Carpool with Nadav Lapid: A Conversation about Politics, History and Poetry

CineCina: Regarding the character of Yoav (the leading role in Synonyms), the kid in The Kindergarten Teacher is also named Yoav. Are you trying to make a connection between the two films?

Lapid: Let’s say it’s the same person. One can tell that the kid from The Kindergarten Teacher grew old, stopped writing poetry, finished high school, went to the army, and this is what followed. But I guess it’s the characters that have the same sensitivities in different ages and different circumstances. And if you think about this, for instance, the decision of Yoav in Synonyms to stop talking in Hebrew is very dramatic because he was born with words and now he forbids himself from using these words. So maybe at the age of 5 he gave up poetry, at the age of 22 he gave up language. Also I think both films express this state of mind of people who fight a bitter war, a crusade, against something that most of the surrounding will say is normality. Being a citizen of the word… existing in the world means that they are part of this normality — at the bottom of the problem is this abnormality. So this war against normality puts them in a war against themselves. You would say they have the same sicknesses they’re trying to heal.

CineCina: You use the word “crusade”. There are many confrontational scenes in the film, such as Yaron with subway passengers and Yoav with orchestra members. Why do you set up these scenes?

Lapid: I think that in both scenes, the main characters (and us the spectators) would feel that the confrontation is kind of an obligation in order to reveal the true nature of the people whom you confront. It’s as if Yaron is convinced that deep inside everything is the same, that Europe is still anti-Semitic, the French as well; behind the talk about universal values and republican ideas lies a deep, simple hate for the Jews and he is going to reveal it by provoking them. And Yoav in a way arrives at a similar conclusion. He is not only preoccupied with anti-Semitism but with a deep insincerity…

CineCina: Hypocrisy?

Lapid: Yeah, dishonesty inside this culture. Accidentally he (Yoav) uses the same terms and logic that he just heard in this class of values but deconstructs them. In this class, it’s the French who judge the foreigners, the French who give foreigners grades according to his proximity to the French themselves: the more French you are…the more you deny your previous identity, or ideas in order to become French, the better you are. In a way, (in the final scene) it’s the foreigner who makes the quiz to the French in a subversive way in order to detach them from this position of objective justice or universal values.

But in both cases of confrontation you can feel something desperate. It’s kind of calculated action, almost like a conceptual artist who is doing an installation in order to reveal something. But in both cases, it’s also a shout of despair from the person who is doing the provocation. Yaron in a way is lost in his madness. He is someone who was raised on the idea that it is either us or them: all of them are not us because they hate us or they want to kill us…in a very dichotomic universe. He can no longer bear the fact that all of this doesn’t happen. He would have been relieved if he would have discovered Europe of demons and dragons, but the fact that there are no demons or dragons is knocking him down, totally decomposing all the things he believed in. He knows easily what do if three guys shout “Hail Hitler” and try to hit him, but he doesn’t know what to do facing this normality. He’s afraid of this European normality. For Yoav, it’s a shout of despair because in Israel he was a big believer in normality.

CineCina: Also, it’s interesting that from the very beginning you show that Yoav has nothing left. He is stripped naked. It’s also quite symbolic. He’s reborn.

Lapid: He is reborn, like babies are born—naked in the water without anything. In a way, he is someone who is totally fulfilling his fantasy, if his fantasy is to die symbolically as an Israeli and be reborn as French and not only that but reborn in the bed of the Frenchiest couple possible, a couple who comes out of a French film. It’s like this quotation from Oscar Wilde, the only thing that is more disappointing than not fulfilling your dreams is fulfilling them. (here Lapid is probably paraphrasing this line from Lady Windermere’s Fan, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it”) Ten minutes into the movie he arrives exactly where he wanted to be; this is his top moment, the moment he opens his eyes and asks, “Is this death?”

CineCina: When the couple is taking him out of the bathtub, it looks like the Deposition of Christ. Then Émile says, “circumcised,” and covers him with a towel.

Lapid: It’s for Chinese censorship (laughs).

CineCina: Can we read any symbolic meanings into it?

Lapid: Yeah. It reminded me of this Renaissance painting I once saw in a religious school in Israel and they covered the nudity. I find it interesting that Émile is covering his nudity. They educate him and try to make him part of this society; they don’t know what to do with his nudity. At the same time, he says, “circumcised,” so even when he is dead he is recognized as a Jew.

CineCina: Speaking of the couple. Louise Chevillotte was in Philippe Garrel’s Lover for a Day. Did you pick her because of that film?

Lapid: I picked them because I saw them in these movies and I thought they were great. I think that the film has an interesting relationship with French cinema and an ambivalent one. It’s quoting French cinema and at the same time defying French cinema, its nouvelle vague tradition, contemporary French cinema, the defined way of shooting Paris. From time to time, you can see this double process, applauding and slapping at the same time. I think that there’s something symbolic in taking these two younger actors — one was playing in the film of the last hero of the nouvelle vague (Philippe Garrel), the other in the film of the most French contemporary film director (Arnaud Desplechin) — to use them in a different mathematics, a different cinema, a different mis en scene…

CineCina: Similar to how Yoav is using the French language…

Lapid: Exactly. By adopting it, he is also changing it. It’s similar also to what Yoav wants. On the one hand, he dreams to be the most common French person, the most normal French, the most Frenchy French. On the other hand, he dreams to be one apart, which is the foreigner who comes to France and becomes the emperor of France to change the French code or change the French system. In the last scene when he shouts in the corridor, “French people, I came to save you, the republic is sinking.” He has this fantasy, this madness, not to change France but to put it back to where it’s supposed to be. In a way, when he shouts the “Marseilles”, the “Marseilles” in his mouth becomes again a revolutionary song; it’s not a blasé thing that you sing without knowing the words. Suddenly he is like Rouget de Lisle and the song has meaning again: it’s again the soldiers of the revolution fighting, with all its radicalism, cruelty, readiness to kill and to be killed, exactly like when he is telling this guy in the orchestra, “Come on, fight for your music.”

CineCina: On the other hand, Émile is using the Israeli stories, just like the kindergarten teacher who is using Yoav’s poetry…

Lapid: When we do the production with France, you always get the feeling that they envy your story. It’s this complex relationship between cultures that have everything but real urgency or drama and cultures that have nothing but their own injuries… In a way, Émile is a bit like the kindergarten teacher who knows everything about poetry but doesn’t have the words.

CineCina: He wants to be Victor Hugo.

Lapid: Exactly. But he doesn’t know the Misérables. His biggest misérable is Jean Valjean (Yoav).

CineCina: I have a question about cinematography in Synonyms. In the beginning you’ve already contrasted two kinds of camerawork. The first scene is very fast and kind of point-of-view and then when Yoav enters the apartment it is static. Is that also a comment on French cinema?

Lapid: In the film there’s all the time this conflict between the vibrating and the steady and fixed. Vibration contains inner movement, inner tempest; it might contain a lot of emotions including sadness and suffering, but at least it contains a chance for change. While these fixed shots they are like…you get born and you die in this Haussmannian huge apartment. From this point of view, it’s not accidental that the film ends with a fixed shot. But in the beginning Yoav is going in and out of the frame as if he is trying to get out. From the beginning there is the question of who will win in this conflict between two methods, this vibrating vision, vibrating person, vibrating presence or this fixed one. Even when he’s naked, he’s running inside spaces where people don’t run; and when he is running and falling and getting up, it’s as if he’s invading this steady space with his dynamic trembling presence.

CineCina: I have another question regarding the character of Yaron. The story of Hector is key to their friendship. It’s also a story that Yoav loves from his childhood. Later there is a scene where Yaron is dragged just like Hector.

Lapid: For me, it’s like unhistorical history. It’s a very Israeli thing and maybe also contemporary that history is not a history: everything is unhistorical, the Bible, the myth, the Holocaust. Everything is actually here around the corner. If you turn your head, you’ll see David the King from the Bible sitting in a bar and drinking a beer with Jesus. Hector dragged dead and naked on the road is not a historical fact — it’s a present one. Also, I always told myself before doing this, to do a historic movie I’d do it in a totally unhistorical way. This is also the power (and weakness) of cinema: cinema is much better with the present than with the past and the future. For better or worse, you must condense everything to this actual moment.

CineCina: How do you approach humor in this film?

Lapid: I think the way humor occurs in all my films is that you find the scene funny but you don’t know if this is the intention of the director. You say, “Haha, it’s a joke,” and then you look at the film and say, “No, but it’s serious.” This is something that really expresses my feeling in a lot of moments in life. When I hear someone saying something and think that his guy has such a great sense of humor, then I look at him and he’s completely serious and you don’t know anymore. It is humor as a kind of disorientation.

CineCina: I see that Maren Ade is one of the producers and Toni Erdmann also has this seriousness with humor.

Lapid: The serious comments are funnier than the jokes in a way. Also, the camera doesn’t understand the jokes, the camera is stupid. In the scene when they’re fighting on the table, it’s shot in a very severe, strict, and normal way; the camera doesn’t understand what’s going on. You want to say, “It’s so funny, give me a close-up of the guy while he’s fighting the other guy,” but the way it’s shot…it’s like a normal day in the office.

CineCina: In The Kindergarten Teacher, the camera is placed at the level of the children mostly.

Lapid: In general, since the film talks a lot about being situated in a kindergarten and about childhood, there was a moment I felt childhood cannot only be a scenaristic element, but should be an essence on the screen. It touches the way the film deals with the gestures and movements of the kids. There is no use trying to transform the kids into small adults, because first of all it won’t work. And second, what’s the use of doing a film about kids if you turn them into unsuccessful adults? At the same time, I didn’t want to turn my camera to a childish point of view because I’m not a child. In the film you can feel sometime this tension — the camera is following one logic and the kids are following a different logic. The result is a mixture of these two different strategies. There is a tension between the filmic object and the filmed.

CineCina: You often include poetry in your films; in Synonyms, you use the synonyms themselves as poetry. How do you see poetry and cinema?

Lapid: Let’s say it’s clear that there are a lot of cliches which are connected to poetry and cinema. For me, there is something connected to poetry when there is all the time the tension between the high and the low. One of the craziest thing about poetry is that when you take the normal words that each one of us is using but in a different order, suddenly they become a poem. But it’s still the same words that you use in the supermarket. This is what turns poetry to the huge artistic domain; it turns poetry on the one hand sublime and on the other it’s almost like a cling for charlatans. When I see a painting or hear Bach, they use materials that I don’t have access to, so I can just listen. But the poet (i.e. Paul Celan, Rilke, Lorca) uses exactly the same words that I use everyday, so I can say, “What’s the big deal?” You use exactly the same thing but in different contexts. So this mixture between the sublime and the banal or the high and the low or even the very delicate and the vulgar, this is for me what contains poetry and what characterizes poetic film, or film that has a poetic aspect. It has the tension: this is an artistic thing and this is the most unartistic thing, I mean sky and sidewalks.

CineCina: Why did you pick synonyms as the entry point for the film? Did you put them in a particular order?

Lapid: I put them in the order that sounds right. From an autobiographical point of view, when I was trying to study French and build up my vocabulary, so my strategy was, for each word, to study all the synonyms. But then I had to train myself, or otherwise I would forget. Each time I said one word, I said all the following synonyms. Each conversation would last for hours.

CineCina: In a way, it’s also like slam poetry.

Lapid: I would love my films to resemble rap music. There’s something I like in rap: to simplify it, it’s so complicated to make music with all this orchestra and tools, but with rap you throw them away and go to the most frontal thing. It’s like a Lumière Brothers movie, person, camera… Everything is naked and spontaneous; it goes back to the essence. But of course, it’s also not so naked because…Snoop Dogg doesn’t sound like Cypress Hill, so suddenly the color of the voice transforms the words to something else. For me, rap music is a kind of model.

Filmography of Nadav Lapid

2019 Synonyms

2016 The Diary of a Wedding Photographer (short)

2014 The Kindergarten Teacher

2011 Policeman

2006 Ha-Chavera Shell Émile (short)

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