Lebanon (2009): Israeli Samuel Maoz’s Superb War Movie

For debutant writer-director Samuel Maoz, the making of “Lebanon,” the brilliant Israeli war film, might have been a cathartic act, while the events that inspired the film’s contents, occurring 30 years ago, almost killed him as a soldier fighting in the first Lebanon War.
World premiering at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, where it surprisingly but deservedly won the top prize (the Golden Lion), “Lebanon” then played at Toronto Film Fest (in the Visions series) and New York Film Fest. Sony Classics will release it in August as counter-programming to the summer’s top guns.
Physical, visceral, even sensual, “Lebanon” is set on the first day of the Lebanon War, the early morning of June 6, 1982. This remarkable movie places the viewers right in the midst of the action—like the soldiers inside, we can never turn away or take a step back to breathe and reflect. With the exception of two or three exterior shots, the vast majority of the story takes place inside a hot, sweaty, rusty tank, in which four young soldiers, assigned to operate a single tank, are trying to survive the atrocities—moment by moment.
Their first mission is to enter a civilian Lebanese village to clear it of possible terrorists. Things go horribly wrong, however, and the ensuing panic and confusion lead to miscommunication, death, and destruction. All hell breaks loose around the young men as they face the perennial question–to kill or to be killed. Needless to say, none of these men are “heroes” and none eager to kill.
Maoz was a 20-year-old novice soldier in the initial days of the Lebanon War. Traumatized by his time in combat, for years he had experienced outbursts of anger and long stretches of depression. But it wasn’t until 2007 that he felt there might be something to gain, personally and collectively, from creating a fictionalized filmic version of his experience.
“Lebanon” joins a growing body of Israeli films (it’s almost a sub-genre by now) all made recently, including “Beaufort” (2007) and the Oscar-nominee “Waltz with Bashir” (2008), in which a particular generation of Israeli soldiers look for ways to bare their souls, voice their questions and doubts, and search for peace of mind.
Of the trio, “Lebanon” may be the boldest, most experimental and uncompromising features. Set just months after the beginning of the war, “Waltz With Bashir” was original in blending various genres and styles (animation, narrative, documentary), in dealing with the emotional and psychological issues created by that war. In contrast, “Lebanon” never leaves the damp, intense confines of a tank. Made in gritty, ultra-realistic style, the film is tough to watch but quite rewarding. Just like Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker,” about the Iraq War, “Lebanon” makes significant contribution to the war movie genre by expanding its scope, narrative and stylistic possibilities.
By braving his “heart of darkness,” and tearing material out of his painful memories, Maoz has created a film that poses significant questions not only about combat and survival during war times, but also about the unbearable societal pressures on young men to go through horrendous life-and-death experiences that no family of culture could have prepared them for.
Maoz shows us war through the eyes of four extremely young Israeli soldiers, forced together into the claustrophobic space of a tank. On another, more abstract level, “Lebanon” uses the tank as microcosm to explore broader issues, such as group dynamics, power-struggle, moral torment, emotional anxiety, and sheer fear of both killing and dying.
Barely out of high school, the soldiers are themselves innocent, sensitive boys whose uniforms, ranks, and assignments are meant to turn them into tough fighters–at a price.
Remarkably, the central characters are fully developed individuals, not types or stereotypes. The crew consists of Herzl, the headstrong loader, Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the timid gunner who’s director Maoz’s alter-ego, Assi (Itay Tiran, who also acted in “Beaufort”), the not-too-secure commander, and Yigal ((Michael Moshonov), the scared driver.
Tensions among the quartet build up as a result of limited physical space, dangerous tasks, but also different socio-economic backgrounds that the soldiers represent. Thus, from the beginning, there is resentment between Herzl and Assi over the issue of control.
The tale begins when the crew is ordered to cross the border into Lebanon and block a dusty road. When an approaching car refuses to stop, they are ordered to blow it up. Shmulik refuses, and as a result, some soldiers in their battalion are killed. Minutes later, another truck appears, and Jamil (the battalion commander) orders Shmulik to shoot. This time around, Shmulik overcomes his anxiety and blows the truck up. Ironically, it turns out to be an innocent farmer, who’s left crawling across the dusty ground.
When the tank breaks down, the crew is relieved, hoping to be airlifted out of the war zone. However, they cannot be reached because they are too deep into enemy territory. The tank crew is thus left alone and isolated to find their way out of this treacherous land.
The battalion moves across villages decimated by Israeli air strikes, but the rubble provides cover for Lebanese troops still trying to protect their land.   The battles result in deaths on all sides, of Israeli and Lebanese troops, and of both soldiers and innocent residents.
Maoz has made a fascinating, complex, personal, and provocative movie about a tough war in which they are no easy winners and losers, one whose peculiar nature has long lasting effects on all involved.  In the course of very intense 90 minutes, we get glimpses into the shifting relationships among the quartet of troopers: The forced macho attitude versus the more natural naiveté, the relentless and necessary co-dependency versus the wish for independence, the angry exchanges of words and the immediate regret that follows them, the choking of tears (“boys don’t cry” in public), all of which are depicted in an utterly convincing and compelling way.
The helmer should be commended for his crucial and inspired decision to set the whole action inside the study dankness and menacing darkness of a tank, which presents both dramatically narrative and formally stylistic challenges. The experience and impact of this brutality on one beleaguered, devastated crew is depicted from Shmulik’s POV, which is the tank’s peephole.
About the director
Samuel Maoz was born in Tel Aviv, where he studied cinematography at the Beit Tzvi school. He has worked as a production designer in film and television, and has also directed documentaries, television series and theatre productions.
“Lebanon” is his first feature film.
Yoav Donat
Itay Tiran
Oshri Cohen
Michael Moshonov
Zohar Strauss
Dudu Tasa
Ashraf Barhom
Reymonde Amsellem
Production Company: Metro Communications/Ariel Films & German Co-Producer Ariel
Produced by Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, Einat Bikel, Uri Sabag, David Silber, Benjamina Mirnik, Ilann Girard.
Executive producer, Gil Sassover.
Directed, written by Samuel Maoz.
Cinematographer: Giora Bejach
Editor: Arik Lahav-Leibovich
Production Designer: Ariel Roshko
Sound: David Liss, Tobias Fleig, Jan Petzold.
Sound designer, Alex Claude
Music: Nicolas Becker
Costume designer: Hila Bargiel
Assistant directors: Avichai Henig, Shir Shoshani.
Special effects: Pini Klavir.
Stunt coordinator: Dima Osmolovski.
Casting: Hila Yuval.
Running time: 94 Minutes.