Ari Folman’s surreal animated documentary charts the director’s struggle to recall his time during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Through interviews with fellow veterans, he gradually comes to recall the part he played in a forgotten atrocity. The title comes from the surreal state many soldiers entered, where they seemed to waltz while shooting.
From the first shots of dogs charging their way down the streets of Israel in uncomfortably realistic animated movement, while a real life interview speaks in the background, it is clear that Waltz with Bashir is a genre-bending film, quite unlike any other. Folman structured the film based around interviews and bare bones war recreations he shot on video, and then remastered entirely in animation, paying careful attention to recreate every bit of movement and detail, and to expand each combat scene dramatically. As a result, Waltz with Bashir follows in the footsteps of another R-rated animated film, Waking Life, in being a surreal, dream-like narrative. Imagine the most hallucinatory moments of apocalypse now with the fluidity of rotoscoping (although Folman is emphatic that the film was not rotoscoped), filled with musings on the potential damage from war. The film returns to the age-old theme of the emotional harm done to men by war, but focuses on a war not as frequently studied (as opposed to, say, one of the World Wars.) It offers a fairly non-judgemental look at an atrocity, a massacre, demonstrating the harm the event did to both the victims and the perpetrators. The surreal animation seems to evoke the confusion the interviewed subjects no doubt felt. To bolster the mesmerizing animation, Folman enlists the skills of composer Max Richter to create an at times heart-wrenching, and at others, almost comical score. He uses gleeful pop songs overlaying explosions and death, while at other moments, he lets a string orchestra swell to tug at heart strings. On top of the score, the film boasts impeccable sound design. Admittedly, the sound work in animated films is often impressive, as effectively the entire sound scheme must be created from scratch, but in Waltz with Bashir, the work goes above and beyond. Typically, there is a certain cartoonish tone to sound effects in animated films, but in this case, the foley work is uncannily crisp. The war sequences match the harsh cackle of gunfire as well as recent “loud” war films like Fury and Lone Survivor. Everything down to the ruffle of clothing and the hiss of a lit cigarette can be heard cleanly balanced through the mix. The attention to detail is spectacular. Along with creating an atmosphere of realistic warfare, the sound design lends itself to the film’s often surreal nature. At one point, the score’s drum beat stands in for gunfire. In others, the sound effects and dialogue are heard through blurring (almost as though underwater), so as to accentuate the hallucinatory dream-like state of the sequences. In one sequence, every shot from a gun explodes as a guitar riff instead of a gunshot sound effect. In short, the sound plays a major role in creating the immersive, surreal experience that is Waltz with Bashir. It is difficult to determine whether it is the film’s technical prowess or its interesting story that truly makes it work. Perhaps it is both. Regardless, the way the film has meshed multiple genres, and even mediums, it is as though it wrote a new cinematic language. It is truly unlike anything seen in cinema before it. It boasts Apocalypse Now’s surreal atmosphere, and the cold realism of a war documentary, yet none of those films have approached the subject through animation. Doing so allows the film to revel in metafiction, and explore the nature of truth in memory in ways that few live action films could. As a result, it presents itself as a truly unique meditation of the toxic effects of war.