One day inside an Israeli tank during the First Lebanon War, Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon is much more than an ear-splitting anti-war film for the X-Box generation.
A Day In The Life by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
The last track on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ends with a final chord that sounds like a piano landing on a pavement. Its full-volume dissonance seems an apt complement to Samuel Maoz’s chaotic and cacophonous Lebanon, a day in the life of four tenderfoot Israeli soldiers fighting in Lebanon 1982. Based on Samuel Maoz’s own harrowing and best-forgotten experiences as a gunner in the First Lebanon War, Lebanon follows wide-eyed Shmulik, as he quickly passes from greenhorn to fighting machine. Like Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir it’s taken the director over twenty years to tame the experience into a screenplay, but the result is astounding. The action is as tightly choreographed as a Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s the disorienting commotion and moral confusion that really resounds.
Winner of the Golden Lion in Venice, Lebanon begins in a field of sunflowers – one of a handful of shots outside the claustrophobia of the tank. It’s a floral calm before the storm – subtly reminiscent of Simon Wiesenthal’s Holocaust testimony where sunflowers mark the graves of German soldiers – this field of cowed sunflowers as vulnerable to the winds of war as Lebanon‘s new recruits. The symbolism becomes particularly poignant through the film as casualties are referred to as ‘flowers’ in Israeli army doublespeak; an argot already familiar from Eytan Fox’s Yossi & Jagger. Except here, rather than just a security code, it’s also a smokescreen to circumvent international law, ‘more correctly’ referring to banned phosphorous missiles as ‘exploding smoke’ instead.
Shmulik, Maoz’s avatar and namesake (Shmulik is a pet byname for Samuel) is thrown out of training and into a tank with effete officer Asi, cocky Hertzel and timid Igul, drafted up to suffer the reality of war. It’s a reality we also suffer, loudly, blasted with a visceral score as helicopters roar, tank hatches clank and missiles thunder. And as Shmulik hesitates between shooting Lebanese terrorists and poultry farmers, it’s a moral wavering we take to heart, unsure whether an old-timer’s jalopy is a neat disguise or an innocent bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time. But orders are orders, and we soon learn the danger of Shmulik’s hesitation, as an Israeli infantryman is killed in the sudden skirmish.
The ‘angel’ is housed inside the tank until helicopters can lynch him away, emitting a stench of death that puts all four soldiers on edge. Inside the ‘Rhino’, tempers fray, as chip-shouldered officer Asi feels undermined, his power-hued ‘considerations’ ignored by the more matter-of-fact Hertzel, his attempts to control his crew thwarted by their all-too-human desires not to kill and to get the hell out of there. An inscription inside the tank reads “Man is steel. The tank is only iron,” an aphorism that proves only too true when the tank is frazzled by a Syrian fighter waving a grenade-launcher. Gamil’s assertion, “There’s no such thing as an injured tank!” is pure officer bluster, designed to keep his conscripts towing the line. Covered in exploded soup almonds and tank oil, the Rhino’s inhabitants are off-course, under attack and unwittingly responsible for their imprisoned ‘cricket’, protecting the Syrian soldier from the brutal Christian-Arab Phalangists sent to bring them back to safety.
While war inside the tank is loud, grimy and ructious, war outside the tank is pungently heartrending. Seen through the violent stare of the crosshairs, Shmulik’s telescopic lens puts everything in danger, from senior officer Gamil commanding by radio-phone or a five-year-old girl and her terror-stricken family. The pop-up targets are at times overstated, unintentionally giving Lebanon the feel of a computer shoot ’em up, where the innocent victims and the gun-toting perpetrators are all too obvious. But it’s a monochrome morality that puts Shmulik’s pain at pulling the trigger, with its all-too-obvious collateral damage, unapologetically to the fore.
One man down and abandoned by both the infantry and the Phalangists, it’s up to Shmulik to blast the tank to safety. With oil seeping into the dials, the ‘Rhino’ becomes a highly-explosive rolling bomb, scorching the earth in front of it into the heart of darkness. It’s a simmering crucible of fear, which pushes Asi to the edge of reason, culminating in an Apocalypse Now moment; the officer grimly shaving his grimy face – his only defence against the inevitable onslaught. But the futility of war is nowhere better expressed than when Shmulik helps the Syrian bomber pee, their guarded gazes huddling together in a moment of humanity, two men forced into an awkward position by the rules of the game.
In a final sequence outside the tank, Shmulik opens the hatch to find himself back in the relative safety of the sunflower field. They’ve turned full circle, nothing has changed, – just one soldier dead, another mad and a third war-hardened. Is it a success, has Shmulik reached the rest of his company in ‘St Tropez’? It’s a question Maoz refuses to answer, drawing us away from the political achievements of Israel in Lebanon. And despite heavy-handed moments, such as a mural of towers (Eiffel, St Stephen’s and Twin) to remind us of the conflict’s longevity, Lebanon prefers to focus on the human cost, the moral erasure from man to soldier. Unlike Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, there’s none of the Eighties soundtrack in Lebanon, it could just as easily be today. And as such, Maoz has created a powerful anti-war film that stands as testimony and testament to every soldier and their lost innocence. Perhaps marked by a sunflower.
Lebanon is released in the UK on 14th May 2010.