Lost dream of coexistence
Adam LeBor delves into The Bureau, the utterly absorbing French spy thriller series
This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
I first saw the French actor Mathieu Kassovitz on screen in La Haine (Hate) back in 1995. The film tells the story of three young street toughs in the banlieues of Paris, the drab, neo-brutalist housing estates that ring the French capital. Kassovitz wrote, directed and starred in La Haine. He played Vinz, a young Jewish tough guy, alongside Hubert, a French-African boxer, and Said, a Muslim of Arab background.
La Haine’s themes of racism, exclusion and police brutality remain as topical as ever. But what fascinated me was the interaction between the three protagonists. There is plenty of hate in La Haine, but not between this trio. The enemy is les flics.
Kassovitz has grown as an actor since then, nowhere more than in The Bureau, the utterly absorbing French espionage series in which he stars
Growing up Jewish in north London in the 1970s, we had tough guys as well and often needed them. But nobody I knew was in a gang with Arab Muslims or black people. Our worlds simply did not intersect. Paris, it seemed, was different. La Haine, and my time reporting from Bosnia, helped seed the idea for my first book, A Heart Turned East. I wanted to explore the lives of Muslim minorities in Europe and the United States.
A year or so later I began to travel across the continent, from France to Bulgaria, Germany to Turkey, speaking to Muslim immigrants and their children, chronicling their hopes and fears. I had always been an enthusiastic advocate of Jewish-Muslim coexistence, and back then it seemed I might be right.
A new, European Islam seemed to be emerging, open-minded and more tolerant, rooted in the continent’s Ottoman heritage, a more modern faith than that pushed by the hard-line Wahabis of Saudi Arabia. When Spain expelled its Jews in 1492 the Ottomans sent a fleet of boats to rescue them.
In Marseilles I met Malik Ben Messaoud, a charismatic young sculptor creating arresting installations in the concrete jungle of Bassens. Malik had a Jewish girlfriend and they made a great team, sparking off each other. Life in Bassens was tough, but for everyone, no matter what their faith. But Malik sadly passed away in 2015, and the spirit of Jewish-Muslim coexistence in France is also long dead.
It perished in the terrorist attacks that ravaged Paris and Toulouse, the banlieue apartment where Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man, was held for more than three weeks as he was tortured to death with unspeakable brutality while the neighbours did nothing and the police dithered, and the Paris balcony from which Sarah Halimi, a doctor in her sixties, was allegedly thrown by a man beating her and abusing her in Arabic. La Haine thrives.
The film has just been re-released to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary. Kassovitz has grown as an actor since then, nowhere more than in The Bureau, the utterly absorbing French espionage series in which he stars.
The show, available on Amazon Prime, follows a group of officers in the DGSE, the French foreign intelligence service. Kassovitz plays Malotru, a deep-cover officer in Damascus who returns to Paris. But his heart has not only turned east, much of it remains there. When his lover Nadia arrives in France, his emotions soon triumph over his head — this is a French spy series, after all.
Malotru and Nadia’s forbidden, perilous romance runs through the first four seasons. The Bureau, however, is about much more than a doomed love affair.
The uber-topical storylines roam across today’s headlines, taking in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the rise of Isis in the Middle East, the Kurds’ attempt to carve out their mini-state, and Russian hacking. Sara Giraudeau is wonderful as Marina, a wide-eyed naif posing as a French seismologist in Baku who outmanoeuvres Mossad.
I watch a lot of political and spy thrillers and The Bureau, which has rightly been garlanded with awards, is some of the best television drama I have ever seen. The action is carefully deployed but every episode is taut with tension. Sustaining a series of five seasons is an epic challenge, but the creators of The Bureau, and its cast, more than rise to the occasion.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the programme, apart from its stylish, very Gallic sophistication, is its unashamed intelligence. The Bureau demands no knowledge of espionage or Iran or Syria or Russia. It does expect its viewers to have both an attention span and an intelligent curiosity about the world.
The characters face non-stop choices, dilemmas and obstacles, sometimes growing under the pressure, at others crashing and burning. They are riddled with doubts, are fearful of danger, but still they accept their missions and face down peril.
Much of the series is filmed on location across the Middle East. Everything feels completely authentic: the tradecraft, the bureaucratic infighting, the cast’s courage and frailty. Malotru and his comrades will walk into your life and stay there.
My favourite was Season Three, when Malotru is held hostage by Isis in Iraq. Some of the storyline revolves around Esrine, a brave and beautiful female Kurdish fighter working with her French handler. I still think about Esrine and her fate. So will you.
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