“Lebanon” is the feature film debut of Samuel Maoz, who served in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Based on his own experiences of the first day of the conflict, it took its director 25 years to bring himself to finally complete the script. Watching the film, it becomes exceedingly clear why it took its writer-director so long to complete the film.
The film is very much a personal work and, as a result, deeply effective and extremely well made. Except for only three exterior shots, the entire film is set inside a cramped and claustrophobic tank in which four Israeli soldiers work, sweat, eat, sleep and urinate. As they move through a war-ravaged land guided by a pitiless commander, tensions rise with the temperature and one by one they fall apart.
The film has been compared favourably with Wolfgang Peterson’s “Das Boot”, a film that “Lebanon” outshines if not simply because it’s setting is much more confined than Peterson’s submarine, then because of it’s much more powerful vision of the horrors of war. Maoz does not shy away from presenting some of the most harrowing images of war ever put on screen. Families, not just enemy soldiers, are in the firing line. Like the film’s terrified gunner, we see the world through the crosshairs of a gun and when the orders come in to fire on the enemy or civilians, we are put right in the gunner’s place. The moral dilemma is suffocating and the film makes it clear: if we were sitting in that gunner’s place we would do the same thing.
Coming out nowadays as it does, “Lebanon” unwittingly draws some important parallels with a very popular current means of recreating war scenes. The realistic war sequences viewed entirely through crosshairs inescapably remind the viewer of the “Call of Duty” series of video games. Completely by accident, Maoz raises questions concerning the morality of painstakingly recreating war scenes as realistically as possible for the purposes of entertainment. In “Lebanon”, the people dying are family men and innocents, having had little involvement or understanding of the war around them, and their deaths are far from swift, clean and inconsequential.
However, far from a vicious splatter-fest, Maoz is more concerned with the psychology of the four men in the tank. The film is a convincing portrait of men in crisis, bickering and clinging to no longer valid orders. For me, the most uncomfortable sequence is when a captured enemy soldier, chained inside the tank, screams for help after a vengeful renegade has coldly explained exactly what they plan to do to him once they get their hands on him. The prisoner soon finds that no one on the tank understands what either of them have been saying and that he can’t be saved. It is a horribly convincing image of a man in panic.
The film won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and looks to be the beginning of a remarkable career. Hopefully, unlike Elim Klinov of the equally horrific “Come And See”, he hasn’t said all he needs to say.