Warning: some spoilers ahead. Though, really, all this is history.
Two recent films from Israel, 'Waltz with Bashir' (2008) and 'Lebanon' (2009), deal with the country's role in the 1982 Lebanon War. As postmodern war films, both use radical aesthetics to convey the experiences of ordinary soldiers in a horrible and inextricable conflict - and both emphasize their own subjectivity, with only hints of the larger political reality.
'Waltz with Bashir', directed by Ari Folman, is described as an animated documentary (it is based on the director's and other characters' experiences), but at times the film feels more like an animated 'Apocalypse Now', hallucinatory and nightmarishly disjointed. Its stunningly detailed visual style, voice-over confessions and haunting soundtrack all contribute to a disturbing portrait of young soldiers unprepared for the bizarre realities of war.
The story concerns the filmmaker's quest to piece together and face his own memories of the war, during which he interviews former comrades and other eyewitnesses. This approach, framing the war scenes as persistent dreams and unreliable memories, makes the film as much a meditation on the mechanisms of memory and trauma as a war document.
However, the film's seemingly meandering accounts do lead to a breakthrough (to put it in therapeutic terms), which exposes Israel's role in the massacres in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. It is the memory of this event specifically that the filmmaker had suppressed for more than 25 years, and when it is released, it can only be shown as real documentary footage, creating a shocking and mournful ending that rends through all its former stylistic, animated distantiation.
'Lebanon', by Samuel Maoz, employs an even more radical form, confining the entire film to the inside of a tank, whose only window on the world is through the crosshairs of its gunsight. As the tank drives into an unspecified urban area in Lebanon, the claustrophobia is palpable in the cramped and filthy bowels of this infernal machine, as is the fear of the four soldiers trapped inside.
In the ensuing confrontations with various enemies, the soldiers' limited vision becomes an obvious but effective metaphor for the chaos and moral disorientation around them. This idea is made explicit when, in one of the many arguments among them, the tank commander blames one of his soldiers that he see things from a limited viewpoint, and is unable to see the bigger picture. (Ironically, the commander is just as much in the dark as to what this bigger picture is, but his position of responsibility makes him more sensitive to its supposed existence.)
Only occasionally does the outside world intrude on the film's tank-reality, such as when they have to guard a Syrian prisoner, bleeding and out of his wits with fear, with whom they can't communicate. Or when a commanding officer instructs them that phosphor grenades, forbidden under international treaty, should be referred to as smoke grenades. In scenes like these 'Lebanon' drives home the incomprehensibility of the conflict these soldiers find themselves in.
Comparing the two films, the raw immediacy of 'Lebanon' contrasts with the meditative pace of 'Waltz with Bashir', but what they both show is ordinary soldiers caught up in a chain of command the consequences of which they can't oversee, let alone judge. In the case of 'Lebanon' there is simply no time for reflection. In 'Waltz with Bashir' it comes painfully, some 25 years after the fact.
For all their unflinching honesty in showing war from an on-the-ground perspective, both films limit themselves to a purely subjective perspective. This may just be the postmodern condition humaine, but it does leave these films vulnerable to political criticism. In this sense, 'Lebanon' is the more straightforward, its very form a disclaimer of its subjectivity. 'Waltz with Bashir' is more ambiguous, as it mixes fiction (or at least dramatized memories) and documentary. But while it leaves an aftertaste for having to therapeutically "unforget" an event that has certainly never been forgotten in other parts of the world, in the end its mission of remembering can only be lauded.