Recalling the Past:
The Dynamics of Empathy in Waltz with Bashir

By Genevieve Citron | 11.03.2019

Waltz with Bashir . Dir. Ari Folman. 2008. Film.

Waltz with Bashir. Dir. Ari Folman. 2008. Film.

Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) is an autobiographical documentary that chronicles the director’s efforts to uncover repressed memories of his military deployment in the 1982 Lebanon War. Waltz’s animated form literally illustrates this recollective odyssey, as Folman confronts details of the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps, which occurred near his military post. Folman’s is an analytical journey that employs flashbacks, interviews, and psychoanalysis in its quest for truth.

Concerned with cinematic depictions of trauma experienced by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Israeli film theorist Raya Morag provides an insightful examination of the meaning-making devices mobilized in Waltz with Bashir. Analyzing the film in tandem with Israeli documentaries To See If I’m Smiling (2007) and Z32 (2008), she writes that, in contrast to films made after the First and Second Intifada, which focused primarily on Palestinian suffering, these new documentaries simulate the Israeli perspective (Morag 2012: 94). Morag asserts that, while these films are certainly preoccupied with Palestinian distress, they tend to locate that concern within an interrogation of “Israeli action and effects” (94). Her analysis accuses Waltz of presenting an ambiguous narrative that fails to provide an ethically-decisive rendering of the conflict in Lebanon and thus remains inconsistent in its “acknowledgment of guilt” in reference to the loss of human lives (Morag 95). Morag is troubled by this ambiguity, understanding it as stifling a clear moral conclusion of Israel’s role in the occupied territories more broadly (99).

Morag’s thesis rests on an understanding of Israel as championing a contradictory identity as a state that engages in forceful military occupations outside of its borders, yet nevertheless identifies as a “victimized society” (97). She asserts that this paradoxical identity is confronted by new Israeli documentary film, where soldiers may be located on a continuum; at one end existing as guilty perpetrators against innocent Palestinians and, on the other end, indirect perpetrators who have obliquely, though ultimately, fulfilled violent acts (95). This question of indirect perpetration is relevant to Folman’s lost memory, where he and fellow IDF soldiers shot flares into the sky, illuminating the Palestinian refugee camps and indirectly aiding the Christian Phalangists to carry out the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Morag posits that, despite the film’s obsession with this event, Folman’s guilt is not located in the act of raising flares, but in “horrific childhood memories related to the Holocaust” (99). She argues that despite their presence near the slaughter, Waltz excuses the IDF of responsibility through superimposing recollections of the Holocaust, Israel’s “founding trauma,” onto the massacre in Beirut (Morag 99).

In formulating her critique, Morag refers to Marianne Hirsch’s work on “postmemory,” which is concerned with children of Holocaust survivors; those whose lives have been informed by tragedies from the previous generation (112). Recalling Waltz’s explicit referencing of the Holocaust (occurring when the director’s friend, a therapist, likens Folman’s role at the camps to that of the Nazi in Auschwitz), Morag asserts that Folman experiences a “double postmemory shift from indirect perpetrator in Lebanon to direct perpetrator” in World War Two (100). Here, a “complex dynamic of identification process” blurs the line between the Beirut massacre and the Holocaust; the latter of which Folman is clearly not at fault (Morag 100). Morag describes this postmemory shift as creating an “epistemological deadlock” where Folman is unable to fully engage in a “retransference” from “imagined perpetrator” to an actual perpetrator (100). According to Morag, Folman’s indirect role in Lebanon is conflated with direct perpetration in World War Two and comes to haunt his postmemory, his memory of remembering, as a second-generation Holocaust survivor (100). She identifies this as problematic since it replaces “collective responsibility” for the massacre with cultural understandings of previous traumas, and thus exonerates the IDF (Morag 105).

While I agree with Morag that Waltz’s summoning of the Holocaust facilitates a cultural understanding of trauma, I argue that these recollections establish a common denominator between different instances of violence. In likening contemporary anguish to the Holocaust, Waltz’s visual style creates an allegorical rendering of the massacre which may inspire greater sympathy in the spectator. As Morag states, this allegory is based on recollective mappings of the Holocaust onto the trauma at hand. Rather than presenting an ethically ambiguous conclusion, however, I argue that the appeal to cultural sympathies holds the soldiers more accountable for their negligence. These retroactive projections occur narratively, through the overt psychoanalytic references noted in Morag’s piece, but also formally, through the visual symmetry the film establishes in relation to the Holocaust. I contend that Waltz utilizes systems of identification where Folman, and the Israeli spectator alike, are asked to personally identify with the victim.

Towards the end of the film, when Folman has almost recovered his lost memory, an establishing shot transports the spectator to war-torn Beirut; vignettes of army tanks and rubble illuminated by the warm orange hue of distant flares. Then, in an extreme long shot, Palestinian refugees are escorted out of the camps by members of the Christian Phalangist party. The camera lingers on the refugees’ melancholy faces as the Phalangists intimidate the group through shouting and firing their guns into the air. Then, in a voiceover narrated by Israeli war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai, the spectator is informed that the civilians were forcibly transported and physically mutilated; crucifixes carved onto their chests before being herded into the back of trucks to an “unknown destination” (Folman 2008).

For their relentless parity to Israel’s “founding trauma,” these images function as a point of empathetic entry for the spectator. The scene serving an analogous function to Folman’s earlier identification with the role of the Nazi. Here, however, the point of identification is with the victim, specifically, the victim’s lack of bodily control akin to that of the prisoner of Auschwitz. The absence of corporeal control experienced by the Jewish body during the Holocaust is mimicked through the film’s rendering of the Palestinian body, which is mobilized — or rather, immobilized — in the same manner. Both instances see the displacement and distortion of the victim’s figure. Both instances also incorporate witnesses, who might have stopped the atrocity, but through ignorance, indifference, or intimidation, did nothing.

The emphasis on the carving of crucifixes into Palestinian bodies functions as a point of reference to the Holocaust in that it recalls the symbolically and substantively violent identification tactics and physical abuse experienced by Jews. The implementation of religious symbols to mark the subaltern subject recall the yellow stars that distinguished Jews from Aryan Germans. A more sinister reading would equate this mutilation before death not only to visual markings of the Other, but to the corporeal degradation of the Jewish people in concentration camps through starvation and other forms of torture. Rather than producing an ambiguous ethical rendering, this mnemonic system of identification charts Israel’s founding trauma onto Lebanon and, in doing so, likens the events for their barbarity.

Waltz with Bashir . Dir. Ari Folman. 2008. Film.

Waltz with Bashir. Dir. Ari Folman. 2008. Film.

While excessive violence towards disadvantaged or displaced peoples is an axiom of war, not an exception, the systematically organized fashion through which the Sabra and Shatila massacres are described and presented, as well as the fact that they were targeted against a religious and ethnic minority, and a people without an internationally sanctioned state, is undeniably similar to the Holocaust. A parallel between these experiences is seemingly encouraged by the film’s continual mention of the Holocaust too. This can be observed in reporter Ron Ben-Yishai’s in-film interview, when he likens the fearful expressions of the refugees to highly-circulated images of Jewish victims from World War Two. “You know that picture from the Warsaw Ghetto?” he asks Folman, throwing his arms up in a reenactment, “The one with the kid holding his hands in the air?” The spectator is then met with a picture of Palestinian refugees walking with their hands up, surrounded on all sides by armed members of the Christian Phalangist party. Ben-Yishai continues: “That’s just how the long line of women, old people, and children looked.” In Waltz, it is not merely memory that serves as a point of connection within the film, but the several reenactment of these memories. While Morag may argue that the referencing of past wars creates a hierarchy of victimization, I assert that the film’s Holocaust imagery petitions the Israeli spectator to engage in a personal journey (similar, in fact, to Folman’s) towards an understanding of the events in Lebanon. A journey that ultimately hold the IDF soldier accountable for their inaction.

In addition to fostering a system of identification wherein IDF soldiers indirectly occupy the role of the Nazi through their involvement at the camps, Waltz’s wartime imagery may function to remind the domestic spectator of her historic position as an occupier of camps; of her ancestors’ existence as subaltern subjects in Europe and elsewhere. While Morag’s posits that the film offers a muddled ethical conclusion through its recalling of the Holocaust, it is my assertion that Waltz triggers past traumas in order to intensify the atrocities at hand. Just as with Folman’s, the domestic spectator’s subject position as a bystander to mass murder is complicated through the film’s boldface reminder of her lineage; her “postmemory” as the descendant of subjugated subjects.

The use of imagery that recalls the Holocaust does not, as Morag suggests, avoid an ethical stance, but rather petitions the domestic audience to engage in a double-subject identification. This recognition is binary since it requires that the Israeli spectator occupy the role of the victimizer (the Nazi) and the victim (the camp internee). Historically traumatized, victimized, and yet clad in army green, the emotional recalling of the past drives the film towards a clear moral position, which for its concordance with past traumas, locates the IDF as an accessory to the crime. Rather than blurring the lines of responsibility, Waltz with Bashir mobilizes planes of likeness to enact empathy and, ultimately, holds the IDF accountable for larger structural violence outside of their borders.

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