Tsahal: Lanzmann Documentary, Follow-Up to Landmark Shoah.

(IDF–Israel Defense Force)

Toronto Film Fest, Sept. 12, 1994–A microscopic look at the Israel Defense Force is offered in Tsahal, Claude Lanzmann’s unabashedly epic documentary, a logic follow-up to his landmark 1985 Shoah.

Though not as emotionally gripping and awesome as Shoah, Tsahal is equally remarkable in its unrelenting attempt to understand the ideological foundations of the Israeli Army as one of the most celebrated in the world. While the 5-hour-docu will naturally be embraced by Jewish audiences, Tsahal deserves a major theatrical release, as it raises relevant issues that go beyond Israel and its army, such as conduct during combat, the fear of death, militarism as a value, and the costs for living in a society dominated by wars.

Lanzmann has devoted his entire career to the painstaking documentation of modern Jewish-Israeli history. His cumulative efforts have resulted in a trilogy (Pourquoi Israel in l973, Shoah, and now Tsahal) that has contributed not only to the understanding of the unique Jewish experience, but also changed the conventions of the docu genre in terms of scope, method and style.

The centrality of the army as a sacred institution in Israel’s political culture derives from the fact that in 46 years of independence, the country has engaged in five major wars. This makes Tsahal a much more ambitious and encompassing work than a docu about combat and warfare. Indeed, despite diversity of opinions, the most consistent theme in this film is the crucial link between the Holocaust and the very existence of Israel as a Zionist state.

Using his famed challenging mode, Lanzmann begins his docu by plunging right into the fascinating question of feelings during combat, specifically the fear of death and the guilt involved in survival when all your peers are dead. In the first hour, helmer scrutinizes the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel’s only “bad” war, and its meaning for the the men who fought its battles as well as for the county at large. This war marked a turning point in Israel’s history, as one witness says: “It was like a big fire burning society, a massive execution of a whole generation.”

Docu’s chief strategy is similar to that used in Shoah–complete reliance on direct interviews and reconstructed memories, and avoidance of any historical footage. As Lanzmann conducts his interviews, his camera tracks Israel’s borders, offering a good sense of the country’s tiny size and its alarming proximity to its neighbors: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.

Among the many priceless scenes are interviews with would-be pilots, Israel’s elite force, before and after their test flights. Lanzmann’s cameras are fortuitously present when the weeding out process takes place, evidencing the immediate, spontaneous reaction to success–and failure.

Tsahal focuses its attention on the younger generation (“Israel’s jewel in the crown”), teenagers who are obliged to join the armed forces to serve their term before going into the reserves. While deeply committed to and proud of their service, the youngsters are also aware of the price–“no fun, no girls, the entire energy during adolescence is spent on preparation for the army.”

Covering every possible aspect related to the army, Lanzmann’s cameras “catch” soldiers during field exercises and parachuting, probing their fears and expectations of real wars. At times, docu gets morbid and depressing, as in a cemetery scene, where Lanzmann shockingly realizes that the buried soldiers lost their lives at the young age of 18 or 19.

In its first part, Tsahal seems like a tribute to the indefatigable spirit of the Israeli soldier. But then Lanzmann switches to the dissenting voices of writers David Grossman and Amos Oz and civil rights lawyer Avigdor Feldman, who criticize Israel’s militarism and its treatment of Arabs in the occupied territories. Docu’s last hour is particularly strong in juxtaposing the irreconcilable left-wing and right-wing views on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Tsahal is by no means flawless: Some viewers will find it exceedingly long. And not all the information is equally absorbing: The sequences dealing with the Israeli tank–and other machinery–may be too technical for the lay public. Out of respect for his witnesses, many of whom are members of the military elite, Lanzmann neither interrupts nor forces cuts, letting them conclude their stories well beyond making the crucial point.

There’s one glaring omission: Lanzmann didn’t interview any women in the military, which is peculiar considering Israel’s pride in initiating compulsory service for women and women’s representation in almost every branch. Having gathered his info in l992, the recent development in the Middle East contextulaized Tsahal in ways that couldn’t have been anticipated by Lanzmann–or Israel’s power elite.

Nonetheless, as in Shoah, Lanzmann’s persistent, tireless probing hammers away at details that initially appear isolated, but later have an enormously cumulative power. After 5 hours of lengthy interviews with officers and rank-and-file, military and civilians, one gets a good grasp of what makes the Israeli army tick.

Running time: 300 min.

With Major-General Arik Sharon, Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, Major-General Avihu Bin-Nun, Air Force Commander, writers Amos Oz and David Grossman, lawyer Avigdor Feldman, and others.