The Motive for Metaphor: The Cinema of Nadav Lapid

The Israeli director's abrasive films push beyond politics into the paradoxical relationship between us and the surrounding world.
Lawrence Garcia

Aheds Knee

Ahed's Knee (2021)

In Nadav Lapid’s latest feature, Ahed’s Knee (2021), an Israeli director named Y (Avshalom Pollak) finds himself in the Arava Valley, an arid region south of the Dead Sea. He is there to present one of his films at the invitation of Yahalom (Nur Fibak), a longtime admirer of his work and the Ministry of Culture’s Deputy Director of the Division of Public Libraries. The two go for a walk during the screening; Yahalom later steps away to fetch an official Ministry form that Y has to fill out, wherein he is to specify the topic of the film and the post-screening Q&A. When she returns, he will surreptitiously record her making incriminating statements about not just the form, but the Ministry as a whole. For the moment, however, he pauses to take in the sunset and call his mother, leaving her a voicemail about the heaps of bell peppers that he’d seen rotting in the sun earlier that day. “Just think,” he says, “rotting bell peppers. A metaphor for this country.”

This line alone points to a few notable features of Lapid’s cinema. The first is the significance of his mother, Era, a film editor with whom he’d collaborated up until her death in 2018. The second is an overt anti-establishment bent, exemplified by Y’s description of what his own film is about (“the abject dumbing-down of this country”), and here directed against a censorious Ministry of Culture that only nominally supports art. The third is what one could call the problem of metaphor. The title of Ahed’s Knee refers to Y’s current project, based on Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian girl who in 2017 was filmed slapping a couple of Israeli soldiers, which led Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right politician, to suggest that she be shot in the knee. From its very title, then, Ahed’s Knee seems to raise two complementary questions about metaphor (conventionally a statement of identity of the “A is B” type). On the one hand, the film asks how an image may not just stand in for, but be wholly identified with something else. On the other, it asks how a filmmaker such as Lapid, with his social background and level of cultural visibility, can make a movie like Ahed’s Knee and have it not be identified with, say, the entire Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Leaving these questions aside for a moment, it is clear that Lapid has from the outset displayed a consistent fascination with language—often poetic language. His first feature, Policeman (2011), splits its attention between two opposed groups: an elite force of hyper-masculine fighter-policemen; and a sparse contingent of Jewish anarchists, nominally led by Nathanael (Michael Aloni), but really driven by Shira (Yaara Pelzig). Each side displays its own peculiar jargon and group-think, and the two eventually clash at a billionaire’s wedding in Tel Aviv. But Shira, at least, offers a glimpse of something other than political rhetoric. She is responsible for writing her group’s manifesto, but when she reads out a draft she is told, “It’s still too sublime. Revolution is not poetry, it’s prose.” In this pointed line, we find the tensions—between poetic and rhetorical language, and responses to each—that run through not just Policeman, but Lapid’s entire oeuvre.

The Kindergarten Teacher (2014) transposes these tensions to a less volatile context, following Nira (Sarit Larry), a preschool teacher who takes an increasingly obsessive interest in Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), a five-year-old with an apparently preternatural gift for poetry. But even more than this intriguing story—which was judged as appealing enough to be transposed to Staten Island for an English-language remake—the film is notable for its myriad stylistic ruptures. The Kindergarten Teacher features numerous sequences that foreground our awareness of the camera: a shot that follows Yoav and a friend circling through a playground structure three times, in a kind of ritualistic repetition; a sequence of children greeting Nira in the morning, one of them pausing to gaze directly into the camera. This might simply be taken as the modernist convention of breaking the fourth wall, but Lapid arguably goes even further at the film’s start, when Nira’s husband turns around and bumps into the camera—twice. It is fairly typical to speak of the “intelligence” of a director’s camera, and here we are indeed made to consider its assumed omniscience. But it is less common to think of that intelligence as within a character’s reach.

Such stylistic ruptures are in any case characteristic of Lapid’s cinema. They contribute to the heightened discontinuity of his narratives, exemplified by his 2019 Golden Bear winner, Synonyms. Based on the director’s own experience of moving to Paris after his military service, it is a movie in constant, careening motion, following an Israeli expatriate named Yoav (Tom Mercier) during his time in the City of Lights. As its title might suggest, Synonyms does not present a causal narrative so much as variations on a theme: Rather than trace a progressive journey in space, it practically restarts with each new scene, as if presenting the same setting from a variety of different moods and perspectives. At the end of Synonyms, Yoav finds himself right back where he started, and we are finally led to ask not about how the film’s images are connected, but about what we are even seeing. It is this latter question that is central to Lapid’s disjunctive style, as well as to the problem of metaphor we started with.

Again, the metaphor is a statement of identity that takes the form “A is B.” Short of including on-screen text, cinema has no direct way of establishing such connections, a “limitation” that’s typically been surmounted via montage. Consider the famous bone-to-spaceship transition in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or any number of match cuts that depend, by definition, on visual or thematic resonances between images. The work of Sergei Eisenstein, whom Lapid admires, and whom Y mentions to Yahalom in Ahed’s Knee, is exemplary in this regard. One might recall the sequence in Strike (1925) where a shot of a factory boss, presented upside down, is followed by a pair of chimney stacks reaching into the clouds.

What separates Lapid from someone like Eisenstein is their differing methods of creating cinematic metaphor. In Eisenstein’s films, metaphor is created by drawing thematic and visual linkages between images, unifying them in a dialectical conception of history that he pictures as a kind of great spiral. In Lapid’s films, by contrast, there is no analogous construction, spiral or otherwise. His images are not linked by movement and action (as in Eisenstein), but unlinked by the formal fissures that proliferate throughout his films, which allows for a different kind of metaphorical identification. Whereas Eisenstein’s conception requires that every image assume a fixed location in space, a unique point on the spiral, the very discontinuity of Lapid’s montage means that multiple images can coexist in an indeterminate “here.” Thus, in his films, metaphor no longer depends on establishing external links between images (How are they connected?), but on identifying what is there (What am I seeing?). This is also why cuts and transitions—for instance the blank white screen at the center of Policeman, really a shot of the sun—take on such vigor and force in Lapid’s work. No longer restricted by conventional causality, his images become unified by the projections of the mind.

This aspect of Lapid’s filmmaking exemplifies what poets such as Wallace Stevens have termed “the motive for metaphor”: that desire to associate, and finally to identify the human mind with what goes on outside it. Thus understood, it comes as no surprise that Lapid’s films converge on scenes where music and dance dominate, for they are those moments, so rare in life, when the separation between the characters and the world of the film melts away. Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher, and Synonyms all have sequences where their protagonists lose themselves in movement, while Ahed’s Knee features no less than five quasi–music video interludes, with a soundtrack that includes Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” and “Imperia,” by the Israeli hip-hop group Shabak Samech. Before heading to the film screening, Y puts on a pair of headphones and takes a walk in the desert, dancing to Vanessa Paradis’ “Be My Baby” as the frame sweeps and spins around in every direction. The camera clearly exists “outside” him, but it is also, in another sense, identified with him. The scene is, in a word, ecstatic, conveying the feeling, as literary critic Northrop Frye so elegantly puts it, that although we may only ever know in part, we are also a part of what we know.

It is in such ecstatic passages that we may understand Lapid’s repeated claim that his films are not political or ideological but “existential.” For such moments go far beyond the realm of politics and ideology, and are more indicative of the level on which Lapid’s films communicate. After all, to take Y (or Lapid) as forwarding a particular “position” would be to take his films as political rhetoric, thereby performing the same operation as Israel’s Ministry of Culture: The only difference is that what one takes the film to be is not on the state-approved form. To take Lapid’s work as existential entails a different sort of response. For one thing, it means abandoning the search for some historical fact or real-world referent that would give the film its “real” meaning. For another, it means accepting the paradoxical sense of identity that we’ve been calling metaphorical. It means accepting that Ahed’s Knee, despite its setting and subject, both is and is not “about” the Israeli–Palestinian conflict; and that despite the film’s overtly autobiographical bent, Lapid both is and is not Y.

Y pushes Yahalom to just this sort of acceptance when he tells her a story from his military service, about new recruits forced to take (fake) cyanide pills in a simulated training scenario, in order to prove their loyalty to the state. In relating the narrative, he assigns himself one role; not believing him, Yahalom puts forward another possibility, while Y suggests still a third. But all these answers are wrong because they are answers, and cannot convey the motive for metaphor that is at the core of not just this story, but Lapid’s entire body of work. To insist on any answer would be to restrict Y’s parable to the limits of ideology. But in its telling, Y makes clear that he, like so many of Lapid’s characters, is concerned with those dimensions of experience that only the language of myth and metaphor can convey.

Policeman’s Shira, The Kindergarten Teacher’s Nira, Synonyms’ Yoav, Ahed’s Knee’s Y: all are rather quixotic figures, possessed of an intensely metaphorical cast of mind that so often proves alienating in everyday life. But the films follow their specifications, and not those of more sensible people. True, they are not immune to the pull of political rhetoric, and they each attempt to fanatically identify their lives with their ideals, invariably learning how difficult it is to really change anything. And when they are finally faced with death, imprisonment, or exile, we may be reminded of what Y says to the audience before his screening, that “At the end, geography wins.” But in accepting this, we also accept something deeper: that the will to identify one’s mind with the surrounding geography, no matter the cost, is perhaps the most human thing there is. It is not without its dangers, and can easily be misdirected; but still, it is there, and to deny it would be to deny a part of ourselves. Or, as Marshall McLuhan famously put it: “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a metaphor?”

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