On Television

Spook and crook

Research and authenticity are at the centre of these two series

This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Every story has an inciting incident. An adultery drama opens with the discovery of a text message, a detective yarn with a body floating in a river. Sometimes it reaches back decades — in the case of Tehran, the superb Israeli thriller series — to 1953 when the CIA, with British assistance, brought down the popular prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and replaced with him with the autocratic rule of the Shah. That led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and a regime that openly aims to wipe Israel off the map.

Which is why Mossad agent Tamar Rabinyan, marvellously played by Niv Sultan, has been despatched to her birthplace, the Iranian capital. Tehran’s co-creator is Moshe Zonder, who also worked on Fauda, the Israeli series about undercover operatives on the West Bank. Like Fauda, every episode of Tehran, now in its second season on Apple TV+, is shot through with a steel thread of tension. Zonder and his team push Tamar into dilemma after dilemma, each choice exacting a price and raising the stakes as she moves further into danger.

Zonder researched Iran for two years, meeting with academics, intelligence officers and native-born Iranians

Zonder researched Iran for two years, meeting with academics, intelligence officers and native-born Iranians. His aim was not to condemn Iran, but to understand the land and its people as deeply as possible and portray them with depth and nuance. He succeeds. “We wanted to understand this country that is our enemy, yet so many young Iranian and young Israelis look and speak alike,” Zonder told the Times of Israel.

That work paid off. Tehran is shot in Athens but feels very authentic, especially the deadly politics and intrigues that swirl around the upper reaches of the regime and the Revolutionary Guard — and the privileged lives of the children of the elite in north Tehran. Tamar fits in there very well, and is not afraid to use her sex appeal.

Part of her is still attached to her birthplace, and she grows ever closer to her Muslim opposition activist boyfriend, Milad. But Zonder’s storytelling skill is most evident in the character of Faraz Kamali, wonderfully played by Shaun Toub. Like Tamar, Faraz is also a patriot, in his case serving a brutal regime — but he is forced to make concessions and deals when the health and happiness of his wife is at stake. In classic terms, Faraz is the antagonist, but he has such depth and agency that he is almost a co-protagonist. Now that is storytelling of a very high order.

The King of Warsaw unfolds among the pre-war Polish capital’s Jewish mafia. The eight-part series, now showing on Channel 4, is based on a best-selling book by the Polish author, Szczepan Twardoch, who merged the stories of a real-life Jewish gangster and a champion boxer into the character of Jakub Szapiro, played by Michal Zurawski. The series aims to recreate the lost world of Warsaw Jewry before the Holocaust, when around 400,000 Jews made up a third of the city’s population.

The series is stylishly shot, the sets and costume design finely detailed and authentic

Like The Club, which was set in 1950s Istanbul’s Jewish community, The King of Warsaw triggered great interest among young locals, who had little, if any idea about their city’s Jewish history. Twardoch was also a writer and producer on the series and made great efforts to ensure authenticity, reading contemporaneous newspapers and consulting with a professor of Yiddish to ensure that the Warsaw dialect was correct.

The series is stylishly shot, the sets and costume design finely detailed and authentic — even the vodka shot glasses are 1930s Art Deco. “A lot of young people who watched the show told me how surprised they were to discover the Jewish presence in pre-war Warsaw,” Zurawski told Nicole Lampert in the Jewish Chronicle. “But whatever happened is a part of history even though there are no traces. It is important to preserve the history, the memory and educate the young.”

And this is where the series fails. Its ultra-violence is nauseating. The show kicks off with Szapiro abducting Bernsztajn, an Orthodox man who cannot pay his debts. Bernsztajn snivels and grovels for his life but he is hung upside down in a field. There Szapiro cuts his throat.

And this is where the series fails. Its ultra-violence is nauseating

This is shown in graphic detail. Szapiro orders him to be dismembered and buried. Yet under Jewish law the human body is considered as sacred in death as life, and must be buried whole. Even the most atheistic Jewish gangster would be unlikely to transgress this fundamental belief. Bernsztajn is only the first victim to have his throat cut by Szapiro — another is a youth, whose body is thrown into a river.

The youth’s murder is the trigger for a major switch in the storyline, reversing what had previously been shown. The intent was presumably to play with the idea of an unreliable narrator, but the result is more annoying than intriguing.

To its credit, The King of Warsaw fully shows the widespread anti-Semitism in pre-war Poland. Fascists brawl with Jews and leftists and even a university professor makes anti-Semitic remarks in a lecture. The backstory between Szapiro and Rifka, the Jewish brothel keeper, is sensitively portrayed, as is Szapiro’s relationship with his brother Moryc, a young Zionist planning to leave for Palestine.

Yet those young Poles interested in pre-war Jewish culture would see in The King of Warsaw too many Jews as either murderers or victims. The series may be a step in Poland’s rediscovery of its Jewish history, but there are many more nuanced stories than these to be told.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover