Israel's "Lebanon generation" -- in the movies

Director Samuel Maoz on his hypnotic, terrifying "Lebanon" and the war that became Israel's Vietnam

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 7, 2010 1:01AM (EDT)

A still from "Lebanon"
A still from "Lebanon"

Samuel Maoz was a tank gunner in the Israeli army during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, a conflict with murky goals and outcomes that resulted in a large civilian death toll and remains highly controversial even today. None of that political or historical context is visible in Maoz's extraordinary war film, "Lebanon," but that's precisely the source of its power.

Told entirely from the claustrophobic perspective of a tank crew -- unsure of where they are, who their allies are and whether they are firing on belligerents or innocent civilians -- "Lebanon" is a terrifying, absorbing 93 minutes spent in hell. It captures the intensity of warfare in a visceral fashion that recalls Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" and Oliver Stone's "Platoon." Indeed, the resemblance to Vietnam movies is not pure coincidence, since Maoz describes the Lebanon war as a social trauma that affected Israel much the way Vietnam affected the United States. Except that Lebanon is just north of Israel, not thousands of miles away. It's as if Vietnam were where Ontario is, and the Viet Cong had been sporadically shelling Detroit.

Maoz's "Lebanon" is at least the third film about the '80s war to be made since Israel's second invasion of Lebanon in 2006, an attempt to uproot the Hezbollah militia that ended in an ambiguous stalemate that was widely felt, in Israel and around the world, to be closer to defeat. That's not an accident either. Like "Waltz With Bashir" director Ari Folman and "Beaufort" director Joseph Cedar, Maoz sees Lebanon as a watershed moment for Israeli society, when the nationalistic fervor and cultural certainty of the post-Holocaust generation were replaced by doubt and an increasing sense of guilt.

All three of those films have been widely praised and almost as widely criticized. "Lebanon" was rejected by the Berlin International Film Festival, amid widespread European hostility to Israel's 2009 Gaza invasion (for which, needless to say, Maoz was not responsible). The film went on to win the Golden Lion at Venice, arguably a more prestigious festival. Perhaps some critics of Israel yearn for a didactic political message in a movie that means to be entirely experiential -- not to mention in a geopolitical situation notably lacking in clear moral answers. But anyone who interprets "Lebanon" (or the other two films mentioned) as a justification for Israel's aggressive policies hasn't watched it with clear eyes or an open heart.

I met Samuel Maoz recently at a New York hotel. A balding, unassuming, middle-aged man, he proved to be a spellbinding storyteller as he talked about his own war experiences, the long-term traumas of Israel's "Lebanon generation" and the making of one of the most remarkable war films in cinema history.

Ari Folman, the director of "Waltz With Bashir," was of course also a soldier in Lebanon. He says he could remember almost none of his war experiences until he started the process that led to making the film. How much do you remember?

To tell you the truth, I remember everything from the first day and a bit of the second day. All the rest of the war ... It's because the army can't prepare you for war. They can teach you to use guns and get you in shape. But nothing can prepare you for the mental situation. The primitive trick of war is to take a soldier, take a human being, and put him in a real-life danger situation. Maybe this sounds theoretical, but when you feel it, you feel it in every cell of your body.

And then the process starts. It can take 24 hours, more or less. I remember that the first step was that I almost lost my sense of taste, because I needed to eat everything without saying, "I like it," or "I don't like it." Then you start to hear very sharply. And then, in the end, you start to kill.

You don't think anymore about all those moral or ethical codes you were raised on. When you fall into war, you fall into such an extreme situation where all the basic rules of life are not there anymore. If you continue to think with the logic of normal life, you will find yourself dead. You don't have any options, because your most basic instinct -- your survival instinct -- takes control, and this is like a heavy drug. You are not you anymore. You are not even afraid anymore. You're like an animal someone is trying to hunt.

You don't have plans. You know, now you are interviewing me and next you are having lunch with someone and you are thinking about tomorrow. In war you don't think what will happen tomorrow, or in the next hour. And this is less interesting. You function like an animal, and so you don't remember the details. Maybe it's a kind of defense mechanism.

I read a very interesting article by a Harvard psychologist which showed that most of the soldiers who die in war die on their first day. On the second day you have 50 percent less chance of dying, and after three days if you die it's from bad luck, like a bomb falling on your head. But not because of your own mistake. So I remember the first day very sharply, but all the rest is dim and blurred.

But "Lebanon" is autobiographical, right? It's based on what you actually saw and experienced.

Not just based on my experiences -- it's my own personal story. Shmulik [played by Yoav Donat], the gunner -- that's the nickname for Samuel in Hebrew. It's like Sam in English. This is, let's say, a light version of my experiences.

Like Ari Folman, you waited a long time to tell this story.

It was 25 years until I started the project. Yes, for me the making of "Lebanon" was a need. Generally, I needed to unload, I needed to expose the war as it is, without all the heroic stuff and the rest of the clichés, but it was mainly a need to -- I don't know if "forgive myself" is the right expression, but maybe to find some understanding, because I have a responsibility.

What is your responsibility?

My responsibility was inevitable, it was part of my destiny. You can see in the first war sequence, the banana-grove sequence, that if you are pulling or not pulling the trigger, it's the same. Death will come because of you anyway. You are a kind of executioner anyway. So, OK, it was a no-way-out situation. But in the end there is a huge difference between understanding that you didn't have a choice and the fact that you feel responsible, you feel guilty.

I waited 25 years, and I think the main reason relates to my generation. They used to call us the "Lebanon generation" in Israel. Our parents, our teachers, many of them came from Europe and some of them came from the German camps. I can remember my teacher with a number on her arm, shouting to the class that we must fight for our country, kill for it, die for it if necessary. You know, maybe she had her reasons for thinking that everybody wanted to exterminate us.

We were normal boys, born in Israel, and our thoughts were not about everybody wanting to exterminate us. We thought about the Tel Aviv beach, and about girls. But we were brainwashed. And to come back from war in the beginning of the '80s with two hands, two legs and 10 fingers, without burn marks on your skin, and to start complaining that you feel bad inside, it was almost unforgivable. They used to tell us, "Say thank you that you are alive. We were in the camps!" I remember that we hated their camps, just because they used them against us all the time.

Did the second Lebanon war, in 2006, push you into making the film?

Yes, because suddenly I saw that if I didn't speak now our kids would be dealing with the same Lebanon nightmare all over again. It's like everything else in life: When it regards you, you can skip it, but when it's touching your children that's totally something else. I had a good friend that lost his son, his only son, in the second Lebanon campaign. So I thought to myself, if I can find an effective way to tell this story, it might actually save a life here and there. That was my main reason.

I tried to write the script in '88, after I finished studying cinema in university. After writing one or two pages, the first memory came back: the smell. The smell of burning flesh. I backed off. I didn't want to do this film like someone who was there, but as a film director who can take these memories, take this pain, and process it in a cold way, to create a film that will do the work. As long as I was smelling it, I wasn't ready yet.

In the end, when I started writing the project during the second Lebanon war, suddenly there was no smell anymore. And then, one night, I found, let's say, the cinematic concept -- the key for the film. The events that really happened, and even worse events [that aren't in the film], were the symptoms, not the issue itself. The issue is what's going on in a soldier's soul during a war. I know that sounds almost like a student project, but I realized that the only way for me to deliver it to someone who wasn't there, who doesn't have a clue, is not through the head but through the stomach, through the heart.

Was that why you came up with the idea of telling the whole story inside the tank?

Yes. I felt that to achieve such an emotional understanding, you needed to create a very strong experience. OK, I will take you and put you inside the tank so you totally identify with the characters. You see only what they see, you know only what they know. My ambition is that you won't feel like an objective audience watching the plot rolling in front of you. I want you to experience it, to feel it. To sit in the gunner's chair, to see the cross hairs, to see the victim staring into your eyes. I realized this was the only way for me to deliver it, and for you as an audience to understand it.

So in the end it was smart to wait 25 years for the director to come along. I can always trust the kid who was there to come and help me if I need him! Now when I feel sorry for Shmulik, it's more like a screenwriter who feels sorry for his character than like me feeling sorry for myself.

This is at least the third film about the Lebanon war made since 2007. It seems as if this war shaped the consciousness of your generation. Maybe it's like Vietnam, in American terms.

Yes, yes, for sure. This was a nightmare for the society, I think, not just for one generation. This was not something that happened by accident. You saw the second Lebanon war in 2006, and then people started to speak out in 2007 and 2008. That was the main reason, for sure.

You can compare it to your Vietnam, I guess. I feel lucky because, you know, I found my way to unload it. It's not like I was ill and now I am healthy again, but I can't deny that during the process of making the film I got, let's say, the best treatment I could achieve for myself. That was a byproduct, something that I found myself earning on the way.

After making "Lebanon," suddenly many, many people sent me e-mails from all over the country. Not just soldiers from Lebanon, but also ex-soldiers' wives, ex-soldiers' children, telling me, "Now I understand all his behavior." I'm sure that just 1 percent of those who want to speak will bother to search out my e-mail and write. There must be many others sharing these feelings.

You know, I met a big Israeli businessman a few days ago. He wants to put money in my next project, so I went to see him. It was a very fancy office on the 50th floor, with many secretaries. In his office you see a picture of his wife and kids -- it looked like a perfect life.

Suddenly he closed the door and told me that he was in Lebanon and they told him to shoot at a neighborhood, because there were just terrorists there, no civilians anymore. He asked, "Are you sure?" They told him, "Yes, we're sure." He started to do it, for something like 20 minutes. He told me, "I felt heavy, but I told myself, well, there are only terrorists there." After half an hour or an hour, the rumors started to come: There were many families there, many civilians.

He started to tell me: "I'm a coward. I'm nothing. I'm a murderer." And he started to cry like a baby, sitting there in his office. You see someone like him, where it looks like everything is OK. And inside, he's totally crushed.

When you see something happen like the Gaza campaign in 2009, where there have been many allegations that civilians were killed, do you get upset? Do you see the same pattern repeating itself?

Yes, for sure, and I paid a price for it. Because the Berlinale told me they couldn't accept my film in that situation. "Now we need to secure the red carpet, it's not the right time," and so forth. In the end, I was glad. I went to Venice and won the Golden Lion.

But I've had people in Europe wait for me outside the cinema -- not people who saw the film -- to yell at me: "Baby-killer! Go back to Auschwitz!" Like I'm some kind of messenger from the government. Just people who had heard that there was an Israeli film about Lebanon. And suddenly policemen have to come protect me and I thought, what the hell, I'm just an artist who's trying to bring peace in my way. That's the other side of the coin, I guess.

Is it going to take 20 years before the soldiers who went to Gaza will start talking about what they saw and did there?

I hope not. The new generation in Israel -- it's like everywhere, this is a very global generation, the iPhone and Google generation. I believe that in the end this generation will bring peace -- not for humanistic reasons but for egotistical reasons, practical reasons. Everything is legitimate if it leads to peace, except killing. We have peace with Egypt and it's working. We are not such good friends, but it's working.

Our parents, our teachers, because they really believed that everyone wanted to exterminate them and this was their only chance, felt like they had nothing to lose. So they won their wars [in 1948 and 1967 and 1973], against all the odds. Our generation was in the middle, so the Lebanon war was so-so. But the new generation, in 2006, with the best army in terms of equipment and technology, they lost [in the second Lebanon war]. Because they have low motivation and they don't believe in it anymore. They don't feel in danger, not in the same way.

What has the reaction to your film been like inside Israel? Have you heard criticism?

Generally, it was much more positive than negative. From our parents' generation, the older generation, it was a little bit negative. They didn't say it was a bad film, or that it was a lie. They suggested that maybe it wasn't time to screen a film like this in Israel, because maybe mothers won't send their sons to the army. But from the younger generation, it was totally positive.

Israelis always search for a reason to celebrate. If a film wins the Golden Lion at Venice, it doesn't really matter if it's a war film or a romantic comedy. So that helped, no doubt!

"Lebanon" is now playing in New York and opens Aug. 13 in Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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