Lebanon (Israel/France/Germany 2009)

The view from the tank in Lebanon

This is the third highly celebrated Israeli film set during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to have appeared in recent years. It follows Beaufort (2007) and Waltz With Bashir (2008) and in 2009 it won the Golden Lion at Venice, the biggest prize so far for the ‘new’ Israeli Cinema.

This seemed to me to be the ‘hardest’ of the three, the most focused on ‘war really is shit’ and the least compromised by Israeli ideologies. It’s unfortunate then that a) I had to watch it during another week when the Israeli Defence Forces have killed Palestinians and aid volunteers on a Turkish ship in international waters and b) that it found itself at the centre of the boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival’s ‘Tel Aviv focus’ in 2009 (a boycott which I would have supported). Lebanon should be judged on its own merits even if the overall Israeli government policy should be condemned.

The film is unique in that apart from the opening and closing shots, the narrative is presented as either taking place inside a tank or as viewed through the tank driver’s or commander’s eyepiece. This intensely claustrophobic location is an important element in the story. Writer-director Samuel (Shmulik) Maoz was himself the gunner in a tank like this during the invasion and it has taken him more than 25 years to tell his story. Waltz With Bashir was made on a similar basis, but compared to Lebanon seems almost lightweight. I’m sure it isn’t, but in cinematic terms that’s how the comparison feels to me.

The plot outline of Lebanon is very simple. A tank with its crew of four – three who know each other and a new guy – is ordered to advance into Lebanon and join a small group of paratroopers. The paras officer is in overall charge and he leads the combined group into a village which has been bombed by the IDF (the ironically named Israeli ‘Defence’ Forces). But something has gone wrong in the planning and instead of a few Lebanese villagers, the group meets fierce resistance from Syrian soldiers. Can the Israelis extricate themselves – with the help of a couple of Phalangists (Lebanese Christians allied to the Israelis) as guides?

What follows is hard to watch but never less than engrossing. Conditions in the tank are awful but are made worse by the conscripts’ lack of discipline and professionalism. These films generally get criticised for their portrayal of young Israelis under pressure and the absence of any detailed representation of the Arab ‘other’ they are fighting. I don’t think that charge stands against Lebanon. We feel for both the solders inside the tank and those killed or made homeless by its actions. The ‘view from the tank’ becomes a powerful device on at least two occasions – the first when an elderly Arab man stares defiantly straight at the camera in close-up while next to him his companion at a café table lies with his head in a pool of blood and the second when a woman staggers out of a building and comes up to the soldiers. I confess at this point that I wondered if she was suddenly going to plant a bomb on the tank. The film teeters on the edge of a Hollywood-style narrative and a realist humanist representation. The latter wins out and the finest moments are those when the confines of the tank force actions of humanity onto the soldiers – such as helping a shackled prisoner to pee in a can. I’m reminded of my favourite piece of writing about war when, in Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell writes about seeing an enemy soldier running along his trench lines. Orwell knows that he should shoot him but when he sees that the man is trying to hold up his trousers and is clearly suffering from the runs, he asks himself “How can you shoot someone with their trousers round their ankles?”

Lebanon has had some mixed reviews. On IMDB, war movie fans and ex-soldiers complain that the film isn’t realistic in the depiction of the procedures the tank crew follow or don’t follow – which rather misses the point. This a representation of a nightmare. It isn’t about ‘winning’, it explains nothing about why the tank is there, it doesn’t set out to critique policies or politicians or military commanders. It uses a restricted cast and location to tell us something about the nightmare. What I think I will remember, as much as the stifling physical confines of the tank, are the noises – the hydraulics of the turret turning, the viewfinder changing its zoom setting, the roar of the engine and the explosions and screams outside, the orders barked over the radio and the occasional use of music. All of these should, I think, be experienced in the cinema. I suspect much will be lost on a TV set.

6 responses to “Lebanon (Israel/France/Germany 2009)

  1. Contains plot spoilers:
    Lebanon is clearly a powerful film, however I think is as equally problematic as Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir. As is the case with most apparently anti-war films, all three fail to address the real politics of the actual conflict that they dramatise. I also found Lebanon fairly conventional. It is true that the technique of limiting the vision to the tank periscope and gun sights, together with the amplified tank sounds, is distinctive. But the characters and plot seem fairly familiar from countless other war films: and as so often, appear to offer a microcosm of a society at war. They could be transferred from a number of World War II submarine films. A 1950 Hollywood action film actually has a small group trapped in a tank in the Sahara Desert, [though they were seeking gold rather than land]. But what the film reminded me of most was a German production, Die Brücke (The Bridge, 1959), in which seven schoolboys are likewise caught up in brutal war action, acting with similar frightened incompetence.
    The film does depict in stark fashion some of the criminal violence perpetrated by the Israeli Defence Force in Lebanon. However, these actions occur earlier in the film. They are followed by scenes where the Israeli soldiers perform more humanitarian actions. The commander drapes a shawl over a terrified, semi-naked woman. One of the tank crew assists a captured Syrian commando to pee in the tank box. And the opening and closing shots of the film feature a field of sunflowers. The opening is deserted and peaceful: the closure shows the tank, now in safe territory, as for the first time the crew can emerge in the light of a sunny day. Given that the Sabra and Shatila massacres are still to come, this is a seriously suspect image. Yet by that state the audience are likely to be caught up with the crew inside the tank: to have come to know them: and [I suspect for many in the audience] to develop some sympathy for them.
    The viewpoint in the film, and the dialogue, are from the Israeli point of view. For example, two opposition fighters are labelled ‘terrorist’. A S&S article [June 2010] seemed persuaded by this. Ali Jaafar wrote, “we see a Lebanese woman screaming through the gun barrel as her family is killed in front of her by guerrillas.” In fact, the husband may have been shot or fallen: but the real damage, including to her daughter, is done when the tank fires a shell into the building. These ‘guerrillas’ are presumably meant to be Palestinians, though I suspect audiences may ‘read’ them as Hezbollah.
    The film is meant to be disturbing, but I found it so because of the matter of fact depiction of grim, sordid violence. It was like pornography, realistic depiction, almost mechanical in its presentation. Evelyn Waugh once had a character comment; ‘all pornography is about death’. This is true of Lebanon, but it also sexualises the discourse of violence. The talk inside the tank is often sexual, including a reminiscence of an adolescent erection and ejaculation – when the then young boy faced the death of his father. The surviving Lebanese woman is caught by fire and rendered almost naked. And the Syrian captive is threatened by a Phalangist, whose talk of torture is almost completely sexual.
    The director based the film on his own experiences. In the S&S article he is quoted, “I was searching for forgiveness from myself, but at the same time I’m not trying to escape responsibility.” This reads like an attempt at catharsis, the form also taken in Waltz with Bashir. What the film does not show is any sense of the politics that gave rise to this violence. The film’s opening title refers to the first Lebanon War. In fact, a more accurate title would be The First Israeli Invasion of Lebanon. In that sense the film does offer a microcosm of Israel, where there is little sign that sixty years on that the settler state has any greater understanding of the Arab world and the disturbance it has created within it.

  2. I agree with you that the film doesn’t deal with the politics but that’s not what the film’s about. It may only be autobiographical catharsis but it portrays this powerfully; it’s certainly unlike any film I’ve seen in limiting its viewpoint to inside a tank. You can certainly criticise it as not being definitively anti-Israeli but it’s also easy to read the film as being critical of the invasion. As to the shots in the sunflower field: the sunflowers are wilting.

  3. I think the preceding comment means that the filmmakers do not intend the film ‘to be about politics’. That tends to confirm my view that the film does not address the actual conflict. It is not necessary to be anti-Israel, but I feel that the film offers a diversion over what actually took place.

    In fact, I see a political discourse in the plot and mise en scene of the film. The tank crew are depicted as fairly ineffectual and lacking gung-ho about the conflict. I think the film does progressively humanise them as it develops. Meanwhile in contrast: the Palestinian Guerillas are depicted holding a Lebanese family hostage; the Phalangist threatens sadistic torture to the Syrian; And the main enemy, the Syrian commandos, are almost entirely invisible. The last is a standard convention of war movies. It littered the US Vietnam films.

    I do not think that Lebanon is any worse than countless US Vietnam films, but like them it appears to use political representations to make a point rather than explicit plot information.

    The point about the sunflowers is interesting: is this in the opening or closing sequences – or both?

  4. If the sunflowers are wilted at the beginning then presumably it is not intended to reference the Israeli presence. I read the opening shot as the ‘calm before the storm’. In which case the end shot shows the tank commander emerging into a sunlight: with sunflowers as before. That would appear to focus on the escape of the tank crew rather than the actual impact of them and their larger invasion force.

  5. Maybe, it just struck me as a beautiful image – at the start – that was decrepit. A portent of the grim narrative to come. They return to the field with their lives intact, but with their humanity compromised.

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