“Man is steel, this tank is only iron”

Dir: Samuel Maoz

Ariel Films, Israel, 2009

Starring: Yoav Donat, Itay Tirin, Oshri Cohen

An insurgent rocket screams into a tank at the halfway point of Lebanon (2010) and, from here on in, we are plunged into hell. In this industrial warzone nightmare, oil seeps from fissures in the rusty armour of the iron beast whilst mud, filth and piss coat the floor. Set entirely in the confines of an Israeli tank in the 1982 Lebanon war, Lebanon is an exercise in surreal, dark and violently experimental filmmaking. Claustrophobic, intense and relentlessly brutal, we follow four soldiers, from as many different points on the moral spectrum, as they navigate the crumbling war machine through the horrors of conflict and the many ethical dilemmas that arise. A stoutly anti-war film, it is directed and written from the memories of Samuel Maoz, and based entirely off his own experiences as a member of the Israeli military.

It is difficult to imagine a scenario wherein this film is not controversial and does not anger a large group of people. Immediately prior to its showing at the Venice Film Festival, there was rumoured uproar in the halls of The Knesset, a murmur that developed into a roar and spat fire at the notion of Lebanon turning young men away from the armed forces with its harrowing depiction of war and damning portrayal of the military complex. Nevertheless, the film went on to win the Golden Lion at Venice, beating out Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, John Hillcoat’s The Road and Claire Denis’ acclaimed White Material (all 2009) for the top prize.

The format of the film is a strange one – a young Israeli recruit is placed with an unfamiliar unit as a tank gunner, his eyes becoming our window into the nightmare and his positioning as an instrument of war becoming our conscience.  We see the outside world only as he does, through a fractured gun-sight that distorts and warps the brutal scenes which play out within the confines of its fixed scope. This stationary, unmoving camera is used in a manner that holds a deep sense of discomfort and unease in its motionless gaze, whilst the increasingly intimate and intrusive camera that captures the heart of the war machine stretches and swells to explore closely every pore and streak of blood on the faces of the soldiers.

The viewing of Lebanon is a straining, exhausting act that seems to last far longer than its hour and a half running time, though this is not meant as a note of criticism but rather a praise of its hellish content and disturbing style. In a similar way that the classic Das Boot (1981) pulls taut the strings of tension to manipulate the passage of time and stretch minutes into apparent hours, Lebanon successfully makes a brief story feel like an entire experience.

Ari Folman’s 2008 film Waltz with Bashir dealt with the same substance as Lebanon in terms of its content, and both films utilise surrealistic and hypnotically abstract imagery to depict both the intensity and insanity of the war. Waltz with Bashir used a lucid style of animation to portray the notions of madness and evil, able to construct carefully composed images and delicate symbolism through its intricate use of colour and motion. Lebanon, however, grounds the conflict deeply in reality, subtracting the visual disassociation of the animation and replacing it with twitching and horrendously damaged flesh and blood.

Both films are undoubtedly classics of contemporary Israeli cinema, and the reason I introduce Waltz with Bashir as a comparison point is to highlight the deep care and thought that is poured into every detail of the art that depicts this conflict. With a number of innocent causalities on both sides of the border, these are films that explore the identities not of the military psyche, but of the individual soldiers doubting the merit of the war and questioning their own values as human beings as a result of forces out of their control.

The spilling of innocent blood is prevalent throughout Lebanon, with a farmer gruesomely dismembered by a tank shell after a commander issues a strict order to fire, and a family torn apart by the bullets of both sides. As more life is lost, the visual dimension of the film becomes increasingly sinister and feverish – the aforementioned fracture in the gun-sight destroying any semblance of reality from outside of the tank and the oil coating the walls of the crippled beast strongly resembling blood pouring from endless wounds.

It could be debated that the surreal imagery found in both films is not simply used to convey meaning but also act as a means of protection for the spectator. By distorting the visual dimension of the film into unrecognisable and foreign images, the directors of both films spare us from witnessing the pure and unfiltered horror of war, something that can drive the minds that observe it utterly insane. Both films are based on first hand recollections of the war, images drawn from experiences and assembled by hands that held guns. Both Folman’s Waltz and Maoz’s Lebanon give us glimpses into the abyss, brief windows into Psyches tainted by the swirling black wrath of war, but both also save us the anguish of the total burden, by warping the images that damaged them so irreparably into incomprehensible mutations and strange renditions – going some way to neutralise their caustic nature.

Lebanon begins and ends in a beautiful expanse of sky and sunflowers, in one image the field untouched and serene whilst the other shows the tank settled prominently in the frame. The medium of film will never truly be able to fully convey the emotions unique to battle and conflict, but it is incredibly effective in relaying the morals and ethics involved. The magnificent natural now contains a machine with the sole purpose of killing and Samuel Maoz was physically sick every time he recalled these memories and tried to write the script for twenty five years.

  • Kristofer Thomas

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