Golda Meir’s complex legacy on screen
A Golda Meir biopic starring Helen Mirren avoids politics, but it couldn't avoid 'Jewface' questions writes Gabe Friedman.
When a film about a group of Israeli youths who visit former concentration camps in Poland premiered recently at the Berlin Film Festival, its Israeli producer took the microphone after the screening to decry the state of his nation.
“The new far-right government that is in power is pushing fascist and racist laws,” said Yoav Roeh, a producer of Ha’Mishlahat (Delegation) on stage after the film’s premiere. He was referring to lawmakers in Israel’s government who have long histories of anti-Arab rhetoric and their new proposals to limit the power of the country’s Supreme Court, which critics at home and around the world deem a blow to Israel’s status as a democracy.
“Israel is committing suicide after 75 years of existence,” Roeh added.
The next day brought the premiere of Golda, a highly-anticipated Golda Meir biopic starring Oscar-winner Helen Mirren about the former Israeli prime minister and her decisions during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Hours earlier, Israel’s government took another step closer to passing its controversial judicial reforms, and when asked about the political situation, Mirren didn’t mince words.
“I think [Meir] would have been utterly horrified,” she told AFP. “It’s the rise of dictatorship and dictatorship was what has always been the enemy of people all over the world and she would recognise it as that.”
That was the heated backdrop for the debut of Golda. But an onlooker wouldn’t know that from the film’s own introductory press conference with Mirren, director Guy Nattiv and other stars from the film. The headlines that have emerged from it have been dominated by the film’s place in the “Jewface” debate, about who should play Jewish characters on screen. Mirren is not Israeli or Jewish.
“Let’s say that we’re making a movie about Jesus Christ. Who’s going to play him?” Mirren’s co-star Lior Ashkenazi stepped in to answer in response to a journalist, eliciting laughter from the press corps.
The film is framed by Meir’s testimony to the Agranat Commission, which investigated the lead-up to the war. As the film shows through flashbacks, Meir appears to have not acted quickly enough on Mossad intelligence about a possible attack from Egyptian and Syrian forces.
Israeli forces were surprised on Yom Kippur and initially lost ground; both sides lost thousands of troops, and the war is seen as a major trauma in Israeli history – the moment when the state’s conception of its military superiority over its Arab neighbours was shattered. The film is claustrophobic, shot mostly indoors – in bunkers, hospital rooms and government offices – and offers an apt visual encapsulation of the loss the war would bring.
Though Meir has historically been lionised as a tough female hero in Jewish communities around the world (even non-Jewish soldiers in Ukraine took inspiration from her in the early days of the Russian invasion last year), her legacy is more complicated in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In addition to being associated with the trauma of the war for many Jewish Israelis, she is remembered as an inveterate enemy by Palestinians.
In recent years, the representation of Meir has shifted more favourably in Israel, said Meron Medzini, Meir’s former press secretary and one of her biographers. He said that historians have begun to view her favourably in comparison to some of the political leaders who followed her.
“I consider the film [Golda] part of this effort to rehabilitate her name,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I think she is now gaining her rightful place in the history.”
Golda fits into Medzini’s narrative by emphasising the intractability and pride of her cabinet ministers as the prime reasons for Israel’s surprise. It affirms Meir’s honour by portraying her as attempting to protect the ministers – all men – from criticism and to promote national unity.
At the press conference, Nattiv gave the briefest of nods to Meir’s complex legacy but like Medzini compared her to Israel’s current slate of leaders, who he reserved brief criticism for.
“Golda is not a super clean character in this movie,” said Nattiv, who is best known for directing Skin, a 2018 film about a neo-Nazi. “She had her faults. She made mistakes. And she took responsibility, which leaders are not doing today.”
Meir has long enjoyed a kind of star status around the world. She was interviewed by Barbra Streisand in 1978, close to the Israeli leader’s death from cancer, for a TV special on Israel’s 30th anniversary.
“She clearly is the great-grandmother of the Jewish people [in the special] and Streisand is very reverential toward her,” Tony Shaw, a history professor at the University of Hertfordshire and the author of Hollywood and Israel: A History, said about the Streisand interview. “She just comes across as very humble, slightly out-of-date, out-of-time.”
“Of course, it’s very different from what we now know Golda Meir was really like,” he added, referring to her strong character and political pragmatism, which the film seeks to convey.
Since William Gibson’s critically-panned 1977 play also titled Golda, there have been a number of representations of Meir. Most famous among them is Ingrid Bergman’s final performance in Golda Meir, a four-hour-long television biopic from 1982. That production “was very much in keeping with Hollywood’s treatment of Israel in that period”, said Shaw, “which was very sympathetic towards Golda Meir, towards Israel and the troubles it was having in the first 30 years of its life.”
More recently, Meir appears in Steven Spielberg’s more ambivalent 2005 film Munich, in which she helps to recruit the film’s protagonist to track down the figures behind the 1972 Munich Olympics attacks.
Nattiv’s work, which has received mixed early reviews, focuses on the war as reflected in Meir’s character, forgoing engagement with broader politics or history.
“My inspiration was Das Boot, in the way that she is in the trenches,” said Nattiv, referencing the revered World War II movie from 1981 set in a German U-boat. “She is very alone in the mayhem of war around these men.”
“This is the Vietnam of Israel,” he explained. “It is a very tough and hard look at the war and every soldier that died … Golda takes it to her heart.”
Despite the “Jewface” questioning, Nattiv compared Mirren to an “aunt” figure who, for him, had the “Jewish chops to portray Golda”. Mirren explained to the AFP that she has long felt a connection to Israel and to Meir, especially after a stay on a kibbutz in 1967, not long after the Six-Day War, with a Jewish boyfriend.
“She was at her happiest on the kibbutz actually,” Mirren said. “Their idealism, their dream of the perfect world. And I did experience that which was great.”JTA
Mirren walks the red carpet at the Berlin Film Festival.
Photo: courtesy of Berlinale
Golda Meir meets with Israeli defence minister Moshe Dayan and troops on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War.
Photo: Ron Frenkel/GPO/Getty Images via JTA