I REMEMBER WHEN I first saw Ghost in the Shell, and having the very strange sensation that I had had an epiphany, or otherwise undergone some sort of transformation while I watched the film. I had a similar feeling when I watched Waltz with Bashir—a film which I knew by reputation but, for whatever reason, had never sat down to watch.
Waltz with Bashir is autobiographical. Its writer, director and star, Ari Folman, served in the Israeli Defence Forces during the 1982 Lebanon War, but was traumatised by the experience to such an extent that he is, at the film’s inception, unable to recall his experience. It is this inability to remember which is the mainspring of the film.
In the opening scene, a friend of Folman, now in middle age, describes a recurring dream in which he is chased by twenty-six ravenous, slavering dogs. The friend explains how this dream relates to his role in the war and Folman, to the disbelief of his friend, comes to realise that he remembers nothing of his own experiences during that period. It is quite clear the holes in Folman’s memory are not due to amnesia, however. Instead it seems to be the case that the memories are there, locked away somewhere, so with this in mind, Folman undertakes to track down some of his old comrades to see if they can help him remember.
Folman’s sole recollection is more a dream than it is a memory, and it was this scene that affected me so strongly. In the sequence, the nineteen-year-old Folman and his teenage brothers-in-arms rise out of the ocean under the moonlight, off the coast of a Beirut illuminated by rocket flares. The dream is made all the more breathtaking by the haunting electronic score of Max Richter. (Anyone who has seen Shutter Island will remember On the Nature of Daylight, the music that plays during Daniels’s dream of his wife dying in a fire.) Richter has that extraordinary ability to conjure up a sense of the otherworldly in the same way that Philip Glass does. Two tracks in particular—Haunted Ocean and What Had They Done?—have appeal far beyond the boundaries of Waltz with Bashir.
Ari Folman plays a great deal with the idea of memory and dreams. One of Folman’s friends, now a psychologist, talks with him at length about the unreliability of memory, and the way in which the mind is liable to fill in the blanks, so to speak, for the sake of its sanity. Folman’s journey–and the film–is therefore a reconstructive endeavour. The viewer, like Folman, is slowly building a sequence of events through the recollections of the characters, and until that picture is clear, everything we see remains vague and unreliable, dancing along a line between fact and fiction created in the mind. The rotoscope-animation, which is very similar to that used in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, is a visual metaphor for this indistinct, nebulous quality.
Waltz with Bashir is interesting, I think, in part because it concerns the young people of a country really unlike any other. Israel is a highly-developed liberal democracy in the same way that the U.S. and the nations of Western Europe are highly-developed liberal democracies, and yet it is almost perpetually at war with its neighbours, and the necessity to militarise is so great that all young people must do national service. For the most part, therefore, these young people didn’t grow up in suffering and great hardship, and yet they are expected to take part in a war while barely adults. Is it any wonder that the veterans of war have pushed their memories of it into the furthest, darkest corners of their minds, the horrors they experienced–and perpetrated–only ever let out in the dark of night, as they sleep? War, Folman says, is like a really bad acid trip.
There is a scene in which a group of new conscripts arrive on the shore of Lebanon and, in panic and fear, begin to shoot indiscriminately, killing a family driving their car. And then there is the titular waltz, an extraordinarily beautiful scene in which a soldier dances in the street as he fires at Lebanese militants positioned above in apartment blocks plastered with posters of Bachir Gemayel.
Waltz with Bashir is at once harrowing and beautiful, unmissable, and quite simply a superb piece of filmmaking. The visual style changes only once, at the very end of the film, and it is fitting, for two reasons. Firstly, because the reconstruction has come to an end and secondly, because in order to fully appreciate the horror of something, you must see it in its real form.