Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Dir. Ari Folman

The movie which is probably the clearest companion to Waltz with Bashir is Tower, the Keith Maitland documentary about the University of Texas shootings in 1966. Like Waltz with BashirTower is primarily animated despite its status as documentary, and like Waltz with Bashir relies on interviews with witnesses to tell the story. They even end similarly: after so much of the stories are told with animation, Tower finally cuts to the actual faces of its interviewees. Tower is much the superior movie: significantly more humane, better organized, animated with precision that was not available to the chunky animation of its predecessor. Waltz with Bashir deserves some credit for this trailblazing perspective, and in making the wilds of memory (a shifting and false ecosystem which can be changed with or without the will of its keeper) into this fabricated medium, Folman has his finger on something. Memory believes before knowing remembers, a certain sagacious drunk once noted. Maitland takes out his machete and hacks through that crowded, nebulous ground, and in so doing emphasizes the personhood of his subjects. Folman lets himself get lost in the weeds.

Imagine an inexperienced American kid shipped off to fight overseas. (So far this should not require much imagination.) Let’s make it historical; let’s say the young man in question was sent to Vietnam. He goes to Vietnam, makes some friends, meets some people, but the most important event of his deployment was a massacre akin to My Lai, a massacre that he feels connected to even if he was only loosely related to it. Now fast forward to the present day; imagine that he decides to make a documentary about himself and his platoon which culminates with this tangential second My Lai. This documentary is well made, and the interviews with his fellow soldiers are interesting enough, but the further the documentary goes, it becomes clear that he has no interest in dealing with the history of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia, in questioning why he was there in the first place. He is so focused on his own story that one begins to wonder if he realizes just what his story is about, if his subjectivity has blinded him to the real victims. Is he more concerned about his culpability or putting together an animated documentary? Why isn’t he concerned about the responsibility of his nation? Make this about My Lai and I think we would be wise enough to see the problems inherent in this kind of storytelling. Make this about the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and it gets nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards. Waltz with Bashir is a deeply troubling movie, and not in the way I think Folman wants it to be troubling.

This is not a word I use often about movies, but Waltz with Bashir is immoral. The movie gives us something of the facts: the Phalange entered the camps, killed thousands of people, and the Israeli army did not intervene. International groups and Israeli commissions alike found the Israeli military guilty of the worst negligence at these refugee camps; multiple member nations of the United Nations called it genocide. In the formulation of this documentary, which gives its time and energy to the individual stories of Israeli ex-soldiers (starring Folman), it is the scary experiences those young men underwent that count. Folman’s missing memories about the massacre—which are missing because they never really existed in the first place—make Sabra and Shatila just a plot point, a conveniently dramatic place to end his narrative; he is guilty, he concludes, but a proclamation of guilt without the execution of justice is arrant egotism. He breaks from his animated style to show footage of screaming women, the bloated dead, a child’s corpse; it’s pure showmanship, meant not to reveal some truth about what happened but to shock the viewer. The movie does not even translate what these screaming women are saying; the voices of the Palestinian and Lebanese are immaterial to the story that Folman can only conceive of as important through his own eyes, his own stylistic impression. Folman and his fellow vets are subjects; the Palestinian and Lebanese murdered by the Phalange, witnessed by Israelis, are subaltern.

Waltz with Bashir may have some pretensions to being an anti-war film, because it does realize that people die in wartime. (I know, wild.) Its most piteous moments are, naturally, about animals. The film begins with a rush of dogs, mangy and ragged and lean, in hot pursuit of something. It turns out it’s not pursuit but siege they have in mind. They wait outside the apartment of Boaz Rein, who killed twenty-six dogs so they could not wake up and howl the PLO in a village awake. We watch one of them take the bullet, whimper, and fall. Later on, a psychologist tells the story of a soldier who managed to dissociate himself from the war until he saw a number of horses dead or dying. The camera gets closer on the fly-swarmed eye of one of those dead horses than it gets to anything else; it’s horror, I suppose, but it’s horror that never quite crosses over to human deaths, let alone the deaths of noncombatants. Waltz with Bashir with humans in mind revels in action, in tension. The standout sequence of the film is about an Israeli soldier who is the lone survivor of an ambush on his tank. He waits out the rest of the attack hiding behind a rock, and then swims out into the Mediterranean, fighting off fatigue as long as he can until he manages to stagger ashore into the arms of the Israeli army. In the dark the shots are absent the sickly yellow that defines most of the picture, leaving us with deep blues, a sense of vastness that makes the focus on this individual feel appropriate. Because of his total aloneness in the sea, much of the irresponsibility of Waltz with Bashir fades away. It’s a scene about survival and dumb luck, the two greatest elements of war for the common soldier, a scene that could conceivably have taken place for any combatant on any side of a conflict. If there is any scene in the movie which we might call “anti-war,” it’s that one.

A scene which distinctly fails to qualify as anti-war gives the movie its title. An Israeli officer grapples a machine gun away from another soldier and meanders out into a street peppered with fire from surrounding buildings and the other side of the road. He drunkenly revolves in the middle of the street, firing seemingly at random; a poster of Bashir Gemayel hangs proudly from a nearby building. (I don’t pretend to know much about Gemayel, but it is endlessly interesting to me that one of Folman’s repeated interviewees, Carmi Can’an, refers to the Phalange’s devotion to Gemayel as “erotic.” It is a quiet shifting of blame away from the Israeli military; say that the Phalange carried out the murders, which is fair enough, and then chalk it up to a weakness of character because they’re gay for the assassinated Bashir Gemayel.) A nimble piece by Chopin plays over the scene, diminishing the sounds of conflict. By now putting classical music over war is a fairly tired stereotype: we are a long way from Willem Dafoe getting obliterated to the dulcet tones of Samuel Barber in Platoon, a Nazi soldier rattling off Bach during the liquidation of the ghetto in Schindler’s List, and of course Wagner scoring a helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. Folman is not doing anything particularly new here. The contrast between the organization and beauty of the music is meant to contrast the random violence of war, which, fine. It is surprisingly basic, especially compared to how meaningful the use of the music is in Schindler’s List and Apocalypse Now. In Schindler’s List, a movie I’ve never praised for its subtlety, there’s a tacit wisdom in emphasizing that it is cultured and genteel individuals who not only engaged in but led some of the great atrocities of history, the failure of elites more than some unwashed lumpenproletariat. In Apocalypse Now, Kilgore says that the music is to amp the boys up. Coppola dares us not to think this is an incredibly cool sequence even though we know every American in the battle is guilty of a great wrong. There is no challenge in Frenkel’s one-man assault, one that he survives to narrate decades later; he is pure war hero in that moment, a man alone fighting for country to the strains of a gentle waltz. What recruiter could make war seem more attractive?

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