Samuel Maoz was only 20 years old when the first Lebanon War broke out. He was a gunner in a tank crew and at 6:15 a.m. on the morning of June 6, 1982, he killed a man for the first time in his life.
“It’s very sharp and clear in my memory,” he says quietly. He’s sitting in a hotel room in Midtown, tall, gaunt, balding. Now in his late 40s, he is calm and seemingly detached, as if he is telling a story he once heard somewhere. But it’s a story he lived and then lived with for almost two decades before he was able to turn it into a remarkable film, “Lebanon,” which has its theatrical opening on Aug. 6.
“The rest of the people I killed in the war are just a blur,” he continues. “But not the first one.”
In “Lebanon” — outside of the opening and closing shots of a sunflower-filled field and a sky so blue it almost hurts to look at — the viewer is trapped inside an Israeli army tank with its four-man crew. The only exposure to the world outside is through the gunner’s sights or the tank’s viewing devices. The only light sources inside the tank are below the crew, casting an unearthly orange glow on their faces as if they were standing beside a huge devouring furnace. The only change comes when someone opens the hatch, flooding the tank with glaring white light from above, as in some no-less-alien visitation from the sky. Maoz traps the viewer in a world of limited perception, a world in which events are seen only fitfully and in fragments.
The result is that “Lebanon” is more than just a good first feature film; it is a throwback to the kind of profoundly questioning war film that forces an audience to look uneasily into a mirror.
Of course Maoz had been through extensive training before he went into combat but, as he dryly notes, “It’s not normal to kill.”
War, he explains, teaches you otherwise.
“When you’re in training, it’s just toys for big boys,” he says. “We shot up steel barrels filled with gasoline. Beautiful fireworks. We tried out a new laser system for sighting and aiming at targets. It was like a big game: ‘You are dead.’ So I’m dead. So f— it.’ I did my best until the war.”
But there is, he says with a sigh, “a huge difference between serving in the army and being in a war,” and he articulates that difference with a quiet intensity not unlike the film’s.
“This is the trick of war,” he says. “You take a human being and he undergoes a metamorphosis. Your most basic instinct takes control of you. You won’t be you anymore. The basic rules of life aren’t there anymore. Then the war can rely on you as a soldier. You’re not afraid anymore; you don’t have plans anymore. You are just surviving and that’s what you do.”
The change he underwent once he was in combat was palpable.
“You lose your sense of taste, but you see and hear very clearly, more than before,” he recalls. “You can sleep five or 10 minutes and then function for 24 hours.
“You are falling into a jungle.”
Maoz remembers an officer telling him that when he went into Lebanon, there would be people on the balconies of the apartment buildings.
“You can’t open the option of morality,” he says. “He told me, ‘On 50 percent of those balconies you’ll have soldiers with anti-tank missiles. The other half will be ordinary families.’ You see, there are no good guys or bad guys — you need to kill to stay alive.”
Maoz started making short films when he was a boy. He graduated from the Beit Zvi Academy of the Arts in 1987. He wanted to tell the story of what had happened to him in Lebanon for his first film, but every time he sat down to try and write the screenplay, “I smelled burning flesh.” He released a few short films, but he earned his living as a production designer on other people’s movies and TV shows.
“I made a living,” he says. “It was work I could do hard and fast to make money.”
Occasionally he would make another attempt to write the screenplay. The same thing would happen.
“I felt, ‘I’m not ready yet,’” he says. “I need to process the feelings in a cold way. As long as I’m smelling that smell, I’m not ready.”
Then the second Lebanon War came. One of his best friends asked Maoz to talk to his son, who wanted to volunteer for combat. He was an only child and, therefore, was not required to go into a combat unit, but the boy wanted to fight. Maoz shared his darkest experiences with the young man, but couldn’t sway him. The boy was killed shortly after he went to war.
Now he was ready.
“Maybe I can save a life,” he remembers thinking.
Now, he says, he felt he had to write the screenplay. And make the film.
The result is one of the most powerful debut features in recent memory — a stark, claustrophobic look into the worst place in the human psyche.
“It was a release to make the film,” Maoz says, quickly adding, “It’s important to say that that wasn’t the reason for making the film. It was a need to find some understanding. You have to realize that when you’ve killed in war, you feel guilty, you feel bad inside. You think, ‘I have a responsibility; death will come because of me.’ But I didn’t say, ‘This is going to be my therapy.’ But now I can accept myself, be more complete and more myself.”n
“Lebanon” opens on Friday, Aug. 6 at Lincoln Plaza (62nd and Broadway) and Sunshine Cinemas (143 E. Houston St.).