At War With Themselves

The idea of the strong sabra soldier fighting at the front has been trampled by decades of films showing the dark side of army service. Four actors discuss how their time in uniform shaped their work - and Israeli discourse.

In a country where most young people find themselves in uniform at age 18, and wars rear their heads every few years, figures of dusty warriors have conquered not only strategic positions but also the silver screen. From the founding of the state to this day, the number of war and army films made here has been remarkably high.

During the early decades of the state Israeli cinema centered on the figure of the heroic soldier, the fearless sabra who is prepared to sacrifice himself for his native-born homeland. But starting from the late 1970s, films began chipping away at the myth.

actors who served in the IDF - Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

Reams have been written in academia about the new soldier, the antihero. Numerous scholars have already analyzed the way in which war movies of the past three decades have buried the national patriotic meta-narrative; the manner in which they dared at long last to question the morality of the Israel Defense Forces, and filmmakers' decisions to focus on the beaten and suffering soldier rather than on the brave and heroic warrior.

Left out of the equation, though, have been actors commissioned to portray these conflicted men.

Haaretz recently brought together four actors whose roles gave the antihero a space on the big screen: Gavri Banai, who played the unforgettable Sgt. Raphael "Jinji" Moked in the film "Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer" (1976 ), written by Assi Dayan and Naftali Alter; Liron Levo, who starred in the film "Kippur" (2000 ) as Weinraub, a character that was modeled on the filmmaker Amos Gitai during his military service in the Yom Kippur War; Eli Eltonyo, who in Joseph Cedar's "Beaufort" (2007 ), based on the novel by Ron Leshem, played the role of Company First Sergeant Oshri, who waits with his comrades in the first Lebanon War for the retreat order that will rescue them; and Michael Aloni, who played Benny, the abusive commander in "Infiltration" (2010 ), which Dover Koshashvili directed based on the book by Yehoshua Kenaz.

All four actors served in the military themselves, and personally experienced what it feels like to put on a uniform and belong to a hierarchical, patriotic and demanding system.

When they became actors, the four were called to the flag once more. This time each of them volunteered for battle, and shouldered the challenge of playing an Israeli soldier in a film that aimed harsh criticism at the military system and at the reality into which the soldiers who serve in it are hurled.

"'Halfon Hill' was a different movie, from another world, a wild movie, as anti-war as can be. In it the army was no army, the soldier was no soldier, and the commander was no commander," Banai says of the first Israeli film that had the audacity to stand up and shatter the myth of the heroic Israeli soldier. "That movie was a parody of how the IDF looked at the time, when all of Sinai was in our hands, and people were sitting around there and nobody knew what he was doing there. It was one big mess, and in the movie I was the soldier who was in charge of this mess. Above me was another commander, played by Tuvia Tzafir, and he was completely insane. So there was no ethos here, and there was no heroism. Of course, none of us knew that it would become such a hit."

Gitai's "Kippur," by contrast, made nearly half a century later, shattered the myth of the fearless sabra warrior by directing the camera not at the front lines, as is common in most war movies, but rather at what was happening in the rear, where soldiers had to deal with the trauma of evacuating hundreds of dead and wounded comrades.

Levo played one of these rear soldiers.

"The Yom Kippur War wrenched a lot of souls in this country. It was the end of the euphoria, the end of the era when they thought that we always win," Levo says. "In this movie, there was no desire to manufacture a heroic protagonist who picks up his weapon and charges at everybody. There's no enemy here, and there's no warfare of the kind that we're used to seeing, but only the trauma of collecting the wounded and the dead. I felt in this movie that I was connecting to the pain that is really the whole country's pain."

The soldiers portrayed in the movie "Beaufort" were not given an opportunity to be heroic either. Instead, they were required to hunker down and hide in their outpost, to survive the ceaseless bombardments with utter passivity, to serve as sitting ducks and pushpins in the war room of the decision makers. They had to watch their friends get hit one after another, and wait aimlessly for the tardy retreat.

"Oshri Cohen represented in this film a soldier whose purpose is to fight, to stay put, to hold on - very militaristic battle goals. By contrast, my function in the film was to soothe him, to be kind of like his psychologist, to treat him almost like a patient with a problem," Eltonyo says. "Instead of a soldier who is supposed to fight and conquer and win, here the soldier is presented as a candidate for therapy; as someone who needs to be soothed, taken care of, shown consideration. He is essentially presented as a kind of problem."

"Infiltration," is set in a 1950s platoon of new recruits in poor physical condition, and Aloni plays a commander who abuses his soldiers by taking all of his frustrations out on them.

"This film dashes the revered figure of the commanding officer. In it I play a commander who has given up on his dreams," says Aloni. "He made it into the paratroopers, which in the '50s was considered the top, but then he got kicked out of there, demoted in rank, and sent to command basic training for physically unfit soldiers, the dregs of the dregs of the Israeli army. Benny is forced to compromise, and he tries to get everyone around him to toe the same line, to have everyone compromise and make peace with this misery."

Many of the Israeli films that examined military life over the years touched a raw nerve in Israeli society. For example, Yehuda (Judd ) Ne'eman's "Masa Alunkot" ("Stretcher Drill," 1980 ) generated a debate over hazing in the military and the trampling of the individual by the system; "Ehad Mishelanu" ("One of Us," 1989 ) dealt with attempts to silence criticism of the military establishment; "Waltz with Bashir" (2008 ) and "Lebanon" (2009 ) re-ignited an argument about the issue of shooting first and expressing regret later; whereas "Beaufort" aroused a public storm surrounding the legitimacy of having actors who never served in the army play soldiers.

Why do you think the characters of Israeli soldiers in films manage to arouse so many charged arguments and emotions?

Levo: "This country triggers a great many emotions in people, and we are constantly split and torn. These conflicts exist every day on the street, so surely it will happen when somebody tries to aim the spotlight at them in a film. That's the blood price this country has been paying throughout the years; it's the spot that bleeds the most, and the moment you want to make art and say something about it, it's really sensitive."

Eltonyo: "Today every person in this country has a stake in the IDF. It's like members of the Egged bus cooperative: anyone who has served in the army is a member of the IDF. Everyone may have done something different during his service - one screwed in some screw on a tank, another fired a shot - but each has a stake, some sense of entitlement and ownership over the matter. So obviously it touches, and therefore the debate is always emotional.

"I think that in countries with a slightly longer history than our own there is more respect for the concept of civic duty, and the army reflects in some way the consensus; the broadest common denominator. In recent years an uprising has started here, which I connect with the social protest, about the unequal sharing of this burden, about people who dodge service in the IDF. Over the years this discussion has managed to penetrate the cinema, which holds up a mirror that arouses arguments."

Playing a human

When you were asked to play a specific soldier, did you have any maneuvering room left to shape the character?

Aloni: "When you play somebody, you don't play his symbol. You play a human being who comes from a particular place, who has a particular background, and who has arrived at a particular situation."

Levo: "The soldier figure may always be colored by a certain heroism, but on the other hand, everyone here has done it, each of us here was a soldier. Besides, when I play a soldier on the rear lines during the war, it's the story of a person, which blends with who we are as actors. We bring ourselves, and so does the filmmaker. The film's statement is his statement, because he wrote the script, but also ours, the actors', because we, in opting to enter this project, essentially choose to join that statement and the political shade it carries."

Eltonyo: "Like Oshri in 'Beaufort,' in my military service I served in Lebanon exactly during that period, until the withdrawal. So in fact I was there. When I came to portray the character of Oshri, I had to wipe clean my impressions and experiences, and arrive open and available to experience the things in the course of the film, so as to be faithful to what Joseph Cedar wrote. If I had come with my baggage and with my opinion and with everything I have from the experiences I absorbed during my service, I would basically be sinning against the character I play."

Aloni: "When you play a character like Hamlet or Oedipus, it's also a character that comes with baggage, a certain myth. But that's not the point. The point is that every director has a different perspective on the written text, on life, and he wants to present it in a certain light. And you, as an actor, simply enter the shoes of the character in the particular situation he's in."

"Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer" was the first film to shatter the myth of the heroic sabra warrior. Assi Dayan, who created that myth in his portrayal of Uri in "Hu Halach B'Sadot" ("He Walked Through the Fields," 1967 ), proceeded to make a comedy that ripped Uri and his adherents to pieces. Were you aware of this during the filming?

Banai: "Assi did reserve duty in Sinai, like us, but he was a combat soldier, and he understood how pointless and absurd it was. Let them give back this Sinai already, what's the holdup? I'm not sure we spoke with him at the time about the absurdity of the matter, but we knew that we were about to make a comedy about guys on reserve duty and about the yawning boredom it involves."

When the film came out, were there people who objected to the manner in which you shattered the myth of the heroic soldier, or was it treated forgivingly because of the humor?

Banai: "We had said a lot of things as [comedy troupe] Hagashash Hahiver. When things are said with humor, at first it seems like it's just funny, but things enter people's heads, and then, all of a sudden, they start to get it. ... At some point it enters people's heads that war is shit and that it's a waste of our time. And besides, enough, how much 'Beaufort' and war movies can you make? I mean, you can make movies about the IDF that will get a message across differently. In my view a film like 'Halahaka,' (The Troupe) even though it contains songs and an army entertainment troupe, also conveyed a message about the IDF."

Maybe the way the soldiers were portrayed in "Halfon Hill" was actually one of the factors in the film's immense popularity?

Eltonyo: "I think that, first and foremost, it released this stiffness of the folded arms and taut facial muscles. It just let everything go. Besides, the tremendous love for this trio, which was no less a consensus than the IDF, allowed them to go in whatever direction they desired. The whole country back then was [recovering from] the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, and this movie just let people take a moment off from that national grief. This movie came along and created some kind of other world, with a totally different metaphysical time."

Filmed self-flagellation

Many view IDF soldiers as the quintessence of Israeliness. When you were portraying soldiers, did you feel that you were playing some archetypal Israeli figure?

Levo: "I don't think that the perfect Israeli is the perfect soldier. Not necessarily. And I disagree that being a soldier is the most Israeli thing there is."

Eltonyo: "I think that it's a description that may be appropriate for times gone by, but in Israeli cinema they began to detach themselves from this statement back in the '80s."

Aloni: "On the other hand, you can't dismiss it altogether. If you live in the United States and you reach the age that you have, it's not at all certain that you will get to play a soldier. Here, by contrast, the odds are that you will play a soldier. I know that up until a certain age I could play a 16-year-old boy, and now I'm basically enlisting; I'm entering a period in which I get offered a lot of soldier roles, and in a certain cynical aspect, it's good for business here in Israel. I now have a lot of roles I can play, as a soldier. If that weren't the case, it's possible that I would've had to wait another seven years to enter my paternal period and start playing fathers. Then come the divorced-man roles, and later grandparenthood. These are steps of years, of roles you can portray."

Eltonyo: "If you stop and look for a moment at the makers of the film - the screenwriter, the director, and the producer, and not the actors, it could be that films like these are a certain test to get into the family of nations. Especially lately, if you travel around a bit overseas, there are few countries that think there are sane people here, certainly ones that went through the IDF, and many equate IDF soldiers with Nazis. And to get into the family of nations, which is supposedly the original aspiration of this country, the filmmakers are required to pass a threshold test of some kind, which is to make a movie in which you admit the sadism that exists in the army, the growing violence, the racism, and then you go and flagellate yourself."

Do you see that as the reason for the great success that films like "Beaufort," "Lebanon," and "Waltz with Bashir" have met with in the world recently?

Eltonyo: "It is certainly part of the reason, because even if we claim otherwise, these are very political films. They wrap themselves in a humanistic statement of some kind, but there is lots of politics there, which corresponds with politics abroad."

Would an Israeli film that presents a heroic warrior rather than a suffering, ambivalent, and agonizing soldier stand a chance of succeeding?

Eltonyo: "It wouldn't make it, in my opinion. There are a lot of people here with right-wing views who believe that discussing peace weakens and undermines security, and that our neighborhood in the Middle East necessitates talk of honor and machismo. But you hardly ever see a reflection of that in movies, because they don't make it past the [Israel Film] Fund. You won't see those statements sitting in state budgets, in the consensus. Those statements have been completely deleted from the discussion."

An Israeli actor who served in the IDF and is called upon to play a soldier on film - is the assignment he is given different in some way from the same assignment given to an American actor, for instance, who never served in the military?

Levo: "Not really."

Eltonyo: "What's different is mainly the money, because the American actor will receive much better terms. Other than that, I don't think that an actor who served in the IDF as a combat soldier will necessarily play the character of a soldier any better than an actor who didn't do the army. Because an actor's profession is to imagine and enrich himself, and to do research, and to exercise his imagination and recall all sorts of experiential things that he's got, and if not, then to acquire this. That's the profession."

Banai: "An actor needs to be a good actor, and that's it. He can be anti-war, someone who never held a gun in his life. To play a soldier you don't have to be in [elite unit] Sayeret Matkal, and you don't have to know how to shoot and hit a bull's-eye. An actor has to be good, reliable, and clean-shaven in the morning. That's all."