Arts & Culture

The Self-Destructive Logic of Militarism

Dani Rosenberg’s 2007 drama Homeland , which made its American debut at the 23rd Israeli Film Festival, provides an opportunity to examine how contemporary Israeli cinema reflects upon history: upon the history of the state of Israel as represented in … Read More

By / December 29, 2008

Dani Rosenberg’s 2007 drama Homeland , which made its American debut at the 23rd Israeli Film Festival, provides an opportunity to examine how contemporary Israeli cinema reflects upon history: upon the history of the state of Israel as represented in cinema, but also upon the history of Israeli cinema itself. More often than not, Israeli films focus on the present. In stark contrast to American cinema, the historical genre occupies only a marginal place in Israeli cinema, and relatively few films could genuinely be called historical. This could be attributed to the poverty of the Israeli film industry; the small scale of Israeli productions seems unbefitting the historical genre, in its expanses of sets, costumes, and multitudes of characters. The resources required are simply unavailable to Israeli filmmakers. Beyond such prosaic reasons, however, lies an inability to move beyond the didactic terms dictated by the Zionist ethos in order to conceptualize the past. The few films that have succeeded in doing so — Ilan Moshenson ’s 1979 film The Wooden Gun, Dan Wolman ’s Hide and Seek (1980), Amos Gitai ’s Kippur (2000), and most recently Joseph Cedar ’s Campfire (2004) and 2007 Beaufort (2007)—have turned the past into a chamber drama that puts into relief the interaction of characters at the expense of action, the driving force of the historical spectacle.

Homeland (Beit Avi) – English Trailer

Dani Rosenberg turns necessity into merit, and makes the poverty of means into a formal principle that shapes Homeland. By and large, his film is a piece for two actors. History is rendered not through the perspective of large collectives, nor through the perspective of the family—literally or metaphorically—like many historical Israel films, but rather, through the perspective of the individual. The year is 1948, and Lolek, played by Itay Tiran, a young Holocaust survivor, arrives in the newly established state of Israel hoping to join his pre-war lover in Haifa. Lolek finds himself completely disoriented when he is dropped off from a military truck in the middle of the wilderness, made to repeat an oath of allegiance in Hebrew— a language he does not understand—to the state and to the IDF, and pointed in the direction of a military outpost on top of a nearby hill. The outpost is manned by sunburnt and muscular Mickey Leon, who is determined to transform the unsoldierly, slender and pale Lolek into an image of the Israeli sabra. To this end, Leon continuously abuses Lolek, both mentally and physically. Rosenberg’s film is the often-told story of Jewish immigrants to pre-state Palestine and to post-independence Israel, who were ask to shed off their exhilic mentality, to immerse themselves in the new society and to become new Jews: upright, strong, ready to fight and to sacrifice themselves on the alter of their old-new homeland. Yet, unlike the didactic Zionist-Israeli story that celebrates the Israeli melting pot, or the more recent, critical story, that points to the price paid by immigrants in their endeavors to become Israelis, Rosenberg’s protagonist resists the forceful, violent attempt to both undo and redo his body and soul. In taking this position, Rosenberg seems to be responding to the film often dubbed “the first Israeli movie,” namely, to Herbert Klein and Meyer Levin ’s My Father’s House, which was produced in 1947, but released only after the establishment of the state. The two films, which share the same Hebrew title— Beyt Avi (my father’s house)—also share the same premise: a young survivor who arrives in Palestine/Israel after losing his whole family in the Holocaust. Yet each film takes this premise in a very different direction. David, the protagonist of the original My Father’s House, fails to immerse himself in the kibbutz or in the boarding school to which he is subsequently sent, because he clings to the hope that he could still unite with his father. In search of him, David goes on a long tour of the land, a tour in which his sorrow is supplanted with admiration for it’s beauty and for Zionist achievements. Towards the end of the film, he is adopted by a Holocaust survivor and her Israeli partner, and all of them join a new kibbutz in the Negev. When the three arrive there, the kibbutz members uncover an old stone carving of a menorah. All gather around it, and one of them points at the carving and addresses the child: “This is your father’s house.” Rosenberg’s Beyt Avi paints a picture of a very different homeland. The film takes place in a desolated, uninhabited wilderness. This wilderness is not the setting for pioneering settlement, but of destruction, one that encompasses the whole land. By a military logic he does not understand, Lolek is shackled to the outpost, and is forbidden the opportunity to explore other parts of the country. Indeed, when he insists that he would leave for Haifa, the commander brutally assures him: “Haifa is gone! There is no more Haifa!” The commander undoes the Zionist slogan of turning the wilderness into a blooming garden, turning the entire country into a wilderness. There is no reprieve, the commander suggests, from the empty landscape and the scorching sun that burns their skin. Indeed, there is no reprieve from war, so one should give up the illusion of finding or founding a new home. Nothing breaks the solitariness of the outpost. The enemy has last been seen over three weeks ago, and the war is present only in the form of a radio broadcasting anxious screams begging for help. The only sign of war that, ironically, is also the only sign of life—past or present— are the haunted ruins of a Palestinian village. In an eerie scene Lolek, who is sent to the village to bring fresh water to the outpost, enters one of the destroyed houses, and is watched by the ghost of a Palestinian boy that hides underneath a bed. Lolek lies on the ground and stares back at him. The desolation of the land, the film seems to suggest, results from the devastation of pre-existing civilizations, not only Palestinian civilization, but Jewish exhilic civilization as well. Both are victims of the destructive forces unleashed by militarism embraced by the young Israeli state. The growing tension between Lolek and his commander cannot be resolved by anything but violence. In this, Homeland follows the footsteps of such films as Yehuda Ne’eman ’s 1977 Paratroopers, which likewise portrays the intense relationship between a fresh, puny and pale paratrooper recruit and his chauvinist commander, who believes that discipline and hazing would make a true soldier out of him. Yet, whereas all of the characters in Ne’eman’s film accept the soldierly ethos, whether they are capable of realizing it or not, Lolek rejects this ethos. In defiance, he challenges his commander with buffoonish, Charlie Chaplin-like antics that mock the commander’s chauvinist-military mannerism and express resistance to the demand to put behind exhilic values. The friction between the two, however, is not one between a native and a new immigrant, between an arrogant Israeli—who, in the effort to establish and secure a new state, refuses to acknowledge the emotional and physical needs of others—and his victim, as it might seem at first glance. The number on his forearm and, more than that, his nightmares reveal the antipathetic sabra to be but another suffering Holocaust survivor. The conflict is between two damaged newcomers and the divergent strategies they adopt in their struggle with the past in Europe and the present in an inhospitable country. Not only does the transition to Israel fails to relieve newcomers of the traumas they suffered in exile, the film suggests. It also leads them to victimize each other. The ambiguity that underlies the conflict between the two characters also makes ambiguous the most conspicuous aspect of the film, namely, its Yiddish. Homeland is one of only a handful of Yiddish-speaking films to be produced since World Word II. Most obviously, Homeland‘s employment of Yiddish marks the destroyed European culture that the new immigrants were expected to forget upon their arrival. In his insistence on speaking Yiddish and on using Yiddish humor, Lolek mounts a critique of the Hebrew’s militaristic character. Yiddish is the language that links him to his past home and murdered family, but also to the hope of a future new home and family in “Haifa.” Hebrew, on the other hand, is the language of war and of destruction. Yet, the conflict is not between Yiddish and Hebrew since, by and large, the dialogue takes place in Yiddish. The conflict seems to be between two types of Yiddish: between Yiddish that desires to become Hebrew and Yiddish that insists on its independence from Hebrew. The outcome of the film (which, for the sake of those who have not seen the film yet, I avoid from revealing) leaves uncertain not only which Yiddish wins but, more than that, what is the significance of the victory. Homeland offers not only a revisionist account of Israeli history, but of Israeli cinema as well. More than any other Israeli director, Dani Rosenberg explores the price paid by the individual for the demands put on them by the Zionist endeavor. Other Israeli filmmakers, no matter how critical of the Zionist project and of Israeli society, tended to mitigate the stress of this demand by placing their protagonists within the context of a collective—commonly represented by a small group of people or a family—and in doing so, submitted their anguish to its impersonal logic. By placing this community outside of the film’s frame and by rendering the significance of the struggle against its demands uncertain, Homeland turns that anguish into a challenge to talk about Israeli history.