Israel (2009) Dir. Samuel Maoz

Set during the 1982 war in Lebanon, four tank bound Israeli soldiers – Commander Assi (Itay Tiran), young gunner Jamil (Zohar Shtrauss), loader Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) and driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov) – are tasked with the mission of clearing a path for the foot soldiers. Also on board is the corpse of a dead colleague and a Syrian POW (Dudu Tassa) to be delivered to a Phalangist group.

Based on his own experiences as a young conscript during this conflict, Samuel Maoz’s film won the Leone d’Oro at the 2009 Venice International Film Festival, the first Israeli film to do so. In its homeland it caused much controversy, largely for fear that it would discourage young Israelis from joining the army. With the action contained mostly within the confines of the tank with the only external views coming via the gunsight, Lebanon has been labelled “Das Boot in a tank” which is quite a lofty and, as we learn, an unfair mantel to place upon it.

At a third of the running time – a swift 83 minutes – and far less physical room for the actors to perform in, the comparisons to the German classic continue to be nullified as we go on. Both films however share the premise of depicting the claustrophobia of being cooped up inside a tank in harsh conditions and the effects of their military endeavours but there the similarities end.

Having a main cast of just four soldiers may sound like a recipe for ennui but the performances are nuanced and believable, as each man struggles to maintain his composure and sanity under the strain of the heat, wet, dank and cramped surroundings, lack of sustenance and each other’s foibles. Our leads never get to leave the tank during the film but daylight often comes their way whenever they are visited by their hardnosed officer Schmulik (Yoav Donat), a man with little sympathies for their complaints. He barks his orders then leaves but is forced to return to chew the team out for failing to comply and jeopardising the missions.

The main culprit of this is 18 year-old Jamil, based on Maoz, whose previous experience with a tank gun is shooting at sacks during training. Now faced with shooting people Jamil regularly loses his nerve despite Assi’s constant yelling at him to obey, earning Schmulik’s wrath as a result. Despite their outward frustrations, it is strongly implied that his companions secretly sympathise with the youngster and don’t envy his position at all. During one occasion later on when Jamil once again freezes the tank is hit by a rocket launcher and suffers sever damage but somehow manages to carry on regardless.

Aside from a couple of shots which bookend the film, the external world is only seen via the gunsight which provides a unique point of view for the audience while on occasion coming across a little hokey. In one tragic scene in which a Lebanese family is wiped out by terrorists which Jamil was ordered to shoot but couldn’t, the lone surviving mother (Reymond Amsalem) looks directly into the gunsight and holds its gaze before breaking down.

It may be a creative way to share with us her suffering of this horrific conflict, but would a traumatised victim who had just lost their family have such cognisance to locate would should be a discreet viewfinder? Perhaps I am nitpicking but it feels somewhat akin to breaking the fourth wall, since the view from the gunsight is only partially a window for the audience during the film, with almost all of the violence and action taking place off screen with only the sounds of war to let us know what is occurring.

What Moaz does achieve exceptionally well however is to relate to the viewer the unpleasantness and harsh realities of war on a personal level. There maybe little time for character development among the soldiers, but we get enough measure of them to follow their progress throughout this mission and to share their discomfort.

Some may dismiss the “war is hell” message as hackneyed but we are seeing it from the perspective of four men who cannot run away or turn a blind eye to it for being stuck within the belly a huge metal beast, while enduring their own personal hell of heat, darkness, dehydration, water leakage and having to relieve themselves in a metal tin! With what they see on the outside traumatic enough who really has the most advantageous seat in the house?

Dismissing the technical and creative niggles of the film, Lebanon is a personal and very genuine film that draws the viewer into a world it knows it doesn’t want to go. It offers a unique perspective into a much covered subject and does so without any sugar coating or mollycoddling. The tension is palpable and the pervasive sense of dread makes for an unsettling yet captivating experience. A sublime, bold and challenging slice of world cinema.