Maya Landsman won a best actress award at Cannes for her performance in The Lesson. (Photo/Courtesy ChaiFlicks)
Maya Landsman won a best actress award at Cannes for her performance in The Lesson. (Photo/Courtesy ChaiFlicks)

‘The Lesson’: In searing new Israeli drama, a classroom dispute explodes into Greek tragedy

This story was originally published in the Forward.

The six-part Israeli drama “The Lesson” traces an explosive classroom argument between a leftist or “woke” high school civics teacher, Amir (Doron Ben David of “Fauda”), and his “conservative,” arguably racist, 18-year-old student Lianne (Maya Landsman). 

Among the issues addressed here: ethnic identity politics vs. free speech — and its limitations; the power of social media; the allure of celebrity, and the cult of personality, informing subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, the relationship between students and teachers, teachers and administrators, parents and children, husbands and wives. 

Despite its heavy-going elements, “The Lesson” makes for compelling drama. Written by Deakla Keydar and directed by Eitan Zur, it’s fast-moving and seamlessly interwoven, though not polemic-free.

The acting is impressive, but Landsman, who won an award for best actress at Cannes, is a revelation. 

Although each episode boasts a disclaimer asserting that any resemblance to real events is coincidental, the story seems to be based in part on a much-publicized case involving a left-leaning Israeli teacher who was fired for his alleged pedagogy. The characters on screen reference the instructor involved.

Set in a fictional high school in Kfar Saba (northeast of Tel Aviv), the students are on the cusp of graduation and enlistment in the army. Conscription arouses an undercurrent of ambivalence and anxiety. For varying reasons, personal and political, all the characters seem to be on edge. 

A humanist and a man of principle, Amir, recently divorced, is the father of two sensitive teenagers with whom he has a troubled relationship. Both are angry about the marital breakup and view him as a social embarrassment. Though still attached to his ex-wife, he is courting another teacher. He is a familiar figure.

By contrast, Liane is an original on screen, at least to me. An unkempt young woman, she is articulate, opinionated and antagonistic, beleaguered, yet self-possessed. Her mother derides her, while her father serves as her constant defender. The destructive mixed messages only embolden her further.

The story unfolds when Amir provokes Liane into developing a strong position on something (anything) as a springboard for developing an idea. She stands up in class, and announces that she is disgusted by the Arab boys at the public city pool who sexually harass Israeli girls whom they view as shamelessly dressed. Her solution: ban all Arabs from Israeli pools. 

Her rage gains intensity as she speaks and galvanizes other students, especially Asi (Leib Lev Levin), whose brother was seriously injured in combat with Palestinians during his tour of duty. 

Encouraged by Asi’s enthusiastic response, Liane proclaims she’d be just fine if all Arabs were trucked out of Israel.

Amir evokes the specter of the Holocaust, and asks a question he almost immediately regrets: “What if fat people were not allowed in the pool?”

The dispute spills out onto social media where Liane asserts that Amir is in no position to be a teacher.

The series subtly captures the cruelty of cyberspace where the game of one-upmanship takes precedence over honesty or the consequences of allegations that become overblown, embellished and widely spread. It also evokes the profound isolation of its players.

Crouching in her bathroom, Liane clicks away on her phone, feeling empowered as she libels her teacher, gains points with Asi, and blocks out her sparring parents who are in full combat mode outside the bathroom. The image resonates even as her efforts backfire. 

While Liane faces expulsion, Amir finds his own job threatened when he becomes enraged after he catches Liane prancing around with an assault weapon cradled in her arms, flirtatiously posing for pictures, maneuvering the rifle this way and that. 

Asi films the events as they transpire and his video goes viral, the ever-ready and ubiquitous recording device shaping, if not defining, the narrative. The concomitant allure of fame is pervasive. Everyone wants to give a great performance for that real and largely imagined audience out there.

The creative team bravely tackles the interpersonal front as well, specifically the evolving love story between Asi and Liane. This is treacherous territory, and I admit on first viewing (I saw the series twice) I found their romance implausible, politically correct at the expense of authenticity. I agreed with Liane’s girlfriends who initially tried to convince her that Asi viewed her as a friend, a comrade in arms — but certainly not his love interest. 

On second viewing I saw the relationship through a different lens, appreciating the artists’ intelligent and nuanced vision. In a moment of self-loathing, Liane demands to know if he’s a pervert.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asks him.

At one point, Asi says she’s his buddy with whom he does “dirty things.” Is this affection or fetishism or both or something else altogether?

No matter. Theirs is a genuine connection based in large measure on their sense of themselves as outliers. Asi, who comes from a family that has recently immigrated from Russia and who has to take care of his permanently injured brother, perhaps feels even more alone than she. 

Asi is sharply drawn, and in the end he drives the narrative. His unwavering character is his fate. Conversely, Liane and Amir are personally capable of change, though their actions also embody a predetermined trajectory that has a ripple effect on themselves and those they know and don’t know.

“The Lesson” may be rooted in the here and now, and has a matter-of-fact in tone and pedestrian structure. Yet, belying the banality, it has more than a touch of Greek drama.

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Simi Horowitz

JTA contributor