Michael Winterbottom's SHOSHANA is a handsomely made, meticulously researched, admirably nuanced, film about politics and policing in 1930s Tel Aviv. At that time, Tel Aviv was a new modern town established by Zionists attempting to create a Jewish homeland in British-mandate Palestine. The film (set in Italy) gives us a sense of how attractive life must have been there at the beginning: beautiful weather, stylish clothes, wonderful music, idealist politics and civilised debate. All of this is summed up in the real-life figure of Shoshana Borochuv (Irina Starshenbaum). She is an intelligent, beautiful, Russian Jew who came to Israel with her iconic Zionist socialist father, and retains his idealism and mission. She wants to create a peaceful, inclusive Israel without the violence she sees in the British occupation, and so becomes a member of Hagganah, who seek to work WITH the British for eventual independence. This stands in contrast with the militant tactics of Irgun.
The film starts with violence, but somehow it feels like flashes and fleeting compared to the ratcheting intensity that comes later. In the first twenty minutes we see the British summarily shoot an Arab and hang a Jew. The casual racism and anti-semitism of the British is summed up in the person of Geoffrey Morton, played by Harry Melling (THE PALE BLUE EYES). He stands in contrast with Shoshana's lover, Wilkins (Douglas Booth), who speaks Hebrew and seems to genuinely love Shoshana and Tel Aviv. But the message of the film is that idealism and love cannot survive politics.
As the film goes on, we see the stakes rise. As Hitler's intentions toward the Jews become clear, the need for a Jewish homeland intensifies and the flow of immigrants increases. Shoshana is now under threat for daring to be in love with a British police officer. The Jewish policemen working with the British are targets too. Our lovers split up under the pressure of societal condemnation and police investigation. Wilkins - our sympathetic protagonist - is now witnessing brutal interrogations and taking part in brutal police raids on suspected Irgun members, notably their leader Avraham Stern (Aury Alby). By the depressing end of an immaculate film, we are asked if anyone's humanity can survive the brutal politics that created a still-contested state. When I saw the final scenes my heart broke.
Winterbottom directs with patience and meticulous attention to detail. The "action" sequences of police raids are tense, and well choreographed. The political debates clear and well-articulated. I had a real sense of time and place and what was at stake. And of the invidious demands put on fundamentally good people. My only criticism of the film is that while Starshenbaum and Booth give good individual performances, I never bought into their passionate love affair. They had no screen chemistry.
SHOSHANA has a running time of 119 minutes. It played Toronto 2023. There are still tickets available for the BFI London Film Festival.