If Rob Reiner gave us a “rockumentary”/”mockumentary” with his famous This is Spinal Tap, the Israeli director Ari Folman has now created a new genre of “documation” with his Academy Award-nominated animated film Waltz with Bashir. Whereas Reiner’s intentions were clearly satirical, however, and his film made no pretense to being factual, Folman’s intentions are deadly serious and his film aspires to get at a truth that is somehow even “deeper” than the mere facts. That “deep truth,” namely, is the responsibility of Israel for the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre during the 1982 Lebanon War.
Folman — in animated form, of course — is the star of his own film. He was a soldier in the Israeli Army during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He does not recall participating in any war crimes and he specifically does not recall having anything to do with Sabra and Shatila. The perpetrators of the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps are known, in any case, to have been Lebanese Christian forces. But Folman does have an enigmatic dream placing him on a beach not far from the camps at the time of the massacre. His lack of recollections from the war troubles him and he sets out to fill the gap by talking with other persons who were present in one capacity or another during the invasion. In the manner of someone attempting to recapture repressed childhood memories through psychoanalysis, the entire exercise is thus premised on the assumption that Israel was indeed somehow complicit in the massacre. (In the only scene that adds a touch of ambiguity to the film, however, a psychologist tells Folman that experimental subjects can be readily induced to recall events that never in fact occurred.)
As concerns Folman’s personal involvement, the results of his efforts at self-examination are notably meager. In the end, he manages merely to “recollect” that he was present on a rooftop while Israeli troops set off flares in the vicinity of Sabra and Shatila, an action that seems to him to have been designed to aid the killers.
Along the way, however, the viewer is served up a veritable orgy of Israeli violence and vulgarity. Israeli soldiers are shown firing indiscriminately into fields and crushing civilian vehicles under their tanks. They are depicted carousing on a military vessel headed for the Lebanese coast (a kind of “love boat,” one character says) and cavorting on Lebanese beaches. They are depicted slaughtering defenseless animals and blowing holes in what appear to be residential structures. “I bombed Beirut every day,” the rock soundtrack blares, “Sure we kill some innocent along the way.” During the “I bombed Beirut” sequence, amidst the scattershot images of varied carnage, Ariel Sharon is depicted sitting down to a breakfast of beef and no less than five eggs, while holding a knife menacingly in his hand. Sharon was the Israeli minister of defense at the time of the Lebanon invasion.
In what may be the single scene most certain to inflame anti-Israeli — if not indeed outright anti-Semitic — prejudice, a portly unshaven Israeli officer is seen slouched half-undressed in an armchair while watching a porn video in an occupied villa on the outskirts of Beirut. (For lord knows what reason, the soundtrack of the porn film is in German.) By virtue of physiognomy and theme, the image is creepily reminiscent of the anti-Semitic caricatures featured in Julius Streicher’s infamous Nazi propaganda sheet Der Stürmer. (See here for an example. The cartoon is titled “Jewish Culture.” It shows a svelte “Aryan” couple contemplating nature, while the Stürmer cartoonist’s stock “fat Jew,” seen in profile, attends a porn flick titled The Sweet Sins.)
All of the above is, of course, neither documentary nor “documation.” It is quite simply fiction — even if Folman might want to plead that the scenes are somehow based on “recovered” memories.
Moreover, even the claim to authenticity of those scenes that appear to be strictly “documentary” or “documational” is highly deceptive. In the scene that most directly connects Israeli troops to an obvious atrocity, Folman’s friend Carmi Can’an narrates how under cover of night his army unit opened fire unprovoked on an approaching blue Mercedes, riddling the car with bullets. At dawn, the soldiers slowly walk by the car and observe its dead occupants: a family with a young child. Viewed amidst a series of testimonials by real persons, whose voices are dubbed onto the images of their animated alter egos, the scene is shocking. But, as so happens — and as the average viewer will surely never realize — Carmi Can’an is not a real person. The part of Can’an is read by the actor Yehezkel Lazarov. (In French promotional materials for the film, Folman acknowledges that Can’an and one of the other interviewees are not real. He insists, however, that their testimonials are real, claiming that the authors “for various reasons” did not want their identities revealed.)
The non-existent “Carmi Can’an” also recounts seeing Lebanese Christian forces storing body parts of murdered Palestinians in jars of formaldehyde. Folman illustrates the narration with an appropriately gruesome image. The scene appears to be a cinematic allusion to the barbarous practices of Josef Mengele and the other “Nazi doctors.” Since the Israelis are supposed to have been aware of the pickled body parts before sending their Christian allies into Sabra and Shatila, the story reinforces the charge of Israeli complicity.
Even some of the genuine interviews, moreover, give serious cause to pause. The Israeli war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai, for example, claims that he called Ariel Sharon to inform him of reports of a massacre going on in the refugee camps. According to Ben-Yishai’s account, Sharon appeared to have been sleeping. Sharon thanked him for the call, Ben-Yishai says, and then hung up the phone “and went back to sleep.” But how could Ben-Yishai, on the other end of the line, know that Sharon went back to sleep? Ben-Yishai’s animated alter ego first appears on screen walking calmly among flying bullets, as if possessed of superhuman courage. His cameraman cowers cravenly in front of him, thus reinforcing the effect. But the real Ben-Yishai’s courage can well be doubted. As both Ben-Yishai and Folman know, dead men tell no tales — and neither do men in irreversible comas.
Waltz with Bashir insists on drawing wildly overblown parallels between Nazi Germany and Israel and even goes so far as to compare Sabra and Shatila to Auschwitz. In the spirit of the latter comparison, Folman calls the massacre a “genocide.” Given the literal meaning of the word “genocide” — namely, the extermination of a people as such — to describe a single massacre, however bloody, as “genocide” represents an obvious logical howler and serves in fact to debase the term. The very allusion to Auschwitz, where thousands of Jews were industrially put to death every day over the course of years, sets in relief the absurdity of the comparison. During one of their psychobabble chat sessions, a friend of Folman tells him that he took on “the role of the Nazi”: namely, by standing on a roof while his fellow soldiers shot off flares over Beirut. Ron Ben-Yishai also joins in the fun, saying that Palestinians that he saw being led away from one of the camps reminded him of the iconic photo of the little Jewish boy with raised hands being led away at gunpoint from the Warsaw ghetto. Folman’s illustrators helpfully provide an image that is obviously modeled on the latter and that shows a little Palestinian boy with his hands raised in the same position.
Such allusions will be music to the ears and balm for the souls of Folman’s European and, more specifically, German audience. What greater absolution could there be for the horrors inflicted by Germans on Jews during the Second World War than to find that Jews themselves have been complicit in analogous crimes? The urgent psychological need of many Germans to believe this was made clear by a 2004 public opinion survey conducted by the University of Bielefeld. Fifty-one percent of Germans surveyed thought that Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is “no different than what the Nazis did to the Jews in the Third Reich.” Fully 68 percent of respondents accused Israel of conducting a “war of extermination” against the Palestinians. (On the Bielefeld survey and related matters, see here.)
But, it will be objected, Waltz with Bashir is an Israeli film. Why should an Israeli director cater to the psychodramas of Germans? Why indeed? And why when Waltz with Bashir showed at Cannes last year was it included in a German government-subsidized publication promoting “German films” in the competition”?
The reasons why will be explored in part two on Waltz with Bashir tomorrow.