At 6:15 AM on June 6th 1982, on the first day of the Lebanon War, Tel-Aviv born director Samuel Maoz killed a man for the first time in his life. By the end of that day he had killed many more. He was twenty years old. Twenty-five years later he wrote the script for the film Lebanon – his cinematic confession. In the intervening years he quieted the memories of that day behind denial and outbursts of violent anger. It was the only way he felt he could survive. Trained as a gunner for The Armored Corps of the Israel Defence Forces he had only practiced kill shots on barrels of gasoline. When he returned from the war his Mother embraced him, weeping with gratitude that he had been returned to her safe and sound:
“In fact, I did not come home at all. She had no idea that her son had died in Lebanon and that she was now embracing an empty shell”
Lebanon is not an easy watch – you need to know this upfront. Comparisons to Das Boot and Black Hawk Down will undoubtedly be drawn and these familiar touchstones will create a sense of complacency about the manner of film you might expect to see. Yet you have probably never seen a film like Lebanon before. It sequesters its audience inside a tank with four young men about whom we know nothing beyond the anecdotes they share. We see what they see, hear what they hear and fear what they cannot. Shmuel the gunner, Assi the commander, Hertzel the loader and Yigal the driver are our companions for this unapologetic journey into the heart of the conflict. Excepting two exterior shots we observe everything down the crosshairs of the tank’s gunsight. Intelligence is received over the crackling radio and the only tangible contact with the outside world comes from furious visits from commander Gamil as young Shmuel struggles to obey a horrifically basic order. Kill.
There is a raw simplicity to Lebanon which takes your breath away; the story is related with the matter-of-factness of a child. I had imagined that the gunsight perspective would provide the audience some detachment from the brutality of the images of bloodshed, but it does not. Samuel’s intention was that you experience the emotional punch of the subject matter by staring directly at it. He has certainly achieved that. During our interview he was emphatic that true emotion is best expressed solely through the eyes. For the ninety-three minutes there is no let up for the viewer because the camera, like the gunsight, never blinks respite from the brutality outside. Rather than the claustrophobic atmosphere you might expect, there is a terrible intimacy inside the tank, every sound and emotion amplified by the tight space. There is little artifice and the emotional content, though stark, is not contrived.
All four leads, Yoav Donat (Shmuel) in particular, impressed in their demanding roles. To convey such depth of feeling in a film which contains so little dialogue is commendable. The stand-out performance for me came from Zohar Strauss as commander Gamil. The thinly veiled rage and passion of his character recalled Tony ‘Scarface’ Montana and to watch the range of emotions dance across his face was, to me, every bit as exhilarating.
During a location tour for the film, the heads of department realised that they had each played a part in the first Lebanon conflict. The art director a combat medic, the gaffer a paratrooper and D.O.P Giora Bejach an Air Force intelligence controller. As they reminisced they discovered something extraordinary: a cry for help that Bejach had intercepted of a lone tank lost deep in the industrial zone of Beirut had originated from Samuel Maoz’s tank. The story they were recounting was that of those events. This extraordinary coincidence aside, the singular experiences of all these men lend an articulacy to the sparse story of Lebanon which make it quite exceptional. A man is killed in revenge, a family are spared then destroyed and a young man shaves his face in a stranded tank and slowly loses his mind…
I must confess I turned away from certain scenes in this film. Like the water pooled on the floor beneath Assi’s feet, the picture gets dirty fast. It is tense and it is cruel. Lebanon does not beg forgiveness and it doesn’t take the time to wonder why? This is not a popcorn-and-a-coke movie, but it may well prove to be one of the best you’ll see this year.