The end of Raiders of the Lost Ark illustrates an important philosophy in cinema: if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Indiana and Marion avoid complete annihilation by simply averting their gaze from the erupting ark, while the Nazi invaders, drunk with scopophilia (note how the first spirits out of the ark are beautiful, sensuous women), are so overcome with the sight in front of them that they are literally blinded before disintegrating into puddles of oozing gunk. No doubt Spielberg uses his directorial authority to exact a kind of revenge on the Nazis for attempting to look into the inscrutable face of God; perhaps he even implies an oblique criticism of American ignorance-cum-denial of the Holocaust in the early stages of the war.
Currently in cinemas, Waltz with Bashir returns us to the analyst’s chair by suggesting that you don’t need to see it for it to exist: the mind can bring it into existence through the power of suggestion, association, and presumption. The form of the film triumphs this point: what would seem a completely incompatible format for documentary – animation – contains some of the most evocative and ostensibly realistic scenes in recent memory (and I generally avoid animation as a rule), yet we are always a further stage removed from the reality of the thing because we are not witnessing filmed events and interviews, but instead illustrations of them. Ari Folman, who stars and directs, suggests at one point a connection between his inability to remember his role in the pillaging of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and his parents’ experience in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Was he there when the atrocities unfolded inside the Lebanese camps? Did he participate in a slaughter of innocents? Does it matter? The film suggests it doesn’t, that seeing is not always essential for believing. Atrocities are absorbed and stored in the collective psyche, archived like the ark at the end of Spielberg’s film, lost yet liable to be stumbled upon and opened in subsequent generations by a gesture as simple as a dream.
It’s a powerful notion and one that reminds us that the most important equation in understanding history – cause equals effect – isn’t enough to understand the story: perception, perspective, and remembrance, as fallible as they may be, cannot be discounted. It’s a shame Waltz with Bashir ends with ‘real’ news footage of the aftermath of the massacre, a final coda that feels like the meddling of a producer who wanted to heighten the emotional impact of the finale by showing actual images of bloated corpses and rubble. Far from grounding us in the real, the footage actually has the opposite effect: it makes us question the validity of the experience of the rest of the film, the authority of which we had hitherto accepted without doubt. It is an unnecessarily sensationalist diversion from an otherwise masterful psychological journey. After all, sometimes it is more interesting to contemplate the things we haven’t seen.