A World Without Ashkenazim

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October 19, 2009

Since its release in 1982, Jacob Goldwasser’s first feature, Under The Nose (Mitahat La’af) has acquired cult status in Israel, setting the cinematic standard for portraying domestic social problems for many years to come. To mark its 25th anniversary in 2007, Under The Nose was released on DVD. A script book was also recently published which included an interview with the director and the scriptwriter, three essays, and a short story inspired by the film — a rare event for a cultural scene in which the study of film is sparse.

Under The Nose is based on an incident that made headlines in Israel in 1976. In what was initially reported as a daring and sophisticated crime, burglars penetrated Jaffa’s police headquarters and removed a safe containing 3 million Lira (the name of Israel’s currency until 1977). The capture of the burglars revealed them to be small time criminals, who clumsily carried out the burglary, and whose success was traced to their luck, and, mainly, to the ineptitude of Jaffa’s police to prevent such an event from taking place in their very own HQ.

Goldwasser and his scriptwriter, Haim Merin, turn the story into a parable about the margins of Israeli society. Sammy and Herzl, the two main characters, who are played by Uri Gavriel and Moshe Ivgy respectively are small time criminals, who in the Israel of the late 1970s and early 1980s (as well as today), would be triply marginalized: Mizrachi in a world where Ashkenazi Jews rule; poor in a society that is taking quick strides to dismantle its public sector and adopt American-style capitalism; and obscure players in a milieu where prestige—built on competence and dare—counts for everything.

Sammy and Herzl dream of the big strike that would deliver them from their marginalized positions, make their reputation, secure their financial needs, and provide them with the means of starting a new life in Amsterdam. When Sami reads a story in the newspaper about a safe full of foreign cash that is located at Jaffa’s police headquarters, he turns to Janna, his childhood hero, known in his prime as the “Climbing Cat,” played by the one time actor Zadok Zarum. His enthusiasm pulls Janna out of retirement, and together they plan the crime.

However, the solidarity of the group begins to disintegrate when Jacob Haguel, played by the late Jucky Arkin—Herzl’s brother in law (Janna’s former partner, now a used car dealer) who plays cards regularly and always loses—forces himself on the three. The gang pulls off the burglary, despite the fact that Sammy gets completely drunk on the eve of the event, and Jacob gets nervous and leaves the crime scene without the group’s getaway car, without waiting for his friends.

Detective Ben-Shushan, played by the Israeli-Palestinian actor Makram Khoury, is given the task of solving the crime. Ben-Shushan believes that the burglary was committed by local people, rather than by an international gang as Police Chief Superintendent Hason would have it. The names of all of the characters involved are markedly Mizrachi. The conflict in the movie is, therefore, not one between the Mizrachi underclass and the Ashkenazi establishment and upper class, as Israeli films (to the present) are wont to depict it, but an internal Mizrachi affair. This is the case, even if some of the Mizrachi characters clearly serve Israel’s Ashkenazi-dominated establishment, as the huge portrait of David Ben Gurion hanging at Chief Superintendent Hason’s office indicates.

Under The Nose’s portrayal of Mizrachim served as an important precursor to Benny Toraty’s 2001 film Desperado Square (Kikar Ha-Halomot), which likewise presents a world without Ashkenazim. Both films dismiss the traditional portrayal of Mizrachi-Ashkenazi class conflict in order to focus on the internal mechanisms of the Mizrachi dream of transcending their underclass status in Israeli society. Toraty’s film takes place in a poor neighborhood, inhabited exclusively by Mizrachim. The film tells of brothers Nissim and George’s struggle to reopen their father’s cinema and to screen once more the Indian films that once captivated their neighbors. Toraty’s film suggests that movies, specifically the communal experience of watching films, offers not only refuge from one’s daily miseries, but also transform their viewers’ lives. Desperado Square is a paean to cinema and its emancipatory power. Goldwasser’s characters, on the other hand, struggle to realize themselves within the very real strictures imposed upon them by Israeli society and by their own psychology. Crime is the central component of their fantasy of breaking away from these constraints. The characters’ failure to transcend their situation, however, is of their own doing.

When the four burglars assemble to crack the safe and divide the loot, Sammy refuses to hand Haguel his share; he now imagines himself a bigshot, and pays no heed to Janna’s pleas and forewarning that this would endanger all of them. Unbeknownst to his lifelong friend Herzl, he plans to leave Israel for Amsterdam with his girlfriend. When he does not show up to a reconciliation meeting arranged by Janna, Herzl goes looking for him. When Herzl finds him and realizes that Sammy is on his way to the airport, he stabs him, just as police officers, who have been informed by Haguel and were following him, arrest them both.

As well as its social insights, Under The Nose is a commentary on the relevance of the Israeli cinematic models that had preceded it. Specifically, the film critiques the Bourekas social comedies popular in Israel in the 1970s and early 1980s (such as Boaz Davidson’s 1974 film Charlie and a Half and Menachem Golan’s Kazablan, that came out the same year). These comedies relied on stock characters and lowbrow humor, often ending with a wedding that marked the resolution of conflict and a new beginning. Goldwasser’s film not only diverges from the Bourekas stereotypes, but also demystifies the artificiality of social reconciliation in Israel that these comedies consistently presented. Under The Nose offers no such reconciliation, neither between Mizrachim and the establishment, nor between the characters in the story.

Goldwasser has also pointed out that Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film Mean Street has influenced him greatly. Sammy and Herzl could thus be seen as a local version of Charlie and Johnny Boy and their struggle to climb up the mafia ladder. Yet, while self-sacrifice is central to Scorsese’s film (Charlie sacrifices himself on behalf of Johnny Boy), Goldwasser’s characters are incapable of such an act, and it is their inability to see beyond their own inflated egos that leads to their downfall.

Under The Nose also bears reference to European crime comedies such as Mario Monicelli’s 1958 Big Deal on Madonna Street, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman. A farce about a group of incompetent ne’er-do-wells who plan to burglarize a state-run pawn-shop through an adjacent apartment and find themselves, after many hours in the kitchen of that very same apartment, Big Deal likewise sets its characters head over shoulder in a situation well beyond their meager abilities. In Under The Nose, on the other hand, the crime is indeed comic, but not its consequences. Following the theft, the film turns into a Greek tragedy, in which doom is traced to flaws of character. Yet, this drama is quite frustrating, precisely because of its hopeless conclusion.

What these three films share is their use of the fabled “crime scene” to explore the way that their characters conceive of their masculinity, and how their self-image as men shapes their relationship with women. In Under The Nose, the predominant female character in the film is the safe (the noun for ‘safe’ is feminine in Hebrew). Cracking it is portrayed as a rape scene. Flesh and blood women characters, on the other hand, are under-developed and this is arguably the weakest aspect of the film. Still, it is Sammy’s girlfriend who, in the end, succeeds where all the male characters have failed. Witnessing Sammy and Herzl’s arrest, she proceeds to the airport with Sammy’s share of the burglary and makes it to Amsterdam. While men are ‘captured’ by their social and personal limitations, the film ultimately suggests that the hope for liberation should be pinned on women.

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