Amos Gitaï (pronounced with a hard “g” and long “i,” gi-tie, with the accent on the second syllable), perhaps the most widely known Israeli filmmaker, was born in Haifa in 1950. He based the stunning Kippur, which he directed from his and Marie-Jose Sanselme’s script, on his own combat experience in the 1973 Yom Kippur War that reshaped the Israeli mindset. The lead character in the film is named Weinraub. Weinraub was Gitaï’s own name before his father, an architect, Hebraized their European name in the 1960s.
Yom Kippur, the one holiday observed by many Jews who observe no other Jewish holidays, is the Day of Atonement for one’s sins committed over the past year. It’s a day of prayer and fasting. The Islamic holiday Ramadan similarly involves prayer and fasting for its month of atonement for past sins. On October 6, 1973, Israel, presuming that the coincidence of Yom Kippur and Ramadan safeguarded them, was caught off guard. Indeed, despite recent threats aimed at Israel by Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat, at that time Israel felt generally safe, owing to the buffer zone against Arab attack created by the Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. In the 1967 Six-Day War Israel, aggressed upon, had taken the Sinai from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. Violating a principle of their own faith banning warfare on Ramadan, Egypt and Syria now launched their two-fronted assault against Israel. Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia additionally provided either troops or economic assistance. The aggressors’ essential aim was to achieve as many Jewish casualties as possible; this was, typically for Arabs, a war primarily motivated by their irrational hatred of Jews. The rationale for the war was the restoration of the Sinai to Egypt and the Golan Heights to Syria. The Yom Kippur War, or Ramadan War, lasted three weeks, during which time Israel turned around its losing course and secured more Arab territory, persuading the Soviet Union, now that its Arab allies no longer appeared to be winning, to pressure some sort of resolution from the United Nations. In 1974, in separate agreements with Egypt and Syria, Israel was divested of territory it had just won and a portion of the territory it had won in 1967. Israel had amassed nearly 3,000 fatalities; the human cost was heavier on the aggressors’ side. Both sides were economically devastated, forging a yet tighter dependence of Israel on the United States and, concomitantly, of the aggressors on the Soviet Union. The image of Israeli invincibility that its swift 1967 victory had fostered was shattered. Israeli citizens were profoundly shaken, shifting the nation’s political complexion to the right. The Likud Party became a force in a nation long identified with Labor Party rule; finding their homeland between a rock and a hard place, Israeli citizens increasingly weighed the human cost of national survival. Israeli optimism, we may say, was a casualty of the Yom Kippur War.
Gitaï has said that the war, which interrupted his architectural studies, was a watershed event in his life. This war helped shape the mindset of young Israelis like Gitaï. After earning his doctorate at Berkeley in the United States, he turned instead to documentary filmmaking as a means of exploring historical and cultural themes. He moved to Paris in 1983 and returned to Israel a decade later. He is a prolific filmmaker.
In Kippur, Gitaï elaborates on a theme familiar to antiwar material: war’s chaos. (The title of Akira Kurosawa’s war film Ran, 1975, means “chaos.”) But Gitaï intends more than war’s randomness and messiness. He sees its chaos as a contagion affecting everything else besides and tossing all human endeavor into a cauldron of unpredictability. A visionary work about war, Kippur is artistically closer to Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929) and Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959) than to either the sentimentally banal Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986) and Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) or the grandiose Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) and The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998). (The last isn’t a bad film exactly, but the discrepancy between its simple content and the overwrought technique of its visuals finally defeats it.) Cool, crisp, detached, and shot with extraordinary imagination, Kippur is the finest film about war since Elem Klimov’s unshakable Come and See (1985). It’s also, as far as I know, the single greatest achievement of Israeli cinema. It has been called an homage to Sam Fuller, Gitaï’s American friend in Paris who had died a few years earlier, and the writer-director of many war films, including the outstanding The Big Red One (1980), based on Fuller’s infantry experience in World War II. Still, Kippur is essentially autobiographical.
The film has a bravura opening. A town is deserted. A few cars are parked; none in motion interrupts the perfect, eerie silence. Weinraub (Liron Levo, excellent), a boy in his mid-twenties, is walking in the street towards the camera, conspicuously unhurried in the midst of a seeming stoppage of time. Various shots follow his early-morning walk from different angles. At either his girlfriend’s apartment or the apartment they share, a white sheet appears. It becomes a canvas as Weinraub throws onto it and smears variously colored paints: blue, green, prussian blue, red, yellow. Weinraub and the girl make love on the sheet, their bodies uniquely tattooed by the paint, their caresses deepening each other’s contact with the paint. On the soundtrack is heard the bluesy jazz of saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s principal theme from the score. We grasp the nonliteralness of what we are witnessing: the essential beauty of sexual intimacy. The randomness of the body painting projects the irreplaceable nature of humanity and of their most intimate acts. Gitaï has found a startling way to portray the in-the-momentness of love and of existential life. But irony will visit the music, for Garbarek’s piercing, haunting theme will come to identify in combat the in-the-momentness of war and its bounty of loss and sorrow. When at the film’s conclusion the two young lovers again have their passion amidst the paints, after Weinraub has barely held onto his life at the Syrian front to which he will soon nevertheless have to return, creative love’s buttressing the soul against war’s uncreating—killing—nature will release a store of poignancy easy for the heart to catch and nearly unendurably painful to hold. The film ends where it began, but in a different Israel, a different world.
In his bought-used and battered Fiat 128 Weinraub picks up his buddy, Ruso. Heading to the Syrian front, both are reservist officers: Ruso, a lieutenant; Weinraub, a sergeant. The road is nearly as much the scene of chaos as it is in Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant Weekend (1967), to which Kippur deftly refers. Tanks and cars compete for narrow space, and the air is filled with noise. The stalled traffic—here, unlike in Weekend, recorded claustrophobically by a camera inside Weinraub’s car or in tight external long shots—accounts for the boys’ missing joining their ground unit. Eventually they opt instead to join an airborne unit that is just coming together; indeed, Lt. Ruso is immediately put in command of a squad consisting of himself, Weinraub, a pilot, a medic, and another soldier. It will be the job of each of the unit’s squads to evacuate by helicopter the wounded from the Syrian front and transport these casualties to the nearest hospital. The film will alternate between this enormously (physically) hard, gut-wrenching day work and the soldiers’ nights, which are steeped in memories of the day’s detail and of the past, and in mortal fear.
The makeshift circumstances—the boys’ attempt to navigate the traffic stall; their joining a different unit once they have missed connecting with their own—succeed in introducing the theme of war’s unpredictability and chaos. The scenes at the Syrian front bring the theme to fruition. Their particularity, as though (as they probably do) they recount incidents etched in Gitaï’s memory, astonishes. Passages consist of long takes mostly in long-shot, punctuated by middle-distance shots and closeups. The exacting long take in long-shot, filled with delicately choreographed human activity, is Gitaï’s principal device for applying appropriate distancing to gruesome and potentially overpowering material. One passage, for instance, depicts the unit attempting to carry a badly wounded soldier, by stretcher, to the evacuating helicopter. The rescuers are trudging through mud that’s like quicksand; the stretcher unbalances as one soldier must wrench the boot of a comrade that has become stuck in the mud. Indeed, a number of times during the agonizingly slow attempt to bring in the wounded soldier the men lose their footing, stumble, drop the wounded boy’s body and struggle to replace him on the stretcher. In most other films, war is heck compared to the highly specific hell it is here. The passage, wearying and heartstopping, leads to utter confusion when the soldier they are carrying turns out to be dead. All that effort—and, so, some of the men are reluctant to leave the corpse behind, as they must do with the dead, unable, it seems, to grasp that he is dead. One insists the dead soldier is alive. Their mission is to bring the wounded to hospital. They have exhausted themselves in hopes of a redeeming conclusion that reality thwarts at the last moment.
Thrice in the film Gitaï plunges the screen into war, creating an immediate sense of its disruptiveness, unpredictability and violence. The first involves a cut from the airborne unit headquarters, where Ruso and Weinraub on a dime join, to the field, the Syrian front, where the two are at work while tanks roll and gunfire is exchanged. (It’s possible that Gitaï drew this strategy of sudden immersion from Michael Cimino’s fine 1978 The Deer Hunter.) The second occurrence is even more startling, more sense- and mind-burning. Weinraub, at night, fearfully awakens Ruso and recounts a dream he just had in which he was on fire. Ruso reassures his friend that he, Weinraub, will not die. (There are several instances in the film of exchanges of such conversational intimacy and warm, open expressions of comradery and emotional support.) Left alone when Ruso goes back to sleep, Weinraub stares into space as the image flashes and his dream seems to materialize for our perusal; it isn’t the dream, though, but the next morning’s field work, into which our eyes and other senses have been plunged, as though war blurs, even at times eliminates, the distinction between thought and action, nightmare and reality. Finally, there is the film’s most celebrated passage: a long, mesmerizing take on the landscape below, naturally beautiful but a battleground, as the helicopter is in flight, with Weinraub at the rear of the helicopter and in the foreground of the shot. Suddenly, an explosion; they’ve been badly hit; the pilot struggles to exert some control on the crash landing. Frightening.
Often during Kippur one holds one’s breath, terrified to lose it and terrified that one or more of the characters will lose theirs.
Not a single Arab ever appears. The Arabs are the unseen enemy, as in John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934). This is a master stroke that accomplishes two purposes: one, it distressingly suits the inhuman nature of war, which the enemy’s invisibility encapsulates, to the profound humanity of the Israeli soldiers we follow; two, it underscores the soldiers’ vulnerability. Utterly exposed as they try as methodically as they can to evacuate and hopefully help save the lives of their side’s wounded, they are quiet, deliberate and dutiful—humanity wedded to their nation’s cause to exist. (In 1967 Iraq’s president, Abdur Rahman Aref, had perfectly articulated the Arab motive for conflict with Israel: “The existence of Israel is an error to be rectified. . . . Our goal is clear: to wipe Israel off the map.”)
It occurs to me, in retrospect, that there is very little blood on display in Kippur (although there are glimpses of gruesome battlefield outcomes), which helps give the splotches of red paint at the beginning and the close—Weinraub’s rubbing hands are at one point oozing with red paint—a fierce symbolical charge. Gitaï’s film isn’t attracted to the surface of war. Aiming higher and deeper, it achieves true artistic expression.
At fifty, Gitaï has created a masterpiece.