Waltz With Bashir (Folman, 2008)

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Waltz With Bashir

It it hard for me to know how I might have responded to this film if I hadn’t seen The Reader or Heartbeat Detector in the last few weeks.

Some of the responses (I’m talking in general, not about responses here) to those films, particularly the former appear to say it is not just wrong to excuse (or offer an excuse) for Nazi (or German…they’re always the same, right?) atrocities but even just to understand them or to try to talk about the context it which they occurred as part of the dialogue surrounding them.

In a survey, even an historical one, of atrocities, there are two categories, victims and perpetrators. There are no witnesses, nor are there people who are merely complicit. (What does it mean to be complicit but to look the other way? Silence is a form of consent that allows evil to flourish.)

Several times while watching Waltz With Bashir I thought about the notion that by the measure we judge we shall be weighed, and I don’t doubt that contributed to my dissatisfaction with the film.

I’m not sure how the film could have been other than what it was, but the repressed memory device ensures that the whole film (okay, well, 99% of it) remains squarely from the perspective of the Israeli yet assiduously avoids any apportionment of blame. What, I wondered, would be the response of a film about a traumatized German solider who represses his memory of participating in a massacre (the film’s word, not mine)? Of a white South African who tries to reconstruct repressed memories of Soweto? Of an American who tries to recall being at My Lai?

If may be true that such a film would offer up an excu…explanation that the person from whose perspective it was written (or shown) was young, and stupid, and afraid, and merely following orders. Would it, however, expect audiences to feel such unreflected sympathy for the person traumatized by the event absent much (any?) attempt to grapple with or own the fact that participation in such events makes one the oppressor not the victim? (Perhaps the only real analog I could find for the film might be James Baldwin’s short story “Going to Meet the Man” which could only get away with focusing on the pain, rage, and empathy for the racist white sheriff because it was written by a Black American.)

“You were traumatized by the massacre before it happened” a friend tells the main character (or something close to that). This segues into some pop-psychology about the collective memory of the Holocaust the purport of which can be debated. Perhaps this scene is not meant as a “the Holocaust justifies everything” scene. Perhaps it means that having grown up with an historical narrative of victimization, the narrator cannot fathom a world in which events don’t conform to an archetypal pattern he’s been drilled to believe is the context for the only way of looking at the world.

After watching this film, I thought a lot about the third act of Bob Hercules’s incredible documentary, Forgiving Dr. Mengele. After Eva Mozes Kor forgives a prison guard, and later gives personal forgiveness to all Nazis, including the infamous doctor who experimented on her and killed her sister, she at first refuses and then reluctantly agrees to a meeting with some Palestinians. There is a truly frustrating disconnect in that part of the film, as Kor tries to explain that she can’t forgive the Palestinians because they are still actively trying to kill her; she seems unaware that the people she met with don’t want her forgiveness. They consider her the oppressor and (apparently mistakenly) think that she will understand their grievances.

I have never been to Israel. Someone I know and trust implicitly has, and in the wake of this film that person told me unless or until an American Christian goes to Israel he simply cannot fathom how completely, insistently, and totally the Israeli people are acculturated to accept an identity of victimhood. Given a history of Jewish persecution that is measured in millennia rather than decades, perhaps the narrator’s emphasis in the first half of the film on the sheer terror of war is meant less as a generic excuse and more as a (very, very, very, very, indirect) probing of the mindset that has to repress accountability even at the cost of memory. Perhaps the experience of fear has been so long it becomes ingrained and, at that point, the person never feels safe; even when victims subsequently find themselves in contexts where they have more power (and thus more relative safety) they often still feel as those they must maintain that upper hand or they will fall victim again. Thus the drive for feeling safer becomes a drive for maintaining the upper hand of power at all costs.

Accountability for what, precisely?
Accountability for what, precisely?

Accountability for what, though? Standing by and watching while the “Christian Philangist” militia did their exterminating for them? For sending up a flare? This hanging on to the “it was them not us” distinction to the very end may be historically accurate, but it strikes me as nevertheless being self-serving (the film up to that point shows the soldiers shooting up a car with little regard to whether or not civilians are inside of it, dumping bodies along with wounded who may not be dead, etc.) and the sort of rationales that is largely rejected in other contexts.

Am I saying Israel is unilaterally at fault for everything that is wrong with Arab-Jewish relations? Of course not. What I am saying is that absent an almost completely pro-Israel perspective, it is easy enough for me to see how some might find this film self-serving, perhaps even offensively so.

But there’s the rub. This film was made by an Israeli, funded by (I believe) a government grant, and selected by Israel to represent its country for the Academy Award consideration. Given the historic grievances perpetrated on the Jewish people, perhaps it is amazing that a generation after the camps that such a comparison (between the victimization of Jews in the camps and Arabs in Sabra) could be even whispered, even in a vague and indirect manner.

In his famous essay, “On Moral Equivalence“, Charles Krauthammer slams Jesse Jackson for calling Lebanon a “cycle of pain,” presumably because the cycle metaphor fails to distinguish retaliatory violence from attack or self defense from terrorism.

Not all acts of violence are created equal. Got it. So why do we (by which I mean “human beings” not necessary Jews, Christians, Arabs, or Atheists) cling so hard to the double standard that insists that everything we do is mitigated by history and context but everything done to us must be accounted for on a scale of moral absolutes?

In the final analysis, I don’t know if Waltz With Bashir simply lacked introspection (for all its narrative emphasis on reclaiming memory) and is thus a flawed film, or whether I’m just such a legalistic Pharisee that I’m looking at a glass half full and condemning it for not being overflowing. Perhaps if it weren’t being praised so widely and strongly, I might think the latter. As it is, I sort of felt watching the film like my wife must have felt after some arguments early in our marriage–you know in that moment after the dust has settled and the party you were fighting with has reconciled himself to the situation and talked through his motivations and explained his (flawed but he assures you basically decent) intentions and demonstrated contrition and maybe even done penance but, well, never actually said “I was wrong.”

This post originally appeared at All Things Ken.

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