Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine turns twenty-five this year. It’s a powerful and explosive movie about racial tensions and police brutality in the French banlieues. It is also one of the more unusual — if not one of the best — Jewish movies of the last quarter of a century.
As a French-Jewish director and sometimes actor, Kassovitz repeatedly refuses to conform to cinematic conventions regarding Jewish stereotypes. His ‘fracture sociale’ trilogy (Métisse, 1993; La Haine, 1995 and Assassin(s), 1997), firmly places Jews in a present-day Parisian working-class milieu, far removed from the professional stereotypes usually found in Anglo-American film. In his way, Kassovitz’s films reverse preconceived notions of Jewishness as Kassovitz refuses to resort to the simple stereotype.
La Haine (which translates as The Hate) depicts a day on the life of three french friends, Vinz, Said and Hubert. Vinz is of eastern European heritage and, given its director’s ethnicity, thus becomes a major concern of the movie.
As played by the non-Jewish actor, Vincent Cassel, Vinz is a working-class Ashkenazi banlieue dweller. His best friends are black and North African. Unusually, Vinz is blond and blue-eyed. With his skinhead haircut and muscular frame, he resists the very stereotype of the Jew. He wants to be a shtarker so he postures as tough. He behaves in a way atypical for Jews on film, punching, spitting, picking his nose and breakdancing.
From the moment we meet him, Vinz is obsessively fascinated with weaponry. He fantasizes about killing, forming his fingers into a pretend gun that he fires into the bathroom mirror, whilst mimicking (albeit in French) Robert de Niro’s unhinged Vietnam vet Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
Vinz festishizes a gun he has stolen from a cop. He carries the gun with him at all times, keeping it tucked into his trousers — a clear compensatory pointer to some sort of lack (circumcision?). Despite the risks associated with packing heat, he shows it off to his friends. He brags about avenging his friend, Abdel, who was killed by the police during a riot. This mirrors Kassovitz’s motivation for making the film following the death of a man chained to a radiator by the police.
Vinz is ejected from the spaces that professional Jews typically occupy in film. This is clearly illustrated in a scene in an art gallery, precisely the sort of upper-middle-class arty space in which cinematic Jews are located. Vinz’s clothes and speech disclose that he does not belong.
And, in a further irony, the owner of the art gallery is played by Kassovitz’s film director father, Peter. Although nowhere explicitly identified as Jewish, for the culturally-aware spectator able to recognize the codes, it further reinforces the Jewishness of the space from which Vinz is excluded.
But Vinz is an ambivalent figure. The film juxtaposes contradictory images to convey his ambivalent status. Unlike his beur and black friends, he is able to pass as white, thus escaping the police brutality that is directed against non-white minorities in the film. In a dream sequence he break-dances to klezmer music, coding the clash between his Jewish and street identities.
Vinz can only exercise his power in private and in his imagination, emphasized by his inability to use the real gun. When he is confronted with a bleeding, powerless skinhead who attacks his friends he is unable to shoot him. In a further irony the skinhead is played by the dark-haired Jewish Kassovitz himself. Kassovitz cleverly inserts himself into a scene where, as the film’s creator, he is threatened by his own creation.
Vinz’s weakness is emphasized in another sequence. He and the ‘pure’ French drug dealer, as implied by his Gallic name, Astérix, compare guns hidden deep inside their trousers. Astérix then challenges Vinz to a game of Russian roulette and Vinz is found wanting in this respect as he loses his nerve. As Vinz leaves, Astérix’s demonstrates how he surreptitiously neutered Vinz’s weapon, publicly reinforcing Vinz’s inferiority and feelings of humiliation and defeat, compounded by the waiting policemen on the street outside.
There is also a perplexing yet intriguing bathroom sequence, in which the Shoah is introduced obliquely via a short in stature survivor.
Through Vinz, Kassovitz has created one of the most challenging films about Jewishness, certainly in the past twenty-five years. Rarely has one seen such a graphic and brutal representation of Jewish and diaspora working class life in Western European film.