An insider’s view of the casualties of war
Except for its opening and closing shots, the entirety of “Lebanon’’ takes place inside a tank rolling chaotically through the first days of Israel’s 1982 Lebanon War. What we see of the conflict comes to us the way it comes to the tank’s young gunner, Schmuel (Yoav Donat): Through the circular, increasingly shattered glass-eyepiece of his periscope. It’s more than enough. Harrowing and horrifying, Samuel Moaz’s debut feature (it won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival) is a filmmaking challenge that a cynic might dismiss as “Das Tank’’ if it didn’t offer a scalding moral challenge in the bargain.
Moaz himself served in a tank during the Lebanon War; he wrote the script in an effort to exorcise his demons and is, in effect, the character of Schmuel. Consequently, the other three soldiers are more fleshed out and individualized while still falling within the time-honored archetypes of war films. Assi (Itay Tiran) is the rich-boy commander in way over his head. Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), the loader, is the lower-class realist, hard-nosed and profane; he knows that whatever happens it’s the grunts who lose. The driver, Yigal (Michael Moshonov), is the Kid, but his naivete is only a matter of degrees greater than the others’.
Their tank has just rolled over the border when “Lebanon’’ opens, attached to an Israeli Defense Forces infantry unit headed by the grizzled Jamil (Zohar Strauss). While the camera and the audience’s POV never leave the dank, oily confines of the tank, the outside world does come inside: Jamil dropping through the hatch to chide the crew; the body of a soldier temporarily stored and airlifted out — he vanishes into the helicopter’s light-beam like a raptured soul — a Syrian captive (Dudu Tassa); a Lebanese Phalangist (Ashraf Barhom) who’s supposedly on the Israeli side but who’s the most frightening character in the movie.
What we see through Schmuel’s eyepiece makes us want to stay inside the tank. “Lebanon’’ gives us viscerally violent, intensely distressing glimpses into war’s annihilation of people, places, and communities. The carnage is filmed in the modern, post-“Saving Private Ryan’’ mode, but it’s given additional horror by the fact that civilians take the brunt of the casualties here — neither youth, beauty, nor old age is spared — and by the mute framing device of the periscope’s circle, like an iris onto obscenity. The tank’s crewmen are less combatants than voyeurs, and we’re seduced into a similar position of bearing witness to atrocities and wondering at our own complicity.
Despite the title and the particulars, of course, “Lebanon’’ isn’t about that war but any war. Like the soldiers, we’re not given the reason for either the specific mission or the larger conflict, and only when Hertzel defiantly turns the tank’s radio to a reserved frequency and hears Jamil argue with the patient, dead-voiced “Cornelia’’ at headquarters do we sense an equally pointless big picture. Schmuel, the gunner, is in the cruelest position — how do you decide who to kill based on what you see through one shattered eye? — and his dilemma becomes ours.
The allegorical nature of “Lebanon’’ cramps the characters, who never fully become more than their didactic purposes. Moaz and his camera crew do keep us remarkably involved, though, visually navigating the close quarters with ingenuity and a certain amount of heartbreak. In a sense, the suspense is over the second Schmuel steps into the tank in the opening scenes: Whether he chooses to pull the trigger or not, innocents will suffer. The film and its message are stark, simple, and unyielding, and they’ll endure.