Germany / Israel / France, 2009
Review by Stephen Snart
Posted on 05 October 2009
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm print
Categories The 47th New York Film Festival
In the tradition of John Trumbull, Ernest Hemingway, and Ari Folman, debut filmmaker Samuel Maoz takes his firsthand war experience and repurposes it into art. His film Lebanon (along with last year’s Waltz With Bashir) appears to be one of the more direct memory-to- medium exercises in recent cinema. It isn’t overtly autobiographical but the atmosphere, imagery, minute detail of destruction, and the moral quandary of the character Shmulik (very close to the Hebrew for Samuel) resonate as profoundly lived-in and ruminated over. Beyond the suspense and the desire to recreate the nauseous sensation of warfare, writer/director Maoz is interested in the balance between the quotidian and the ultimate. Lebanon isn’t quite the pivotal war document or riveting suspense narrative it could have been, but it is confidently made with piercing sound design and arresting visuals that aid in the effective illustration of the range of people directly affected by war.
Set during the first day of the 1982 Lebanon War, the film takes place almost entirely within the confines of an iron armored tank combing its way through hostile terrain. With only two exceptions, every shot of the outside world is framed through the crosshairs of an optical periscope within the tank. Inside the tank are four soldiers: Asi the officer, Yigal the driver, Hertzel the ammunition loader, and Shmulik the gunner. Initially the group conforms to the war film stereotypes of stoic leader, scared novice, petulant brat, and conflicted silent type. But as the film progresses, the characters develop a deeper complexity and their power structure becomes ambiguous. The initially coarse characterizations to serve to distinguish characters early on because the four actors, when grimy, sweaty, and shot in shadows, all slightly resemble Gael Garcia Bernal.
The tank is accompanied by a paratrooper unit that helps them navigate their way toward a final destination of San Tropez. But first they’re ordered to go through a near-demolished town and rid it of any remaining PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) resistance fighters. Visually navigating through the debris, Shmulik’s cross-hairs chooses to focus on the after-effects of near annihilation: discarded butcher’s meat, the face of an elderly survivor, the body of a distraught woman who has just lost her family, romanticized murals of famous cities from within a former travel agency (including a none-too-subtle shot of the WTC in the bull’s-eye).
Lebanon has been compared to this past summer’s The Hurt Locker and while the films share an apolitical depiction of war, it is really closer in tone to Das Boot. Without a fiery lead character or a bravura performance on par with Jeremy Renner’s in The Hurt Locker, Lebanon has some difficulty maintaining momentum throughout its 92-minute run time. I had some trouble keeping myself immersed through much of the infighting as the characters are purposefully difficult to become attached to, but in spite of this the final twenty minutes pinned me to my seat and filled me with both anticipation and dread. By spending so much time on the ruined towns and the reality of war on a civilian level, the film appears to be an act of catharsis for Maoz, the periscope serving as metaphoric mediator between memory and event. As such it could be tempting to think of Lebanon as a singular, dare I say narcissistic, film. But this isn’t just a look-what-I-survived tale. By aligning himself nominally with the trigger man, Maoz raises universal questions of culpability. Early on there is an intense verbal match between Shmulik and Asi over whether to fire at a building full of hostages. Asi repeatedly orders him to fire but Shmulik is resistant, focusing on a crying child through his viewfinder. The scene explicitly targets the moral quandary of the situation. If you’re the one pulling the trigger, are you responsible? Where does decision-making reside? Is it at the top or the bottom of the command line? Of course this situation is easily extrapolated to question the relationship between soldier and political leader. The scenario returns when the men become issued with transporting a Syrian POW, an individual who may or may not be responsible for firing a rocket that causes near debilitating damage to the tank. The film’s penultimate scene, in which the soldiers help the POW to urinate, suggests a sense of absolution for the trigger man. Culpability in relation to the power structure of combat may be the film’s only major talking point (beyond the novelty of its tank setting), but at least it’s an endlessly discussable one.
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