In the Belly of the Rhinoceros

A Harrowing Coming of Age Story in Samuel Maoz's 'Lebanon'

Dungeon on Wheels: Shmulik the director looks back on Shmulik the gunner’s journey to a field.
Dungeon on Wheels: Shmulik the director looks back on Shmulik the gunner’s journey to a field.

By Dan Friedman

Published October 07, 2009, issue of October 16, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

‘Lebanon” opens with a golden field of sunflowers gently waving in the breeze and ends with the same field with a sole, unmoving tank in it. Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed.

For Shmulik the gunner (Yoav Donat), Yigal the driver (Michael Moshonov), Hertzel the loader (Oshri Cohen) and Assi the officer (Itay Tiran) these two days in the tank at the start of the 1982 Lebanon War are a crucible. Like millions of young men heading into war in the 1980s — the Iran-Iraq war alone sent almost two million men to war between 1980 and 1988 — they were about to experience that awful induction into combat and into the true experience of war: kill or be killed.

Because of the subject matter and proximity of release, “Lebanon” will be compared to “Beaufort” and “Waltz With Bashir,” but the latter, especially, is a misguided comparison. Whereas “Bashir” deals with history, with the layers of nightmares and hindsights that haunt the memory, “Lebanon” is a movie of the moment itself not the afterlife of the experience. It sites the viewer in the partial, inadequate and literally fractured vision of the gun sights. Samuel (“Shmulik” in the Hebrew credits) Maoz, shoots the film through the eyes of Shmulik the gunner’s viewfinder revivifying, even electrifying, the cliché that shooting a film from a camera is like shooting a bullet from a gun.

Like the occupants of the tank, we know almost nothing except what the force commander Jamil (Zohar Strauss) tells the tank crew. Most of the time our view of what’s going on is partial and obscured. Often Shmulik gets distracted by the human debris of his surroundings. Often the view is so disturbing that the shot traces his shock in reeling away from the cause of the disturbance, but there is no escape from this dungeon of death on wheels. Back and back the film brings us to the inside of the tank, referred to by code as “Rhino,” building on the intensity of the dank atmosphere and the young men within. When finally the lid of the tank opens, letting in light and air, it does so with the air of a coffin lid opening and an almost audible hiss like a pressure cooker. Both of which are, in their own ways, true.

Each of the soldiers reacts to the unfolding traumatic situation differently. Shmulik overcomes his hesitancy and becomes decisive but maybe because he’s been irrevocably desensitized. Quiet Assi pays a different cost of brutalization as his character begins to disintegrate and dislocate, Yigal panics, Hertzel retreats. Like a person or a society, the rhinoceros (and surely shades here of Ionesco too, not least with the ubiquitous and unexplained soup nuts that cover the floor of the tank) enacts multiple concurrent strategies of denial as it fails. As the action continues, the smeared and patched up tank and soldiers more and more closely resemble one another.

The mechanism of the tank allows Maoz to intensify the soldiers’ experience. The “Rhino” becomes a nightmare beast that, despite its name, its seeming sentience and the increasingly organic bilge in its belly, never comes to life. In fact, its clanking recalcitrance leads it to bear more of a resemblance to the occupant of a zoo morgue than a gleaming weapon of war.

There is nothing gleaming about this (or perhaps any) war. The dark cabin of the tank is fetid and restrictive: a cipher for life or war. But this is no Israeli mea culpa. Insofar as it veers away from the intimate it shows the broad scope of the conflict. Although the tank crew seems Ashkenazi, Jamil is clearly not, nor are the Christian phalangist, the Lebanese mother, or the Syrian hostage who play important cameos in the film. The latter of these, despite being silent and having fired a shell that ripped into the tank, is portrayed as much a victim of the situation as the young Israelis. In perhaps the longest filmed pee ever, Shmulik holds the hostage’s penis to allow him to relieve himself without undoing his chains. It’s an act of common humanity that is, in its own way, awkward but relieving for an audience whose senses are otherwise relentlessly pummeled by war.

With “Beaufort,” “Waltz With Bashir” and now “Lebanon,” Israel is building a powerful pantheon of personal and historical films about its Lebanon wars, just as “Full Metal Jacket,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Hamburger Hill” and their ilk did for America’s wars around Vietnam. After being snubbed for Oscars twice by demonstrably lesser films, Israel has decided not to send “Lebanon” next year. That’s a shame, but I look forward to the time when Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and, possibly even Palestine, send similarly self-interrogative films to compete with Israel for Hollywood’s Academy Award.

Contact Dan Friedman at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.