Search This Blog

Monday 9 October 2017

Pigumim (Scaffolding), Film, Israel/Poland (2017), written and directed by Matan Yaïr, 7.5* out of 10

The strengths of this award-winning Israeli film are the screenplay and the acting performances. The difficult and complex father-son relationship is poignant. The acting performances by Asher Lax as the irascible youth and Ya’acov Cohen as his hard-as-nails father stand out.

At the age of 19, Asher Lax (Asher Lax) is in his last year of high school. He is in a class for youths with behavioural problems and needs to pass his history and literature tests to leave school with at least a minimum of qualifications. Asher’s parents are divorced and he lives and works with his domineering father Milo (Ya’acov Cohen).  Milo owns a small company in the building trade. He is an ex-convict who sees life as a struggle for survival through hard physical work and a constant vigilance against others one cannot trust. His “jokes” are reflect his disappointment with his failed marriage. Milo seems as cold as ice and doing what he must do to survive and trying to inculcate his philosophy into his only son. Asher is accepting and even submissive towards his tough and sometimes violent father, who makes no secret that he sees no value in formal education and qualifications. At school, Asher is prone to disruptive behaviour and violent outbursts. When Rami (Ami Smolartchik) a dedicated, frustrated and sensitive man – in everything the opposite of Asher’s father - begins to teach Asher’s class in history and literature, he manages to make a connection to Asher and the other difficult youths. But then Asher comes under additional pressure, when his father goes to hospital for cardiac surgery and leaves him in charge of the business. Things take a dramatic turn that will test Asher to breaking point.

The strengths of this award-winning Israeli film are the screenplay and the acting performances. The difficult and complex father-son relationship is poignant. The acting performances by Asher Lax and Ya’acov Cohen as his hard-as-nails father stand out. The drama which could have easily taken the path of redemption by the “right” kind of teacher is grittier and more challenging than that. These strengths outweigh the weaknesses in the film’s cinematography. 

This is writer director Matan Yaïr’s first feature film. He wrote and produced during his sabbatical year in his teaching job. Asher Laks was one of his students in real-life and together with seeing the young Robert de Niro in films like Taxi Driver, inspired Matan to write his screen-play. He approached Laks to see whether he could play a character like his real-life self on screen. So, the story of the making of Scaffolding would yield a good screen-play, too. Matan Yaïr has now returned to teaching and one can only wish that making this thoughtful and thought-provoking film has helped him to build up the resilience he needs to live with the frustrations and challenges of his day-job.

Film-making is a truly international business these days. The Polish producers who recognized the universality of the themes of this film and were not deterred by its being clearly situated in Israeli society and its education system are to be congratulated for their courage. The positive reception of “Scaffolding” at the Toronto and Zurich Film Festivals is their just reward. "Scaffolding" can be seen in London in November at the 2017 UK Jewish Film Festival.

Asher (right) and his teacher Rami

Tuesday 3 October 2017

Die Hauptstadt (Capital City), by Robert Menasse, 9* out of 10

With Die Hauptstadt, a novel about Brussels as the political and urban centre of the European Union, the award winning Viennese novelist Robert Menasse has written a melancholic, ironic, witty and suspenseful novel with Brussels and the European Commission at its centre. 

Is there such a thing as identity? If so, does it have a geographic-political dimension, tying a person to a region, a nation, a cultural space? Do you have to be European to ask yourself these questions towards the end of the 2nd decade of the 21st century?

These thoughts came to my mind on reading the Viennese writer Robert Menasse’s long awaited novel Die Hauptstadt (Capital City). Long awaited, because his previous novel, Don Juan de la Mancha was published more than 10 years ago. Unfortunately, it has never been translated into English (only Spanish, Russian, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Bulgarian and Greek).  Long awaited also, because Menasse’s initial stay in Brussels and visit to the European Commission to research his new novel led to a much-noted essay published in 2012, in which the rather ironic and self-critical novelist showed himself as a passionate supporter of the European idea as conceived by its founding fathers, in particular, Jean Monnet and Walter Hallstein. Menasse also singled out the international civil servants working in Brussels for considerable praise, describing them as highly competent and intelligent and committed to the European idea. He identified and criticised the culprit for the lack of progress towards ever closer union in Europe as governments who put their nation’s perceived narrow interest ahead of that of Europe as a whole; the demon bedevilling Europe was Nationalism, the only real remedy, according to the activist pro-European Menasse was the abolition of the European nation-states resulting in a United States of Europe consisting of European regions rather than European nation states as its components. My thoughts on Menasse's activist Essay, Der Europäische Landbote (The European Courier), can be found by clicking here.  

With Die Hauptstadt, a novel about Brussels as the current political and urban centre of Europe, the melancholic, ironic and witty novelist is back. Whatever one’s attitude to the European Union one can read this novel, be intelligently entertained and interpret it to support one’s point of view.

The protagonists of this satirical drama include an ageing Holocaust survivor from Brussels and a lobbying representative of the EPP. No, that is not Europeans People’s Party but its acronymic twin and nemesis, the European Pig Producers. Then there is the professor from Austria, with a father supportive of the Nazis in the 1940s, who has been invited to a meeting of a European think-tank. This turns out to be a highly predictable junket, for re-chewing stale European Union pragmatism instead of looking for bold new ideas. Then there is a whole menagerie of international civil servants working for the European Commission, whose national identities turn out to have multiple facets. They arrive to their work on their bicycles, financially incentivised by their employer to demonstrate ecological conscience and a healthier life style. Some work in the Directorate General (DG) for Culture, others in the DG for Trade and the DG for Agriculture. Into this mix comes a Polish assassin,  a Belgian police inspector and a peripatetic pig being sighted in Brussels at different times and places. 

Out of all these characters and their interwoven lives, Menasse threads a satirical, dramatic and suspenseful novel. The organisational politics of the European Union and the personal and professional aspirations of its civil servants are seen in the alternating light emanating from Europe’s terrible 20th century history, her turbulent present and her uncertain future.

Book reviewers in German speaking/reading Europe see Die Hauptstadt as the first literary attempt at a novel of the European Union. In both Austria, Germany and Switzerland the novel has been rather well received. It has been put on the long-list for the most prestigious literary prizes in Germany and Austria (the equivalents of the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom).  

With Brexit, the outcome of recent elections in France and Germany, President Macron’s ambitious plans for the Eurozone and bullish Catalonian regionalism it is for German readers an excellent literary accompaniment to the music of time. I warmly recommend it. The rights for UK and the Commonwealth  have been acquired by MacLehose Press, so the wait for the English Translation will hopefully not be long.

Editorial Note:I amended the original article on 9 November 2017, after Robert Menasse mentioned to me that the English translation he had chosen for the title of his novel was Capital City rather than the more ambiguous The Capital which I had originally used.