In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes that music has a dual (and paradoxical) relationship with the world’s underlying metaphysical reality: music bypasses literal representation to bring us closer with the underlying metaphysical reality, but at the same time, it protects us from that underlying metaphysical reality (which to Nietzsche is fundamentally tragic, almost nihilistic) by aesthetisizing it and thus distancing it from us for safe viewing, as it were.
Now, apply that thesis to movies, and you’ll have a pretty good handle on Waltz with Bashir, the animated (yes I said animated) documentary about The First Lebanon War, particularly about the Sabra and Shatila massacre. More specifically, the movie is driven by the director’s inability to remember his own participation in the war as a member of the Israeli Defense Force. Curious as to why he can’t remember that time in his life, he finds his old war-time comrades and interviews them, trying to find out what they remember and whether their memories can help him remember.
However, as the interviews proceed, it becomes clear that the director’s comrades either cannot, and as it is made even clearer later on, do not want, to remember their own time in the war. Instead, their recollections are more dream-like than a literal representation. And it is during these dream-like sequences that the aesthetics of this movie really blossoms: whether it’s a dream in which 26 hell hounds run wildly through the streets of a Lebanese village, or a hallucination in which a giant naked woman rises out of the water to cradle a solider in her embrace, or a running image of three soldiers emerging naked from the beach while the sky was lit with flares, the images are vivid and pregnant with symbolism and possible meaning.
But of course, there are animated renderings of more “mundane” events, like the bombing of civilian targets, loading their corpses in a truck and dumping them at a designated location, shooting a child who shot a RPG at an Israeli tank, and being under sniper-fire, etc. What is surprising, and especially welcome, amongst these sobering recollections, is an absurd sense of humor, such as a montage of military action set to a rock song about “bombing Lebanon every morning,” or an episode in which one of the Israeli commanding officer’s watching German pornography in the middle of the war.
This part of the movie is the part in which animation might engage with the underlying reality of the war, as it was experienced by the people interviewed, more truthfully than a literal representation with real people and real footage. The reason I say that is the fact that the movie makes clear that the interview subjects are all, in some way, reluctant to really confront their memories of the war. They all speak of dreams or dream-like images they have, vague but filled with symbolic meaning. This way, the animation is a more faithful method to convey the fragmented, distorted way the interview subjects experience their war-time memories 20 years later.
And as the movie hints, but ultimately does not reavel until its very end, there is perhaps a good reason why the interview subjects do not want to fully confront their memories. I mean, these people experienced intense fear, shot and killed civilians, watched all kind of horrific things go on, so it’s not surprising that they do not want to confront these things so vividly again. But the distancing effect (and ultimately a protective one) of using animation is not made clear, in a devastating and powerful way, until the very end. As the story gradually goes on to reveal, all the interview subjects were there at the massacre, when they witnessed and did nothing to stop the slaughter of Palestinian civilians by the Christian Phalangist militia.
Then bam, it hits you: the transition from animation to real footage. The transition is first auditory, as the movie uses real sounds of women’s lament captured on tape, and suddenly the movie screen changes into real footage, as the audience witnesses the aftermath of the slaughter: dead bodies piled up everywhere, dried blood coagulating into caked pools on the ground, flies buzzing around the corpses.
And then the movie ends. The theatre that I was in was absolutely silent, I mean completely and utter silent, for a good two to three minutes, as no one can say anything or move a muscle. All you can hear and see is the credits rolling, but the theatre itself was dead silent. The effect is THAT compelling.
And then you realize why the director chose to go with animation for the bulk of the movie: because the truth is too horrific to bear. The interviewees and the director himself were unwilling to really confront their own time in the war because they all knew that they were complicit in allowing the massacre to happen. They all knew that they did some horrible things in the war that they don’t want to acknowledge, that they can only get in touch with those memories through dreams and symbolic images. That time in their lives is simply too dark a place for them to confront in its entirety, and the animation, like music for Nietzsche, is a way to distance the audience from the horrific truth and shield it from such a terrible truth.
Much like music in The Birth of Tragedy, animation in this movie allows the director to reconcile the truth of what happened while remaining a safe distance from that truth. The lessons of this movie are powerful: that war is horrific, and its horrifying nature is such that people who fight in wars forget wars for good reason. But the flip side of that lesson is even more powerful: the reason why people want to forget wars is the same reason why war cannot be forgotten, for if war is forgotten, the tragedy will just repeat itself.
But if we must remember the horrors of war, at least movies like Waltz with Bashir can allow us to do so by both confronting and shielding us from the painful truths of war, truths which almost everyone would like to forget or veil in dreams and symbols.