Speak, memory,” commanded Vladimir Nabokov, and it’s a nice enough thought—but in the Israeli animated masterpiece Waltz With Bashir, memory only stutters, yowls, and babbles in tongues. To translate, a new form is needed, with more fluid boundaries between documentary and fantasy, reality and dreams, life and art. What we get is both a detective story and a head-trip. The movie’s writer, director, and protagonist, Ari Folman, was 19 when he went to war in Lebanon in 1982, and he does not, he tells a friend, have distinct recollections of what he saw and did—especially on the days and nights of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, when Christian Phalangists murdered hundreds of Palestinian men, women, and children. Waltz With Bashir begins with a dream recounted by one of Folman’s friends: Snarling dogs emerge from the night shadows and bound through the streets of Tel Aviv, their eyes a radioactive yellow to match the clouds scudding above them, converging under the dreamer’s window and snapping at his face. That opening, with Max Richter’s pounding drums, puts the vision in our faces, too: It’s Folman shouting, “Cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of remembrance!”
One vision above all haunts Waltz With Bashir: soldiers, principally the young Folman, emerging naked from the sea and pulling their uniforms on their elongated bodies to Richter’s shimmering synthesizers. Folman slings his rifle over his shoulder and heads into Beirut. Women surge past him going—where? The camera can’t see beyond his face. The style of the movie shifts: He and a friend sit in a café, barely transformed, musing on whether films such as his can be therapeutic. Ho-hum, you say, Jews talking about therapy, what else is new? Except this isn’t New York, it’s Israel, which has a culture more repressed than its volubility would lead you to believe. (Monosyllabic Scandinavians don’t have a corner on buried traumas.) As Folman interviews his combat buddies, other soldiers, a reporter, and a psychologically astute friend, the narrative baton is passed. Now the backdrops are photo-realistic, now surreal. The music segues from raucous rock to dainty classical as a soldier dances among posters of the assassinated Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel, his machine gun chattering like an electric guitar. Even the most lambent passages have a feverish urgency.
So many modern war films center not on rousing battles but the horror of civilian casualties, and on soldiers racked by flashbacks over things they can’t fully recall—things they saw, did, or didn’t do. Some filmmakers use images of slaughtered women and children for cheap shocks; others are more scrupulous, but so literal-minded that our defenses fly up. It has taken an animated film to go where live-action dramas and even documentaries haven’t—to tickle our synapses and slip into our bloodstream. The end of Waltz With Bashir rockets us out of the unconscious: The cartoon women surging past the young Folman become newsreel-real, their unholy keening recorded at the scene. The director has used every drop of his artistry to open us up to the sting of death.
So German TV was interviewing me last week about Valkyrie: Do Americans, I was asked, know that the German people are extremely upset that one of their national heroes, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who devised a daring plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the summer of ’44, is being embodied onscreen by a … a … Scientologist? No, I said, we didn’t know the Fatherland was up in arms, but … if I may say … It’s probably not a good idea for the German people in this particular instance to get all exercised over someone’s religion. I’m just sayin’. Anyway, Valkyrie is a two-hour monument to the self-sacrifice of German soldiers under the Third Reich. Doesn’t casting Tom Cruise ensure its message will be heard around the world—especially in countries that hate Nazis more than Scientologists? Germany should be delighted. Even if they can count the number of actual Germans in the film on one hand, haven’t movie Nazis been a lovely reparation for the Battle of Britain? The number of U.K. actors employed every year (especially here, with Nazis galore) is a gift that keeps on giving to the British theater.
The movie itself is nowhere near as embarrassing as early reports suggested. Directed by Bryan Singer in a break from his gayish superhero movies, it’s a low-key procedural with a dollop of suspense—although perhaps not enough to make up for the foregone conclusion. After an ill-advised prologue in which Cruise speaks the actual language (much mirth among the German TV folks!), the star reverts to his standard middle-American tones; he looks stalwart and unfussy in his crisp uniform with his cute little eye patch. The Brits who scurry around him—Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp—never convince us they wouldn’t rather have a pint of bitter over a stein of helles and some wurst, but they go through the “Heil Hitler” motions with stiff upper lips. Valkyrie doesn’t whip you up like that Jewish vigilante avenger picture Defiance, but in this season of throat-grabbing Holocaust movies, its gentlemanliness is most welcome.
Von Stauffenberg expressed his political outrage by attempting to blow up Adolf Hitler at a war summit; George C. Wolfe, Tony Kushner, and Meryl Streep express theirs by exhuming Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, adding a few anti-Bush jabs, and putting it on in Central Park. John Walter’s documentary Theater of War alternates rehearsal footage with (cleaned-up) stories of the life and times of old Bertolt. As a onetime dramaturg and Brechtian, I enjoyed the chin-wags and the glimpses of Streep in rehearsal—especially her quivering admission that she can’t bear the thought of anyone seeing her process. The movie throws in a cogent Marxist primer and reminders of all the collateral damage (economic and physical) generated by our war machine. All I missed was a hint that East Germany in the fifties didn’t bestow its bounties on all such lusty, provocative thinkers.