As with Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, this film is most commonly viewed as a confession, by a former Israeli soldier, about his part in the 1982 Lebanon War. Indeed, in interview, director Samuel Maoz confines his remarks to the personal. As in:
“I cannot escape the fact that I was the last one in the death link.”
Expectedly then, since Lebanon was released in 2009, it has received widespread criticism, particularly after it took out the “Golden Lion” at the Venice Film Festival. The Lebanese government has banned the film. In Israel, many have attempted to have it censored. Slavoj Zizek wrote it off as, “ideology at its purest”. And folks at The Guardian called it, “a controversial choice”.
My personal view is that whilst both Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon are most certainly products of a personal and collective process of redemption, in Lebanon Samuel Maoz makes three aesthetic choices that violently differ from those made by Ari Folman in Waltz with Bashir. The implications of which, I’d argue, do indeed open the way for an ethico-political reading of the film that has previously been denied by the film’s critics, and its director.
The first aesthetic choice is a fundamental one: in Lebanon we are presented with very little context, and next to no plot. The film is set entirely in a tank. That is to say: us filmgoers will see only what the tank’s crew sees, and we will know only what they know.
Secondly, this means that the film’s central, yet forgotten, character is not an Israeli awakening to the extent of his guilt, as occurs throughout Waltz with Bashir, but the tank. Now just think about that for a moment. When it comes to problematizing the interface between humans and military technology, a couple of lines Jacques Ellul wrote back in the 1960s always play back at me:
“Not even the moral conversion of the technicians (i.e. the tank’s crew) could make a difference. At best, they would cease to be good technicians. In the end, technique has only one principle: efficient ordering.”
I won’t develop that point any further, except to say that by contrast, for the tank’s crew, all that enters that hatch brings uncertainty and danger – the Syrian prisoner, the Christian Philangist, the IDF officer, and of course, the incoming artillery fire.
And third, because of the practical constraints of shooting a film inside a tank, the moviegoer is denied the space, the vantage point, to be an objective critic of the characters and their actions. Light enters only when the hatch is opened to let someone out. All of our images of the outside world are processed through a gun sight. And the audible noise is largely limited to the sounds of machines – the clatter of the gun, the whir of the turret, the static of the radio, the wheeze of the engine…
For mind the only other war films that achieve this sort of ambience and pathos were set on submarines — particularly the German classic Das Boot, but even (perhaps my adolescent memory is failing me here!) to some degree The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide. But whereas in those films the tension is fleeting and entirely plot-driven — when harpoons whistle past the bow, or when the skins of the submarines creak from taking on greater pressure at lower depths — here, inLebanon, the unease, the danger… is persistent, pervasive, and unrelenting.
The question for the viewer then becomes: what are the consequences of the film being shot in this way? For mind this triumvirate of aesthetic choices forces us to consider not just issues of military ethics, but what Ellul has called “the treachery of technology”. That is to say: we must ask questions of responsibility not just of the soldiers — but also of the machines.
To close, I just want to draw out one line in the film where this misnomer is driven home. And that is where the Commander, frustrated with the support provided to the infantry by the tank’s crew, reminds the gunner about his role in “the death link”:
“I am responsible for everyone here… all you do is stick shells inside a hole”.
Perhaps, he is. Or perhaps he too has just become part of the machine.