Israeli, he has no choice in the matter. The impressive thing about Policeman, which won the Special Jury Prize in Locarno, is that it is both the best political film in ages (including and especially in Israel) and also one of the most stimulating cinematic propositions of recent years, resolving the form and content problem thanks to a stunning feat of dramaturgy while its powerful mise en scène expresses ideas that are just as radical.
Policeman did not simply emerge out of nowhere. Those who saw Lapid’s mid-length film Emile’s Girlfriend at Cannes Critics Week in 2006 knew they had discovered a filmmaker with a gift for brilliant writing, able to construct within a mere 48 minutes a sophisticated narrative combining humour, romance, and reflections on the Jewish question under the tripartite influence of Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and Woody Allen (e.g., the memorable sequence of the Shoah museum tour). Policeman has the same qualities of Emile’s Girlfriend, but in a much more serious register and with a tenfold growth in assurance that matches the gravity of the new project. If Policeman is the precocious outcome of Lapid’s artistic trajectory—he previously made short films and also wrote the novel on which the film is based—it is also part of the genealogy of modern cinema, a disparate yet coherent family that would include Mulholland Drive (2001), Tropical Malady (2004), and Certified Copy (2010), amongst others: all major works of contemporary cinema, drawing upon Psycho and L’avventura (two films at the matrix of modern cinema, both made in 1960), that make abrupt changes in the middle or record the mutation, dislocation, and crisis of classical narration. Policeman uses this syndrome of the “film cut in two” to dialectical effect, through its highly rigorous organization of a kind of folding that occurs shortly before the midpoint of the narrative and offers a second start, initially unpredictable and unexpected, but which in fact constitutes a symmetrical repetition of the first part in a new form.
The first 40 minutes of Policeman chart the life of a policeman and his colleagues who are members of an elite anti-terrorist squad, observing, with a touch of irony, these over-trained men devoted body and soul to the state of Israel, who function like a well-oiled human machine in their risk-free existence where everything is organized according to manly rituals. Lapid focuses on Yaron (Yiftach Klein, also the lead in Emile`s Girlfriend), a kind of prototype of the Jewish superman whose intense narcissism, total moral and physical investment in Israel and passionate devotion to his mother make him a fascinating film character. His wife is pregnant, and he performs a semi-naked courtship dance to express his strength and pride to her. Later, at a barbecue with his colleagues, he admires himself in the mirror as he holds a child in his arms, as if in aesthetic preparation for impending fatherhood, before going on to joust with his friends, the men’s grappling observed by their wives with loving, aroused attention (a realistic parody of Zionist machismo that recalls another film about the Jewish superman, the wonderful You Don’t Mess With the Zohan ). The cult of mental and physical strength and good health is expressed in this first section’s central narrative episode. One of the commandos, weak an emaciated after developing a brain tumour, slows down the group’s operations and compromises its goals of perfection and optimal performance. Since it is clear he will very soon be dead, his immediate superiors, and Yaron, ask him to take responsibility for the death of Palestinian civilians during an operation, to save his comrades from prosecution. The unhealthy body, like the foreign body (the Arab), must be neutralized, and if necessary eliminated, in order to preserve Israel’s unfailing power.
While this first section observes the daily existence of those who are the armed wing of state violence, a transitional sequence of a group of punks silently destroying a car shows anarchic violence in all its awful banality on the way to the film’s second part, which dramatizes a hypothesis of revolutionary violence in Israel. (In each case, the filmmaker only ever envisages his country in terms of violence.) Completely disconnected from the first part (until the final dénouement), this second movement has, however, a quite symmetrical relationship to it. The group of patriotic proletarian policemen is replaced by a group of hate-filled bourgeois youth, disgusted by Israeli society, who intend to denounce social injustice via a grand terrorist gesture. In the desert, after a bike ride, the policemen proclaim their unconditional love for Israel (“It’s the most beautiful country in the world!”), while the wannabe terrorists practice their marksmanship by shooting at an olive tree, discharging their weapons and their hatred onto a symbol of peace and justice. A young woman in the group, Shira (Yaara Pelzig), secretly in love with their leader Nathanael, stands out for her purity and fanaticism. Young, good-looking, rich, rebellious, they are like relatives of the characters in Le diable probablement (1977) and La chinoise (1967). But the symmetry is soon broken by the perturbation of fiction. State violence functions at full throttle, while revolutionary violence, which does not (yet?) exist in Israel, spirals downwards to end in failure and death. In the film’s final shot, Yaron silently observes the face of the dying Shira, shot down by his bullets. What is he thinking? For the first time, the enemy to be defeated is not an Arab but a Jew. Something has just broken down. Confused thoughts, complicated and contradictory, go through his mind. What if this beautiful woman lying on the ground was his own daughter, like the one his wife is just about to bring into the world?
In the end, what separates the two parts of the film is their relation to reality. What Lapid describes in his account of the policemen’s lives is of the order of documentary. What he invents in the second part is of the order of fantasy, a cry of anger against the government: science fiction that is in the process of becoming fiction. In the weeks following its first screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival (where it won three awards), the film took on a troublingly prophetic dimension in light of the wave of protests and demonstrations by young Israelis, who poured into the streets shouting the same slogans Shira uses at the end of the film: “Police, you are not our enemies. You too are the oppressed.” In Israel, this outstanding political film has thus become a standard-bearer for youth who are angry with a government they loathe. Elsewhere in the world, Policeman may well also impress for more than the chilling perfection of its mise en scène.