Directed by Amos Gitai
With Liron Levo, Tomer Ruso, and Uri Ran Klauzner.
By Fred Camper
The classic Hollywood war film establishes one side’s mastery over the other, a process often represented as gaining control of terrain. From Howard Hawks’s The Dawn Patrol (1930) to Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965), the struggle is first for possession of imagery and information–seeing the enemy without being seen–and ultimately for the conquest or extermination of the other side. But as early as Samuel Fuller’s 1951 Fixed Bayonets, another view of war has been offered, one in which there are no victors or the victors are not in control.
Fuller’s name heads the list of people thanked by director Amos Gitai at the end of his new two-hour film, Kippur, opening today for a one-week engagement at the Film Center. Gitai, an Israeli who’s directed some three dozen films and videos, served in the Yom Kippur war of 1973 as a member of a helicopter rescue unit; he was badly wounded when his copter was hit by a Syrian missile. (Like Fuller, he shot his first footage as a soldier.) Kippur is drawn from his experiences: Weinraub, the name of one of the characters, was the director’s surname until his father took the Hebraic Gitai.
Kippur opens at the outset of the Yom Kippur war, which began when Syria and Egypt attacked Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The war was a triumph for neither side: Israel lost men and land, then regained the land over a period of a few weeks. Several characters in the film contrast it with the ’67 war, which the Israelis won decisively in six days. Gitai’s two protagonists, driving an old Fiat, set out to join their reserve unit. The gung-ho Ruso (Tomer Ruso) remarks that finally there’s a war they’re old enough to fight in, while the more intellectual Weinraub (Liron Levo) suggests that Ruso read Marcuse and gives credit to the Arabs for starting a war when it was least expected: “It looks like Dayan and Golda underestimated them.” Soon afterward they join a helicopter rescue unit, whose missions the film chronicles.
Perhaps the director’s experience accounts for the film’s deeply felt sense of chaos. Soon the two young men have to maneuver around a truck and other vehicles to pass along the road. This long take recalls the famous traffic-jam long take in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967). But the Godard shot is a panoramic tableau, a distanced and ironized view of a civilization choking on automobiles. In Kippur Gitai’s camera, plunged into the action, is forced to twist and turn with its characters in an unpredictable environment. Soon after this long take we get another, this time from the rear of the car looking through the windshield as the men are forced to turn back: the Syrians have broken through into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and are still advancing. The camera follows our two travelers as they make a U-turn in the car, the landscape swiveling around them.
Eventually they discover that their unit has already departed and meet a Dr. Klauzner (Uri Ran Klauzner), whose car has broken down; they take him back to his base, and all three join a helicopter unit rescuing wounded soldiers and shot-down pilots. On their first mission, we see them land in a relatively “objective” long shot, then the camera pans with them as they leave the helicopter, following them through a twisting trench as they discover that everyone is dead. In this stark labyrinth an argument erupts: some soldiers want to retrieve the dead, which is against the rules.
Gitai plunges the viewer into the reality of modern warfare, in which the enemy is often invisible–we never see the Syrians in Kippur–and battle lines are often unclear. Americans learned this lesson in Vietnam, Soviets in Afghanistan; Israelis and Arabs, sadly, are still learning it today. But by moving from a relatively objective long shot to a subjective view of the trenches in a single take, Gitai also questions the whole notion of documentary truth.
Gitai told interviewer Ray Privett in the fall 2000 issue of Cinemascope, “I do not make objective images. I don’t believe in them. As individuals we perceive the world according to our position within a network of images. We are surrounded by images that are all subjective. CNN news is subjective, ABC news is subjective…” But by moving in a single take from conventionally objective images to chaotic point-of-view shots, Gitai also gives his soldiers’ perceptions a vividness, a presence, that encourages the viewer to accept them as the truth about war rather than intellectually locating them within a “network” of other images.
Other elements also contribute to the film’s sense of immediacy. During the missions the dialogue often sounds as chaotic as the action looks, with multiple characters shouting at once, frequently at cross-purposes. Background details are beautifully choreographed: cars or tanks go by or smoke intrudes at what seems the most disruptive moment. But the film’s most stunning set piece is an eight-minute take of the attempted rescue of one man. We’ve already seen several shorter takes of the unit carrying men to the copter on stretchers, and what appears to be another such scene begins with a wounded soldier on the ground and a group of four trying to lift him. But the ground is muddy; they stumble and drop him; they try to lift him and stumble again. When they finally get him back on the stretcher, they drop him once more. In a subsequent shot they’re informed that they have to return to the copter immediately, and an argument breaks out over whether the man is alive or dead. The fact that they aren’t sure is plausible–they look exhausted and half dead themselves.
Chaos continues as they run toward their copter; a handheld camera follows and boards with them. A long take shows the ruined landscape from above: stalled or disabled tanks strewn about, tracks through the mud, a few tanks moving in seemingly random directions. Next there’s a long take of the landscape with Weinraub’s head visible at left as he looks at it. Closer to the ground, we see bombed-out buildings amid a ruined terrain as the copter follows a twisting, circuitous path that eventually turns back on itself: for a moment, it seems, we’re trapped in a permanent war from which there’s no escape. Moments later the copter is hit by a missile. At first we don’t know what happened, just that glass has broken and men are bleeding. This is depicted in a series of relatively brief shots, reminding us that Gitai’s use of the long take is neither an unconscious mannerism nor an academic decision–it’s a choice deeply wedded to his attitude toward his material, made only when appropriate. A crash landing is followed by an image of the gutted aircraft, and the rescuers are soon rescued themselves.
A subsequent scene in the hospital is filmed in a single, relatively undramatic seven-minute take. Here the long take links the men’s fates even though they’re shown to be divergent–some are critically injured while one isn’t hurt at all. But all are physically and psychologically exhausted. Klauzner gives a lucid account of their injuries but brushes aside a question about himself by saying he wants to be with his mother, who died many years earlier of a “broken heart” when she returned to retrieve him from a family she’d left him with during the Holocaust and he failed to recognize her. (The doctor in Gitai’s unit, one of the injured, lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered.)
Even Fuller humanizes his characters in a way that encourages audience identification, giving each one unique traits. But more important, he breaks his films down into long shots, medium shots, close-ups, and point-of-view shots, creating a rich emotional tapestry that vivifies the space with the characters’ feelings. Gitai is more of a modernist: while his long takes involve us in the action, they also distance us. And without the almost vertiginous pull of cuts to close-ups, faces never become centers of attention or attraction and no character is a significant identification figure. The point here is not to feel for individual characters but for everyone.
Weinraub is seen in an early helicopter shot crouching, facing us, looking out. Because we see almost nothing of what he sees and his facial expression isn’t clear, we’re encouraged to imagine what he’s looking at and how he feels about it. When we do see the ruined landscape, it’s in a long take instead of the conventional intercutting between a character’s face and the point-of-view shot: the viewer must be an active participant rather than the passive receiver of an actor’s visible emotions. Throughout the film the performances are appropriately understated, though informed by Gitai’s having had the actors meet the surviving members of his rescue unit. And just as he avoids close-ups, he doesn’t show much blood, at least by the standards of recent war films: we see only the minimum needed to establish that there are open wounds.
In conventional war films, history is the product of the acts of great men. But the leveling effect of Gitai’s static long takes and other techniques creates a world in which there are no heroic commanders or soldiers. In fact, near the end a character makes a sarcastic reference to Moshe Dayan, the “hero” of the ’67 war. The pilot tells Weinraub that he had been asked to go to Tel Aviv to fly Dayan to the front; the pilot replied that Dayan should take a bus.
In the classic Hollywood war film, great men lead others to seize the hill, take control, master the world. This is consistent with Americans’ view of themselves as free agents, free to reinvent ourselves, free to remake the world in our image. In Gitai’s film, everyone’s fate is linked to everyone else’s–and all are victims. Depicting war as chaos, he makes a powerful argument for peace. Gitai told Privett that he’d wanted to make this film for years but felt he could only after peace negotiations began, perhaps because he feared his sympathetic depiction of Israeli soldiers would have been taken as supporting the Israeli right; some of Gitai’s earlier films were censored in Israel on the grounds that they were too pro-Arab. Here he’s depicted what could be almost any war today. And by arguing that the characters’ fates are intertwined and that no one is free to conquer the world, he links his characters not only to the Arabs but all of us to one another.
The film’s opening and closing scenes, which show Weinraub and his girlfriend making love, have been a source of controversy, criticized even by some of the film’s admirers. Richard Peña, director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, calls them “the film’s only serious flaws” and argues that the first scene “seems to establish little, other than perhaps that prior to the war Weinraub led a carefree bohemian life.” In Cinemascope Privett offers a long list of justifications, some convincing, some not. Gitai probably hasn’t helped his case by saying that these sequences are his way of saying “Make love not war.”
The opening scene (the closing one is a brief recap) is admittedly a bit strange: in a different context it might be seen as a hilariously bad piece of performance art. Three static long shots first show Weinraub walking through the streets of a Jerusalem silent on Yom Kippur, their deserted look eerily recalling the opening of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The following five-minute take of Weinraub and his girlfriend making love begins not with bodies but with a sheet of white canvas on which blue paint is suddenly spattered, then green and red and yellow; we see moving shadows as well. Next a man’s hand smears the paint together, a woman’s hand touches his arm, and a slow zoom back reveals a nude man and woman cavorting on this huge white field, their bodies covered with paint.
This scene is formally linked to the rest of the film, as Privett notes. It’s chaotic, its mix of colors reappears in mud-splattered images of Weinraub, and its blue and green reflect nature just as its red suggests blood. The mixing of blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag, with green and red and white (“Arab national colors,” as Privett points out) makes an implied argument for peace.
But the real key to this scene can be found at its outset: that moment of white before the first splash of color appears, a metaphor for cinema’s irreducible zero point, the white screen. Celluloid subtracts colors from the projector’s white light–the ones allowed through create the image–while Gitai’s lovers replace the white with gradually added colors, creating an image through their choice of human activity, just as a filmmaker does.
The scene not only stands in for the film and for the war but makes this statement: images are arbitrary human constructions, the result of choices by humans who are not heroes, whose fates are as intertwined as the clutching bodies of the lovers. The Yom Kippur war too was the product of choices by peoples whose histories have been interwoven for centuries, but by giving us little information about the war’s causes, Gitai allows it to represent all conflicts. War is a human fabrication as arbitrary and absurd as a mannered piece of performance art–and it does not have to happen.