Waltz with Bashir

I finally watched the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir, and I know that so many people found it really good, as it was “putting into questions things”, addressing longstanding issues from within Israel, and showing “the horrors of war”. Here, let me be very skeptical about what Israeli cinema can question, and knowing that this comes from the ‘left’ side of Israeli society, what Israel can ever put into question.

Let me start from a tangent. Anyone seen holocaust movies? Here is a list of Holocaust films from the 1940s on. I had this intuition that no major German movie has been made on the subject. And I was right, German movies really start appearing in the 1970s and only few of them relative to the massive numbers of foreign production. Basically the history of ‘horror’ has been written ‘for’ the German and not ‘by them’ establishing a harsher defeat, a cultural one.

According to a dear German friend of mine, most Germans don’t like these movies (especially the foreign ones) because they feel that they don’t really address the Nazi question in a satisfactory way. More interesting than that: they think that Nazism should probably not be dealt with in images because it would render ordinary and acceptable something that is just unacceptable. It seemed always weird to see Hitler being played by an actor whatever the angle played: Hitler was what he was, no need to ‘play him’.

There is none of that in Waltz with Bashir. In a sense it follows the general line found in Spielberg movie Munich (that is of course much worse), in that it engage the audience with a lot of self-loathing turned into conscience boosting and so in a paradoxical legitimating device. Israelis here are already “playing Israelis” making of them either heroes or anti-heroes which amounts basically to the same thing.

Here are the main ideas that can be drawn from the movie:

1- The real demons are the Phalangists, and the Israelis if anything let things happen. At most, they unleash the real beasts, those with no conscience. The Israelis have a conscience and are always wondering what the hell they are doing. Those with no conscience are the Phalangists. The ‘other’, the enemy has no conscience either, does never talk and Israelis are too self centered in the first place to ask questions about them. The enemy is invisible in any case.

2- There is no real reflection on or dialectical engagement with the enemy (the Palestinians) or the ally (the Christian). It shows how much Israelis is eager to learn about them. Knowing that in reality there were lots of interactions during 1982 and of course before that between the various parties.

3- The actual waltz scene (a guy shooting in the air randomly to the background of Bashir Gemayel’s posters) is quite revealing as it betrays a romanticist tone to the rebellious character of participating in a war. We see in the movie how this waltzer later becomes a practitioner of martial arts and is quite happy of what he has done all his life. It is a bit like American movies on Vietnam which ends up making the soldiers look like heroes because they actually ‘been through this’. The audience sympathize with these character. It is the anti-hero, the pop-culture hero.

4- The most flagrant thing is that at no point in the movie do you have this understanding that Israel was wrong to go to war for this or that political reason, at no point are causes discussed or anything like that. Everything stays at the basic level of condemnation of killing and repenting. We are told that soldiers are a bunch of pot smoking adolescents dragged into something they don’t really understand. It is morally charged for no reason. No reason means idealization. Idealization is apologetic.

But Israeli cinema has still hopes. Check for example the documentaries of a guy like Eyal Sivan. Izkor: Slaves of Memory (1991) is a great documentary on the Israeli writing of Jewish history that is taught to kids at all school levels . Izkor, which is the commemoration of the holocaust remembering, really puts into question the idea of Israel and its perception of ‘Arabs’. One idea I found extraordinary in this documentary is how Zionism actually impoverished Jewish multiple source of history, tradition, and relations to the past whether Arabic or other.

Update: Check this article on Hollywood’s (the Americans)  fascination with the Holocaust. Just this year there are already 6 movies out of Hollywood’s machines touching on the subject. I don’t think it is about Germans anymore, but about American culture and their relation to the different narratives exposed in this story. They are writing “the Holocaust” as a multiple story theme to illustrate their concern with death, torture, murder, politics etc. This is not anymore a German event but an American one.

18 Replies to “Waltz with Bashir”

  1. I had the exact same problems with this movie, plus being slightly pissed off (excusez le french) by the fact that they didn’t translate the words of the Palestinians in the last few minutes of the movie (the only real footage). You know, weren’t heard at the time, no need to hear/understand them now.

    Am curious about this Slaves of Memory documentary, thanks for recommending it.

  2. hi bech, i am glad you write about this movie. i actually liked it, but the questions you ask about it are helpful in thinking about it a little more in-depth. i read it as an autobiographical story, and as such full of human errors, misjudgements etc.; that is to say, i basically accepted the views of the (damaged) narrator, while at the same time thinking that this was a very particular angle on things that i would not accept as the general version. what stuck with me was the pointlessness of war, the way it corrupts ordinary people, the moral corruption of those making the decisions. so maybe i did go with the angle taken by the film-maker. what you say about the failure to see the enemy as real and human, and to shift the blame for the massacres to those phalangist hunks, rings very true, and confirms what i have experienced of and read about israeli remembrance-of-the-past.
    the question to me seems to be whether it is legit for the film-maker to put these views out there by telling a very personal story. i don’t know about that. but i find that an easier approach to swallow than the moralizing posture assumed in other war-remembrance films. for example, i found the approach taken in ‘massacre’ by borgman/slim/thiessen very difficult to accept, because it seems to me to capitalize on the scandalizing element of interviewing the perpetrators of a crime against humanity, and giving them all the space and time that they need. that angle is sure to get you attention, but…. (it could be that i have an extra problem with this movie because two of its creators are german, as am i)
    likewise, going back to the point you make about nazi films, i have no desire whatsoever to watch hollywood productions like ‘der untergang’, ‘valkyrie’ or ‘hitler’s secretary’ or whatever. i also skipped the caricature movie about hitler made by a german comic i normally adore. but i enjoyed charlie chaplin’s ‘dictator’ very much, and remember the huge resonance that steven spielberg’s ‘schindler’s list’ had here in germany (or the US-produced ‘holocaust’ TV series of the 1950s). no german film-maker could have produced these movies at these times, perhaps, and watching them was quasi-mandatory, and set in motion another wave of remembrance of past evils. at the same time, it irks me that it should always be outsiders who make the big movies about our past.
    it’s all a huge topic, and i am rambling on…

  3. Eva, The US-produced “Holocaust mini-series” is actually from the late 1970s, starring Meryl Streep. You’re right though that it made a huge impact in West Germany where it was watched by most households, but this was not until the late 1970s. In the 1950s, it would have not gotten a similar reception. There was no Aufarbeitung of this era until much, much later.

  4. I just returned home seeing “Bashir” and found an email forwarding this review, for which I am grateful. I fully agree. I thought I would share my own experience. I live in New York City and when I entered the theater, I was shocked to see that that it was packed– this has recently become a heavily Israeli neighborhood, so I knew that something was up. Before I was seated, I was confronted by a large Israeli contingent, ridiculing the kaffiyeh I was wearing. Now, the film: briefly, these are the points I remember:
    •there was practically no mention of Israel during the film
    • there was nothing reinforcing the identity of the soldiers-no Star of David, and only a tiny edge of a flag on the imagined cofffn-
    •the soldiers only killed when “attacked”(their word) by the Arabs whose country they were invading and destroying –they either shot randomly in the dark, so we never saw the carnage, or, in Golda Meir’s words:”They force us to kill their children”, e.g. the boy in the forest
    •At Sabra and Shatila, it is all the fault of the Phalangists-the Israelis “didn’t know” that shooting flares were abetting massacre. In fact, the commanders kept saying. “We ‘hear’ there is a massacre”, so hey, isn’t that enough? It was all the Phalangists fault, I tell ya.

    This is an amazing propaganda film and everyone is buying it–I am sure it will “win” an Oscar; the last film nomination with a relationship to Israel was Paradise Now, which could only be shown in the US because it never showed the Occupation, except for a short scene at a quiet little checkpoint.

    I realized that this film is doing so well because it is touted by Israeli and Zionist media-confirming the point of view that the soul- searching of these ex-soldiers absolves them of any complicity in genocide. .Re the spate of Holocaust movies out now: I think this is to counter the genocide in Gaza by keeping people enmeshed in Holocaust imagery and “The [collective] Jewish People” as eternal victims.

  5. I just saw my post and am disturbed by a little icon that looks like a swastika–what is that? Please remove my post if this is the underlying meaning of your site

  6. oh this looks like wordpress chose for you this icon. it does not really look like a swastika. But you can change it i guess. Put a picture for yourself.

    no we don’t do swastikas here. and we don’t like underlying meanings. so even if there were swastikas we would not attach to them any particular meaning.

    Thanks for your thoughts, and it is interesting to read a point of view from this side of the planet.

  7. I saw the film with a friend of mine who is Jewish. We have at times disagreed on Israel’s role in the multiple conflicts, and he has usually defended Israel’s need to protect itself.

    At the end of the movie, he was very moved. He told me that he could no longer defend what Israel did.

    I agree with almost all the points made here. But the film is still a giant step forward in helping people understand Palestinian suffering.

  8. Hey Bech, are you in Lebanon or did you see this outside Lebanon? I have yet to get my hands on the movie, but the points you raised are pretty much the same I was predicting I would see in the movie. It’s pretty much the same in Beaufort and Etz Limon.

  9. Hey Shoghig, send me an email and I can get you the movie. I have it at a friend’s place.
    I also heard it was found in this big pirated dvd shop in Dahyeh.

  10. Anni wrote:

    “Now, the film: briefly, these are the points I remember:
    • there was nothing reinforcing the identity of the soldiers-no Star of David, and only a tiny edge of a flag on the imagined cofffn”

    There was yellow star (always reminds me the yellow badge douring Nazi era) on the combat plan during the destruction scene “I’ve bombed Beirut today”.

    Anni wrote:

    “This is an amazing propaganda film and everyone is buying it–I am sure it will “win” an Oscar; the last film nomination with a relationship to Israel was Paradise Now, which could only be shown in the US because it never showed the Occupation, except for a short scene at a quiet little checkpoint.”

    I’m from Israel and at first people here didn’t like the film even before they had chance to see it just because it was funded by the same German production company who created the Palestinain movie “Paradise Now” (it wan nominated for Oscars Best Foreign Film by Palestiain Authority in 2005 and won a lot of prestigious prizes, such as the Golden Globe ).

    Israelis believed it would be another German film. Something about pro-Palestinan German (Anny talks about “I was confronted by a large Israeli contingent, ridiculing the kaffiyeh I was wearing”) makes us flip. This is not the kaffiyeh but Europeans whose Palestinian fetishisation seems most explicable as the perverse by-product of the suppression of their traditional anti-Semitism. Yes the Arabs are also Semites…etc.

    Anni wrote:

    “I realized that this film is doing so well because it is touted by Israeli and Zionist media-confirming the point of view that the soul- searching of these ex-soldiers absolves them of any complicity in genocide. .Re the spate of Holocaust movies out now: I think this is to counter the genocide in Gaza by keeping people enmeshed in Holocaust imagery and “The [collective] Jewish People” as eternal victims.”

    On the contrary there is much chance the film will not win. Even if Hollywood is Jewish creation we never get any Oscars! It’s strange and the reason is our American brethren don’t like the over-criticizing films.

    As German, Anni wants a full admission for Israeli culpability in the masaccre it may lassen Holocaust imagery and “The [collective] Jewish People” as eternal victims.”

  11. On PARADISE NOW by Hany Abu-Assad the Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman had to say this

    Was halten Sie von Paradise Now?

    Es ist ein großartiger Film. Ich habe nur ein Problem damit. Als der Attentäter zum ersten Mal in den Bus einsteigt, sieht man darin Kinder. Deshalb sprengt er sich nicht in die Luft. Das finde ich einfach scheinheilig.

    (Florian Koch)

    What do you hold from Paradise Now?

    It is a great film. I have only one problem thereby. When the assassin enters for the first time into the bus, one sees therein children. Therefore it does not blow up itself into air. I find that simply hypocritical.

  12. I just finished watching the movie (finally got my hands on a pirated copy, yeah !!!), and I have to say Bech, that your post hits the nail on the head.. The script was beyond disgusting. I was yelling swear words at my screen pretty much the entire length of the movie. The real footage at the end is included for shock-propaganda purposes — it basically amounts to saying, this is what THEY (the “Arabs”) did to “their own people” (because from the zionist perspective, an Arab is an Arab regardless of his (sub-?)identification as Lebanese, Palestinian, etc. ) , and this is what WE tried to prevent or stop. The Israelis as the mere bystanders witnessing others’ (!) atrocities in foreign lands they “happened” to have entered with their tanks. Like going on a picnic or some sightseeing trip. And, of course, what is in question is not what they were doing there, let alone what they were doing training and arming the Phalangists (even providing them Israeli uniforms) and then sending them into the camps. These things are of no importance (not even of secondary importance!). What is important is the trauma of the mass-murderers, invaders, occupiers. The trauma being, of course, the result of the slaughter of dogs. The Israeli soldier is, of course, portrayed as utterly innocent and unable to even hurt a fly, then traumatized after being ordered (“they ordered me to do it ” excuse ) to shoot some dogs dead. The implicit idea is that, at worst, Israeli commanders order the shooting of dogs. Not humans. No, that’s the specialization of the “Christian Phalangists” and “Palestinian terrorists” (and now “Islamofascists”). By the way, note the constant references to “Christian” attached to the “Phalangists”, imagine if they actually used “Jewish IDF” in the movie? As if there was the implicit argument that while Christians are capable of carrying out such “outrages”, Jews aren’t. Of course, then the cliche reference to the Holocaust and the Warsaw ghetto comes up — how could Jews do onto others what others did onto them? The answer is, they can’t; they just feel guilty from time to time when they perceive that they are acting the same way, only to be told by one shrink or another that it’s just Holocaust guilt, or some such crappy excuse. Anyway, also notice how the Palestinian / Lebanese fighters always appear from a distance , and you can’t even see their faces. Talk about de-humanization. There are 3 main instances in which fighters appear; once at the beach, and they urinate on dead Israeli soldiers (as if to say, how uncivilized!!!); another time during the waltzing scene; and a third time in the orchard (not mentioning them in any particular order). In the third instance, the ones who appear are children carrying RPGs. It’s crying out loud, look how they treat their kids. They send them to their deaths, whereas Israeli kids are ideal, typically “western” kids, and their parents care about them, hug them, etc. This film cries out Golda Meir’s notorious words to the effect that whatever crimes Israelis have committed against Palestinians or Arabs more generally, must be blamed on the victims, because they “made” the Israelis do it. Yup.

    What a lousy movie.
    That said, the animation work was breathtaking…….

  13. I was there during that period and I have seen those events up close. Also, the Shiite militias of Amal and Hezbollah carried out much bigger massacres in the Palestinian camps near Tyre and Sidon (Miye-Miye etc..) in the 1980s. Yet, no one bothers to talk about those other camps BECAUSE THE ISRAELIS WERE NOT THERE.

    The myth of the moral dilemma posed by the Israelis’ role as enablers or watchers of the Sabra-Shatila massacres carried out by Lebanese militias in 1982 against supposedly unarmed Palestinian refugees, is an insult to the Lebanese people. Here are a few reasons why:

    No one seems to understand the pain that the Lebanese people feel when their other “massacres”, in which the Israelis had basically nothing to do (except perhaps on a broad historic scale), are totally ignored by the selective morality of the press and historians in general, both in the Arab world and the West. For one, my own hometown of Damour which, in an overnight of orgiastic plunder and mayhem on a cold January 1976, was razed to the ground by the same Palestinians (and Syrians and others too) who were to be butchered in Sabra and Shatila in 1982, 1,000 of its townspeople were slaughtered – literally, with machetes, with the evisceration of babies before their parents’ eyes, the chopping off of arms, genitalia and heads, the rapes, the hangings upside down, the draggings behind trucks, and other Islamo-Palestinian forms of killing fine art. The remaining 5,000 residents of Damour had to flee by boat on that cold January to safer areas further north.

    You know why there is no moral dilemma worth making movies and writing books and establishing inquiry committees for the Damour massacre? Because it does not involve Westerners and Israelis. In the condescending mindset of the racist elitist Western and Israeli Left, Arabs are supposed to kill Arabs and there is nothing shocking about it. In fact, it is expected and therefore does not pose a moral dilemma. Only when a morally superior being – like an Israeli or a Westerner – becomes involved in gruesome acts – even as an observer – that the floodgates of moral angst open up to a deluge that has yet to stop 30 or 40 years later.

    In the Lebanese War of 1975-1990, there have been many other massacres of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese, and many other massacres of Lebanese civilians by Palestinians, and many other killings on a grander scale of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians by the Israeli and Syrian armies (as if the term “army” ought to present us with a more respectable manner of accepting killing people than the term “militia”), but somehow, all that the Israelis and all that the Western press, the Left in particular, seem to have a moral dilemma with, is the Sabra-Shatila massacres to which the Israelis were, in a worst case scenario, mere observers who did not rush to the rescue of the victims.

    Another reason why the Lebanese feel insulted by that subtle moral superiority argument is that no one bothers to look at the real victims and the real perpetrators of the Sabra-Shatila massacres: The Palestinian refugees and the Christian militias. Isn’t it there that the real horror must be the most striking, instead of the placid ruminations of an observer? What drove the Christian militias to commit this act? What is the narrative from the perspective of the butchers? Would these massacres be minimally justified – as attenuating circumstances – if the Christian militias committed Sabra-Shatila in a direct act of revenge against the Damour massacres, as is generally well known?

    As well as the history of the Christian militias “cleaning up” other Palestinian camps during the 1970s: Qarantina, Jisr el-Basha, Dbayyeh, Tal el Zaatar, etc…all were camps that were handled in exactly the same way as Sabra-Shatila by the Christian militias.

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