'The Kindergarten Teacher' Redefines Israeli Culture

Director Nadav Lapid protests against the practical consciousness, primarily American in character, that dominates Israeli society.

Yair Assulin
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'The Kindergarten Teacher.'
'The Kindergarten Teacher.'Credit: Itiel Zion
Yair Assulin

1. At the center of Nadav Lapid’s new film, “Haganenet” (“The Kindergarten Teacher”), lies the question: What is the place of culture, of poetry, in Israeli society? Or, perhaps more accurately: What is the relationship between poetry, as an extreme representation of “culture,” and life itself?

The film is primarily an allegory. It’s about a woman, a kindergarten teacher, who writes boring poetry, and plods through life day after day as if her head is underwater, until she discovers that in her kindergarten there’s a boy who makes up poems. The boy, as though in a trance, suddenly begins to walk back and forth, while almost shouting out the words of a poem.

The “trance” part is crucial: The poetry ostensibly comes from a different place. In a certain sense, it’s an antithesis to life itself, to the race, to what’s automatic. Still, the story here is not the boy – who doesn’t really know that he’s a “poet” and doesn’t understand the meaning of that loaded word. He just suddenly “has a poem.”

The real and deeper story is that of the kindergarten teacher, who is prompted by something inside herself, by her very nature, by her life trajectory, to want to observe reality, to understand, to deconstruct, to touch. She is looking for something beyond the immediate, something more than work-home-work. Her story is a tragedy, from beginning to end. She projects her frustration with her own bland life onto the child. There is something in the attraction to beauty, to the “beyond,” that can drive one around the bend. Indeed, there is something in the total attraction to beauty that can trample whatever lies along the way.

From this ideal, from “poetry,” the kindergarten teacher abuses the boy. The aesthetic of abuse in the film is clear-cut. It’s apparently important for Lapid that we understand that this is abuse. And, if we take it another step forward: Precisely because of the totality and the blind adoration of the ideal, the kindergarten teacher herself is unable to observe reality as it truly is. She is a bad poet.

2. Lapid’s film, like poetry, is not a “practical” movie. It’s unlikely to be a “blockbuster.” It will be enjoyed by people who are able to immerse themselves in the intensive sequence of images it offers. And this form too is an allegory. Lapid is protesting against the practical consciousness, primarily American in character, that dominates Israeli society. He is not offering a blind allegory. He knows that you can’t pay in poetry at the grocery store, and that going to the grocery store is important, too. He understands the complexity in which, on the one side is the ideal of the beautiful, of “trances,” and on the other side the need, critical for almost everyone in the world, to (also) live in reality. The allegory arises from the tension between the two.

3. Great value resides in the desire to touch the “beautiful.” And great value in observation. In many senses, it’s from observing, from the ideal, that “culture” springs. And culture is the only true thing a human being has to offer. And Lapid’s film is above all about culture. A film made from within the culture, and in many senses for the culture itself. Lapid kneads familiar materials, life, that comes from Israeli culture (poets Meir Wieseltier, Eitan Nahmias-Glass, Noam Partom, singer Esther Rada, et al.) into a parallel reality, a parallel life. His film is not realistic almost in any way. Anyone who looks for logic will not find it – just as in poetry.

Lapid creates a partial reality, consciously incomplete, into which the viewer can form his cultural world, his feelings and his point of view. He rolls with the complexity. He doesn’t want to tell us what to think. As such, his film is important. A culture that speaks with itself, that kneads itself repeatedly into alternative realities, that doesn’t coerce its consumer into a particular viewpoint is a living culture. And there are hardly any examples of this in Israeli culture. It is constantly running ahead.

Lapid’s film isn’t running anywhere. It has no interest in any such race. And in this sense it is above all a political film: Its thrust is inward, into the depths, to the center of gravity, to the point at which you see things truly, in the broad context, without fear, without being squeezed, without self-annulment in the face of anything.