A New Film About the Second Temple Will Take Viewers Back 2,000 Years

Using an unorthodox technique, Gidi Dar's new movie presents the story of the Temple's destruction, one of the most important events in Jewish history.

A still from Gidi Dar's upcoming film, "Legend of Destruction."
David Polonsky

The experience of viewing Gidi Dar’s new movie, still in its early production stages, is unlike anything else. It’s not a live action movie with actors, but neither is it an animated film. It’s something being produced using a technique no one has bothered to define before.

In “Legend of Destruction,” Dar, with his partners David Polonsky and Michael Faust (who all worked together in the making of “Waltz with Bashir”), tries to use 600-700 drawings in order to create a full-length movie that will present the story of the destruction of the Second Temple. They intend to base an entire movie on still drawings without using any animation.

Last week I watched a battle scene that served as a trial case for the film. A large drawing is shown on the screen and the camera starts to rove across it. Even though the drawings are frozen and motionless, a dynamic, rhythmic and tempestuous battle takes place on the screen. It’s hard not to think of the fact that almost two thousand years have gone by, but knives and stones are raised almost daily in the same locations, in the same city.

“I don’t think any movie has been made before using this technique. I confess that I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat,” says Dar with a smile. “We’ve done a few tests and we feel that it could work. The images are so beautiful — each one is a celebration. There are scenes in which the camera rushes across the drawing, while in others it stops still and lets viewers gaze at an amazing drawing containing many details. When dealing with such an ancient era, there is something in the eternity of these stills that propels you into a very authentic experience.”

Dar (director of “Ushpizin” and “Eddie King”) clarifies that in this case, the technique, despite its novelty and originality, is not the main thing. For him, “Legend of Destruction” is foremost a movie which will present a “story of great importance, unknown to many people.“ This is a historical political thriller that takes place over four years, between 66 and 70 C.E. “Unquestionably, this rebellion, which starts snowballing as soon as it erupts, ending in calamitous destruction, is one of the most significant events in Jewish history, as well as a foundational event in monotheism," Dar explains. "One must remember that in those days, there was only one very small monotheistic entity in the entire world. Christians were still Jewish at that stage and, in fact, the same road taken by the Romans on their way to destroying Jerusalem was later taken by monotheism. Moreover, in the absence of this destruction everything might have looked different today, with Jews having disappeared, like many other nations did. Judaism persisted for 2,000 years due to a longing for something which was no longer there. Its power resided in this absence. Every destruction in Jewish history only served to fortify it. Thus, the Temple’s destruction had enormous significance for Judaism in particular and for monotheism in general.”

“Legend of Destruction” will depict the four years preceding the destruction, describing the religious, social and economic tensions which led the Jews to revolt against the Romans, as well as to the civil war which broke out within Jerusalem’s walls, pushing the besieged Jews into a bitter and desperate battle. “I want to propel viewers 2,000 years backward in time” says Dar. “The Romans took the upper crust of society and gave them insane benefits, leading to an aristocracy holding immense wealth. They were the ones who nominated the high priests, totally corrupting the Temple and turning it into a gigantic cash-making enterprise.”

Gidi Dar, director of the upcoming film "Legend of Destruction."
David Bachar

“The problem was that the rest of the people lived under very harsh conditions. The zealots started inciting poor people, who attacked wealthy neighborhoods and burned them down. Very rapidly the revolt against the Romans devolved into a war between rich and poor, and after the aristocrats were defeated, a terrible internecine fight broke out among the zealots themselves. To understand this, you can look at what’s happening in Syria nowadays, multiplying it twenty-fold." Dar believes that the only event in Jewish history worse than that one was the Holocaust. "For me, the saying ‘greed and unjustified hatred is what destroyed Jerusalem’ echoes back to these days, with their societal gaps and extreme divisions. Such a mix can only lead to a disaster, nothing else,” he says.

The movie follows seven historical characters, each one with his or her own version of events: Second Temple-era figures such as the sage Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakkai, Yosef Ben-Matityahu (the historian who later assumed the name Josephus Flavius), Queen Berenice, rebel leaders Yohanan of Gush Halav, Shimon Bar-Giora and Ben Batiah (also known as Abba Sikra) and Roman emperor Titus. Each character’s vantage point will complement or contradict the other ones in a kind of “Rashomon.”

Dar says he didn’t know much about this period until he started reading the book “Jerusalem’s Traitor: Josephs, Masada and the Fall of Judea,” a biography of Yosef Ben-Matityahu by Desmond Seward. “I was surprised by how much it reflects our own times, what’s happening to us, to our society internally, as well as reflecting the Arab Spring and winter — the lack of trust in systems, a sense of stupendous corruption, societal gaps and divisions. When this is the situation, the nation can get to very dangerous places.”

Agencies have jumped on board: Channel 8 and the Cinema Initiative in Jerusalem are investing in the movie, which is being produced by Amir Harel. Dar and Harel are now trying to recruit other investors, and they're aiming high. “I intend to ultimately make an English version with American stars. Since I think that this is a project with huge commercial potential, I believe that raising money will be easy,” he says.

Despite his last movie's great success with critics and at the box office, Dar disappeared from the movie scene for 12 years. When asked why this was the case, he explains that he was busy making a children’s series called “Deus” (“sort of like ‘1984’ meets ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’" he says with a smile), as well as being occupied with a photography project and some personal matters. Interestingly, Judaism, which took center stage in “Ushpizin,” giving secular Israelis a glimpse of the inner workings of the ultra-Orthodox world, also plays a major role in his new movie. Why does a secular filmmaker from Tel Aviv continue to address these issues? “I grew up in a very Israeli and Zionist house, very non-religious but with respect for tradition. In contrast to European filmmakers, I always felt that in some ways I was living a very limited life, characterized by an Israeli secular outlook. 'Ushpizin' deals with a fundamental moment in the history of Zionism, which repudiated the Diaspora and everything it stood for, mainly ultra-Orthodoxy. I felt that my movie could build a bridge and connect the two worlds.”

“At some point the penny dropped and I realized that my culture was more than that. I think that it behooves artists and creative people to bridge the gap through artistic means. In terms of our identity we are on the brink of an abyss. Today you can read the Odyssey and Kant but not the [Babylonian]Talmud, since due to its language it is almost inaccessible to us. But our culture desperately needs this; it won’t survive without it," says Dar. "I believe that if you don’t close gaps in your own way they will close some other way, namely by a return to religion. I therefore prefer doing it my way, paving this route.”

In this way, he explains, he differs from other filmmakers who opt to address the occupation as the central theme of Israeli life. “To me this is a superficial view of this era, which is one of the most amazing periods ever. It’s an attempt to be like Europe or America, which are already rotten because of the corruption that has spread everywhere, instead of looking at ourselves, living an interesting and true reality. This state was founded with an insane spiritual strength but now it is burning, now corruption and decadence are setting in here as well. I think we have a great spiritual mission before us, not a religious one.”