Israeli Film of the 1960s

Edited by Amir Wolf
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Movie Clips


When I was a child, growing up in 1980s Israel, foreign films were often late to open in Israeli cinemas, sometimes taking months to arrive. Later, I came to realise that film was by no means the only Jonny-come-lately in town, and that other cultural trends were also known to take their sweet, fashionably late time before eventually landing on these Levantine shores – including Rock ‘N Roll, hippies, and modernism – to name but a few.

Whilst waiting for all these new releases which I’d been reading all about in the papers to finally be released in Israel, I would regularly frequent our local video rental shop. And after smashing my way through the drama, comedy, thriller, and musical sections (I was strictly prohibited from going anywhere near the erotica and horror sections), I started renting out films from the Israeli section. Now I can’t quite recall whether they were arranged by year of release, but I certainly do remember watching them chronologically.

When I got to the sixties, I carried on full steam ahead, surrendering myself to every last twist and turn of that utterly glorious cinematic decade, from the dance Daliah Lavi performs for a wounded Oded Kotler in Burning Sands [aka Brennender Sand] (Raphael Nussbaum, 1960) to the reveal of the film camera shooting Gila Almagor, Yehoram Gaon, and Dahn Ben Amotz as they listen to a report on the transistor radio about an Israeli military squad clashing with a group of terrorists at the end of Siege (Gilberto Tofano, 1969). In the sixties, as Hollywood’s light was dimming and the big studios were unravelling, one by one, Israeli film hit a massive growth spurt. In fact, there were six times as many films made in that decade vs. its predecessor, and through all those strips of celluloid new and exciting voices and genres began to emerge.

Israeli film of the 1960s gave rise to three major trends; three genres; three distinctive ways of filmmaking – all of which I will now try to sketch out for you in the broadest of terms.

The first is the heroic-nationalist genre – a state-affiliated, propaganda-driven type of film whose main protagonist is the native Israeli (aka ‘sabra’); and the antagonist, the sabra’s archenemy – be they British, Turkish, or Arab. The second genre is popular film, the hero of which is the Mizrahi Israeli whose nemesis is the Ashkenazi Jew (or vice versa). Lastly, the third genre is the personal film (aka ‘the new sensibility movement’) in which the protagonist is the director whose enemies are the two aforementioned film genres.

The heroic-nationalist genre was born in the 1950s with Thorold Dickinson’s Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955) where viewers first got to feast their eyes on Israeli film’s quintessential hero – the handsome and fearless sabra with his immaculate head of hair, who is fighting to defend the land. Five years later, at the dawn of the sixties, director Baruch Dienar’s They were Ten (1960) came out. Further down the line, the genre continued to grow with a number of prominent post-Six-Day-War additions, including Yosef Millo’s He Walked Through the Fields (1967).  In Hollywood films, the character of the inimitable sabra hit the big screen in Otto Preminger’s 1960 film, Exodus, starring the blue-eyed, khaki-clad Paul Newman who personified the quintessential film sabra and also created a template of sorts, into which all the finest Israeli actors of the day were moulded throughout the decade, playing a host of local ‘superheroes’.

Popular film was tailored to provide an escapist, Hollywood-esque alternative to the heroic-nationalist genre. One prominent example of the genre from the turn of the decade is the comedy, I Like Mike (Peter Frye, 1961). A couple of years later, following the release of Sallah (Ephraim Kishon, 1964), popular film started to adopt a more working-class tone and gradually morphed into a genre now known as ‘Bourekas films’. Sallah and its successors forever changed viewers’ expectations of an Israeli film and in the process, radically redefined the most fundamental theme of mid-to-late 20th century Israeli popular film – one’s experience of the melting pot ideology, and of underlying interethnic tensions amongst Israelis of diverse origins.

In my introduction I mentioned how, in the last century, a range of artistic trends were late to arrive in Israel. Modernist film which first appeared in late 1950s Europe was no exception and would only make landfall in Israel in 1965 with Uri Zohar’s film, Hole in the Moon. Zohar’s trailblazing film was the first harbinger of the personal film, later more commonly known as the ‘New Sensibility movement’ – the latter of the three aforementioned genres which, this author considers to be the most exciting of that decade. The filmmakers who were part of the New Sensibility wave were all very much influenced by European modernist film and in turn, promptly snubbed both popular and heroic-nationalist genres. They turned their cameras away from the battlefields and temporary migrant camps inwards – into the streets, the small Tel Aviv flats, the ‘lowercase’ narratives. The result was a type of film that rebelled against the values, techniques, and content of its predecessor. An enthralling, invigorating type of filmmaking that sought to be artistic as opposed to popular and as such, often saw the films under its heading tank at the box office. And so, at the beginning of the ‘70s, the new sensibility wave started to ebb just as it had earlier flowed.

One filmmaker in particular stands out as a common thread between the three genres – Uri Zohar, who starts off the decade in his khakis, alongside Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint at the end of Exodus, then later pops up in the kibbutz next to Gila Almagor in Burning Sands, and further down the line turns up in a suit in Hole in the Moon. In between, Zohar directed a slew of both popular and artistic films.

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Now, to wrap up this introduction, the time has come to dive right into some of 1960s Israeli film’s finest moments. This is a personal and chronological overview of the author’s absolute favourite highlights; the below scenes all represent a certain aspect of the artistic trend with which each of the chosen films is associated. Some have long fallen through the cracks of history, whereas others have since been elevated to holiday season TV staples. And whilst several of these films may have grown old and dated, a great many others still feel every bit as fresh and relevant.

Movie clips

Baruch Dienar

The 1960s in Israeli film kicked off with two films of contrasting styles: there was Raphael Nussubaum’s Burning Sands (1960) that followed popular film’s more escapist, Hollywood-esque route – and on the other end, Baruch Dienar’s They were Ten (1960), which carried on the trend of heroic-nationalist filmmaking that began the previous decade with Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (Thorold Dickinson, 1955). To this day, They were Ten, a pioneering Zionist western, is considered as one of the heroic-nationalist genre’s most defining films – in its glorification of the ‘sabra’ ethos (seen here through the character of Joseph, the group leader, played by Oded Teomi) and reverence of values such as camaraderie and desert greening.

The film follows the story of ten Jewish pioneers – nine men and one woman – all of whom had immigrated from Russia and set up a socialist parish in the Galilee, all the while grappling with harsh weather conditions, disease, internal conflicts within the group, and hostile, bullying behaviour from their Arab neighbours in the next village. Aesthetically and in the tradition of previous Zionist films, They were Ten may well be influenced by Soviet film – but the heart of its inspiration lies in the American western, and especially the films of John Ford. This theme certainly comes into play in the film’s preoccupation with order vs. savagery, compositions contrasting the highly expressive individual vs. the many – and the cinematography style where heaven and earth both take up large chunks of the frame whilst man, standing on the earth and under the heavens, seems like an immovable inseparable part of the landscape.

In this clip we have here, the group has managed to capture one of the two Arabs who had stolen the young parish’s horse. In the morning, the head of the village and the thief’s father both turn up to arrange his release, and an internal argument ensues within the group. The comrades are mostly shot from a low aggrandising angle, showing them in the heavens’ embrace, with all the land and trees in the background. They are part of the landscape. They look to the nearby village and watch as the Arabs make way towards them, bracing themselves for confrontation. In terms of numbers, the Zionist pioneers don’t stand a chance. The comrades want to let the thief go, but Joseph the leader is unyielding and refuses to release him. In a stunningly glorifying close-up shot, Joseph cries out: “We will not tolerate stealing here! We will not tolerate lawlessness! This is our home!” This aesthetic choice combines the sanctifying of the group and its values with the foregrounding of one definitive hero – the fearless sabra, fighting to defend the homeland. He then goes on to say that if they betray how scared they really are, then they’re as good as doomed – thereby becoming the purest embodiment of the ethos of heroism and combat, whilst also demonstrating along the way the hardline, militant approach whereby “they only understand force.”

Blazing Sands

Those who remember Nussbaum’s otherwise unknown 1960 film, will unlikely recall it for its fine cinematic qualities. These days, the film is mostly recalled for the fact that it features the big screen debuts of both Daliah Lavi and Gila Almagor, as well as a cameo by singing folk duo, Esther and Abi Ofarim (aka Haofarim) who performed their hit song, ‘Sus Etz’ (rocking horse) in a nightclub. The film is also known for being the first-of-its-kind German-Israeli coproduction – and for the public uproar it caused amongst bereaved families who had lost loved ones who died attempting the perilous journey to Petra [in then-enemy state Jordan – EE], and demanded that the film be banned from cinemas.

The two features that kicked off the 1960s in Israeli film portray a tough, staunchly sabra, khaki-clad version of Israeli masculinity. However, unlike They were Ten, Nussbaum’s Blazing Sands does so without employing the ethos that became a staple of those heroic-nationalist films. As such, wrote Uri Avnery in weekly magazine, HaOlam HaZeh (‘this world’), it flags up as it is not an “Israeli film” per se – but rather a film that also happens to be Israeli. It is an attempt to shake off the Zionist theme and a host of other motifs deemed essential in Israeli film, in favour of escapism – a thoroughly entertaining adventure film of Hollywood standards, and in bold colours, about a group that goes on a rescue mission of a friend who had crossed the border to Jordan in search of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Sitara (a fictionalised version of Petra.)

In this scene here, the gang have found their lost friend, Yoav (Oded Teomi), who they’ve now rescued from inside a cave – however, in the process, Tzadik (Abraham Eisenberg) runs off with the scrolls and all their medical supplies, leaving the rescuers all alone in the desert with Yoav who is lying there, dying. Delusional, he turns to Dina (Daliah Lavi) and asks her to dance for him – and she does. She gets up and performs a Brigitte Bardot-esque dance routine like in …And God Created Woman, expect here it comes across as more robotic and quite a bit clumsier. Behind her, framed against a desert backdrop are Gert Günther Hoffmann and Oded Kotler in their cowboys’ hats. And further along on top of the hill above them, in comes a horse-mounted Uri Zohar. Dina dances on, the music plays on, and Yoav draws his last breath. Shortly thereafter, the Jordanian legionnaires will also come charging in. Is it all a bit tasteless? Perhaps. Ludicrous? Quite possibly. But nevertheless bloody exhilarating.

What a Gang

Director Zeev Hazatzelet’s film, based on a novel by Israel Puchu (aka Puchu) of the same title, is also part of the heroic-nationalist genre tradition. Like They were Ten, Hazatzelet’s What a Gang too features a group with a set of goals it has given itself, driven by Zionist pioneering ideology, with populating the land and defending it as its core principles. In this case, the group happens to be an elite company of Palmach infantry soldiers, and the tasks that they undertake are very much in line with the spirit of the times (smuggling illegal Jewish migrants, aka ‘maapilim’, into then-blockaded British Mandatory Palestine, for instance). Unlike other films in the heroic-nationalist genre, this one – alongside the portrayal of sublime Zionist goals and ideals – also focuses on leisure, the day-to-day atmosphere, whimsiness, camaraderie, and all the pranks and mischief that are so synonymous with the young and in particular, the youths of that generation – especially the Palmach soldiers. One might say that the atmosphere is part and parcel of the fighting, and that the attention to the individual and one’s own personal interests (e.g., wanting to party, make mischief) arguably reveals a preliminary crack, however small, in the grand ideal of the collective and the state – and perhaps, dare one suggest, also an initial tear in a type of filmmaking that worships at the altar of these ideals, and which is about to make way in the very near future for the New Sensibility wave that places the self at its heart and centre.

Yossiño (Yossi Banai) moves out of his and his mother’s home in Tel Aviv and joins a Palmach company. Much to his surprise, the company is comprised of a bunch of clowns and goofballs, the majority of whom also happen to be named Yossi. As Yossiño leaves the big city, the vistas of the land are unveiled before us, the viewers – the kibbutz, cows grazing, etc. The camera focuses on Palmach soldiers loading up field crops, with Yosse’le (Avner Hizkiyahu), Yos’keh (Oded Teomi), and Yossi Pass (Bomba Tzur) all lazing about at their side – just chilling and working on their tan.

When Yossiño shows up for his induction, they put him through an initiation: Yossi Pass impersonates a commander and makes Yossiño take his shirt off and exercise – that, essentially, is the blueprint of all subsequent hazing rituals soldiers in Israeli film will be subjected to in films such as Paratroopers (Judd Ne’eman, 1977) and The Band (Avi Nesher, 1978).

After all members of the company, including the girls, peer in for a look at a humiliated Yossiño, Dudik – the actual commander shows up and puts a stop to the hazing. He orders Yossi Pass to put up Yossiño in the tent with him and all the other Yossis. But instead, Yossi Pass leads the fresh recruit to a shack on the outskirts of the kibbutz where a reclusive Holocaust survivor (Illi Gorlitzky) lives away from society, removed from the collective and the native Israeli ‘sabra’ world. Yossi Pass looks through the window which, in doing so, allows for one shot to feature three versions of masculinity: Yossiño the sabra who is on a path away from his mother and city life (v1) towards embracing the Zionist ethos (v2), with the mischief-making, whimsical Holocaust survivor at his side (v3). Together, they all comprise this group – a gang that never really loses sight of the task at hand or the greater ideals. Between all the pranks, jokes, barbecues, and attempts at getting into one of the female soldiers’ pants, come crunch time, they will know how to put their own selves and any individual desires aside and give themselves wholly to the Zionist vision’s hallowed goals.

Dalia and the Sailors

A group of sailors try to hide a beautiful stowaway who had snuck onboard the ship from their tough and strict captain. This is Menahem Golan’s sophomore directorial effort (following his 1963 debut with El Dorado), and the circumstances surrounding its making are as curious as they are interesting: producer Mordecai Navon was in fact meant to start production on the film New Face in the Mirror, based on a novel by Yael Dayan and with Ilan Eldad attached as director. However, after a massive falling out between Navon, Eldad, and leading lady Dina Doron, the plug was pulled on the film the day before principal photography was meant to begin. Navon, who was saddled with a restless crew awaiting further instructions, decided to seize the opportunity, and reached out to Menahem Golan – who already a fully fleshed-out film idea – and within a week, Dalia and the Sailors began shooting.

In a reality where the establishment and at times, also film critics were still looking at Israeli film as an educational, nationalist, propaganda instrument, Golan sought to turn his back on all of that and to simply deliver a popular, entertaining film that prioritises the mood of his viewers – and boy, did he go for it big time. To that end, he recruited the biggest stars of the day, including Shaike Ophir, Bomba Tzur, Oded Teomi, Israel Gurion, Shraga Friedman, the Theatre Club Quartet, and the Yarkon Bridge Trio – whose members were Arik Einstein, Benny Amdurski, and Yehoram Gaon – who performed Naomi Shemer’s song, ‘A Night on Achziv Beach’, in the film, and the song ‘Shake’ – a Beatles spoof. And so, the film ends up featuring a wide range of songs and sketches, performed by all the big names of the period.

The Israeli landscape, teeming with kibbutzim and farming villages, is replaced with the view from the ship. The man driving the plot via – and owing to – a set of sacred ideals is replaced with a woman who is now the primary storyline engine, moving the plot forward. The masculine alpha protagonists of the heroic-nationalist genre – those fearless sabra defenders of the homeland who are wholly devoted to greening the deserts and populating the land make way for an altogether different archetypical hero who will feature prominently in Israeli film, well into the next decade. Enter: the randy Israeli.

Today, Dalia and the Sailors is mostly remembered for its casting of Véronique Vendell as the stowaway, after Brigitte Bardot’s agents had turned down the script. In this short clip which, at the time, caused quite the furore, Vendell appears topless – and in doing so, marks the milestone moment when Israeli film started taking its clothes off.

Sallah Shabati

What can be said about Ephraim Kishon’s 1964 film that hasn’t already been said? The first-ever Oscar-nominated Israeli film, winner of two Golden Globes for Best Foreign Feature Film and Best Newcomer (Topol), and box office juggernaut with over one million viewers having watched it in cinemas. Perhaps it was the spirit of the times, or maybe the audiences who were vying for original Israeli content, and it could just as well have been that ‘Kishonian magic touch.’ Whatever the answer, it is thoroughly fascinating to observe how this hard-hitting satire that took aim at the smug Ashkenazi establishment on the one hand, and Mizrahi-Sephardi immigrants on the other, was received not only as a popular film that was a box office breakout hit, but also managed to make the very people it was mocking and satirising flock to cinemas by the droves, time and time again, to watch those characters who looked and sounded just like them.

Kishon’s cheeky satire was produced alongside a slew of other popular films, all of which enjoyed box-office success (including Menahem Golan’s Dalia and the Sailors), however Sallah was an altogether different creature in that it forever changed Israelis’ perceptions of popular film and the Israeli film comedy, and in the process gave rise to the genre that, with time, will come to be known as ‘Bourekas films’, i.e. lowbrow working-class comedies or melodramas whose primary theme is the local melting pot and interethnic relations.

These cross-culture tensions are already evident in the opening scene: the plane lands. First out the door are the Borsteins – representing Yiddish Ashkenazi culture. The family members go down the stairs, counting their luggage. They are dressed to the nines; the men all suited up, speaking English and Yiddish amongst themselves. Following them are Sallah’s family in their common, basic clothes, some even wearing traditional jellabiya dresses. They’ve come to Israel with few possessions, but lots of children. Sallah says a prayer (‘shehecheyanu’), counts his children, and realises that Mazal is unaccounted for – she gets off the plane with everyone’s suitcases, on the luggage conveyor. And granted, whilst entertaining, the opening sequence is also dangerous in its depiction and perpetuating of a host of ethnic and racial stereotypes which in turn, cemented for years to follow the portrayal of both Mizrahi and Ashkenazi characters in Israeli film.

Hole in the Moon

A year after Sallah’s major success and the birth of a new trend in popular Israeli film (the genre that would later become known as ‘Bourekas films’), a first harbinger of the impending ‘New Sensibility’ movement appeared in the Israeli film landscape. As a trend – quality, intimate, artistic modernist film arrived in Israel rather late; approximately six years after its (official) birth at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival that featured the likes of Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais) and La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini).

Hole in the Moon, Uri Zohar’s avantgarde piece, is a film about film. To this day, it remains a strange bird in Israeli terms, and its eccentricity stands out that much more when compared to other prominent films made in Israel at the time including Sallah (Ephraim Kishon), Dalia and the Sailors (Menahem Golan), The Simhon Family (Joel Silberg), and Dreamboat (Pucho), to name but a few – all part of the popular genre that tried to speak a distinctly Hollywod-esque language. Zohar, on the other hand, made an experimental film about two stall owners (Zohar, who also starred in the film, and Avraham Heffner), who decide to build a film city in the middle of desert. The film is completely devoid of any coherent plot and is essentially made up of a collection of sketches and skits – some parodying (or paying homage to) a variety of film styles and aesthetics, and others – philosophical and satirical.

After the film city is demolished, the two entrepreneurs erect a whole new city – a proper, through-and-through Hebrew city, in line with the tradition of Zionist pioneering films made locally in the 1930s and ‘40s, and all the heroic-nationalist films that celebrated construction and development, land populating, and all things pioneering-related. This is an acerbic parody about all those films that served under the Zionist enterprise: we Arik Lavie talking and pontificating but the soundtrack’s volume is turned down, and playing over it is this pathos-fuelled voiceover narration. A Japanese caption briefly appears. The camera captures the arid desert and all the construction sites – there is hope; the desert shall be greened. The men are building, and the women are also pulling their weight for the Zionist cause: entering tents and coming out pregnant. Following them is one Shlomo Vishinsky, also with child. Zaharira Harifai sings a faux-Zionist parody song about this Israeli lass who loves the lads so much that she goes to bed with all of them, thereby sealing her fate to birth an entire company of soldiers: I am walking around-round-round in the spring / through the homeland-land-land-land, homeland fields everywhere / the daffodils are in bloom but my heart aches / I dunno what even is the matter with me… I just love-love-love-love everyone, and I sleep-sleep-sleep-sleep, I sleep with everyone / I’m an open fortress/ an unarmoured tank / and I’ll end up-up-up, up the duff / Yerucham, Ellie, Zvika, Shumlik, Dan baby, Uri, Ze’evik, little Itche – you will all-all-all be the proud fathers of my company, due tomorrow.

Two Kuni Lemel

Two years after the release of Sallah – the first-of-its-kind ‘Bourekas film’ – the world saw the arrival of yet another first – Two Kuni Lemel – the first-ever ‘gefiltefish film’, as it were, and one of the most successful features made in Israel in the sixties. Israel Becker’s film opened in 1966 – the same year that also saw the release of two other extremely popular films – Moishe Air-Condition (Uri Zohar), and Fortuna (Menahem Golan). However, in terms of ticket sales, Two Kuni Lemel was by far the most popular of the lot – attracting upwards of 900,000 viewers to cinemas, and later followed by two sequels. When taking into account the size of the population at the time, it becomes – without a doubt – one of the most successful Israeli films of all time.

That said, not all critics felt the love. “This film is not for those of an intelligent disposition,” Dan Fainaru wrote in his review that appeared on daily broadsheet, Haaretz. “Those who attempt to judge it by the metrics of Freud, Stanislavsky, or The New Wave [movement], will no doubt turn their nose at it with distaste. Therefore, perhaps it is wise to disclaim in advance that this film was not made for any of their kind…”

The tremendous box office success of Two Kuni Lemel can be explained, amongst other things, by the extraordinary choice (certainly in Israeli terms) to produce a Hebrew-speaking musical and in this case, a musical based on the hit 1880 Yiddish play by Abraham Goldfaden. Going up against the formidable casts of Dalia and the Sailors and Our Neighbourhood that featured some of the period’s top entertainment stars, Two Kuni Lemel boasts a cast of bona fide local theatre grandees including Raphael Klatchkin, Shmuel Rodensky, and Aharon Meskin who co-starred alongside leading man, Mike Burstyn, for whom this was his big-screen debut (he was already known to the general public as a Yiddish entertainment star). Then again, perhaps the secret to the film’s success lies in its nostalgic waxing that has always proven itself to be a highly efficient crowd pleaser in popular film, and in this case helped pluck at audiences’ heartstrings by taking them back to their European shtetls and the cast of characters who inhabited them.

The film ends with the classic plot resolution we’ve all come to know from dozens of popular films and ‘lowbrow’ comedies – marriage. The creators of Two Kuni Lemel, who sought to make commercial films of Hollywoodian proportions – complete with all the bold colours, showstopping costumes and set designs, and starring all the greatest actors of the day – took it even further and decided to wrap up with not just one wedding but two: sending both Kuni (Burstyn) and the matchmaker’s daughter (Germaine Unikovsky), and Max (Burstyn, playing a dual role) with the aristocrat’s daughter (Rina Ganor) down the aisle.

As befitting a film adaptation of a play (also directed by Israel Becker, and very well received during its run at the Do Re Mi Theatre), Two Kuni Lemel ends in the tradition of countless stage musicals – a medley which, in this case includes the wedding song ‘Pick Up a Musical Instrument’, and several of the film’s other hits including ‘He Shall Be my Husband’ and ‘They Say that I am not Myself’. The town harmonises along with the young couples, whilst the matchmaker (Klatchkin) starts flying over the houses.

He Walked Through the Fields

After falling off the grid for a number of years, and most likely in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the heroic-nationalist film genre made its triumphant return to Israeli cinemas and reality. Yosef Millo’s He Walked Through the Fields is a portrayal of the quintessential big screen sabra. Today, one can no longer separate Uri, the main protagonist, from his portrayer – Assi Dayan, son of the mastermind behind Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War that ended just months before shooting began.

The handsome Uri with his immaculate, full head of hair, is the ultimate Israeli hero and poster boy of all things sabra. Dayan plays him as this hybrid creation of sorts; a sum of all iconic big screen sabras that came before him – from Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus (Otto Preminger, 1960) to Oded Teomi in They were Ten (Baruch Dienar, 1960), with a hint of angry-young-man energy a-la Montgomery Clift and Richard Burton, only in all-khakis.

In the scene we have here, Uri has a massive go at Abraham, his mother’s lover, after his father quits the kibbutz. He furiously loads up boxes onto the van where Abraham is standing, nearly hitting him in the process – then storms off to the fields, with Mika (Iris Yotvat) following right behind. Uri takes his top off and carries on, bare-chested, through the kibbutz fields. In the background, Sasha Argov’s glorious soundtrack plays on. Uri is shot from a low angle that makes him appear larger than life – he and nature are one. As are he and the kibbutz. He and Israel are one.

Not since Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint has Israelism been portrayed so ideally as it is here, in this vision of Dayan and Yotvat making their way through the vast expanses. And yet, despite this idealisation, one can already recognise an evolution in the character of the sabra, in line with the changing times: the sabra of He Walked Through the Fields is no longer part of a collective – he is a lone wolf, an individual now driven by selfish feelings, anger, and the hurt he’d suffered. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, he will always choose to put all of that aside and sacrifice himself at the state’s altar.

Scouting Patrol

Cracks are showing in the ethos. In 1967, the same year that saw He Walked Through the Fields’s Uri give his life for his nation-in-the-making, Micha Shagrir’s Scouting Patrol came out, in which we meet four soldiers (Illi Gorlitzky, Lior Yieniy, Ze’ev Revach, and Eli Cohen) who cross the border into [then-enemy state] Jordan to apprehend a fugitive by the name of Subkhi (Yossi Ohana) and bring him back to Israel. Shagrir’s film is based on a true story where a group of soldiers entered Hebron for the exact same purpose. Perhaps it is the fact that production had to be shut down over the Six-Day War and would only resume afterwards, or that the script was penned by Avraham Heffner (who later became one of the most prominent voices of personal filmmaking and the New Sensibility movement) that, at times, makes it feel as though the film is but the latest rehashing of the same old heroic-nationalist Israeli tropes – however, there are moments when this ethos does seem to come apart at the seams, where the rough and rugged sabra finds himself awash with European cinematic sensibilities.

Subkhi’s capturing scene is a dark and quiet one. The four soldiers storm his house and detain him. And whilst their actions are denoted as heroic, the scene does not follow the same shooting aesthetic as that of any previous Zionist western and their inexhaustible appetite for closeups and low angles. There is something more pensive and distant about it. An elderly Arab enters the room. He manages to escape and Yahel (Lior Yieniy) chases him through the dark alleyways. Eventually, he catches up to him. The soldier stares into the elderly Arab’s face. A closeup of the old man’s face shows him pleading for his life. This artistic choice marks a break from the then-standard depictions of Arabs in Israeli films of the time; Arabs would often be portrayed as faceless masses, much like Native Americans in Westerns – thereby denoting them as the sworn enemy of the protagonist who requires no humanising.

Yahel can’t bring himself to kill the elderly Arab who flees the scene and apparently calls for help. The group encounter Jordanian enemy troops and a shootout ensues, from which our heroes emerge victorious. In the morning, in the desert, the four patrolmen lead Subkhi back to Israel. A tracking shot follows their forward march, illustrating their heroism and determination. In the background, singer Yehoram Gaon’s voice is heard, singing the film’s title track, ‘Scouts’ Ballad’: four, sound off with a whisper, with a whisper / and until day breaks, five – sound off. Four in a squad, with blades and in flames / and at dawn, count from one to five / to five.

When the song stops, Zvi (Illi Gorlitzky) tells Yahel that Subkhi reminds him of Yusuf. “Remember those two weeks we went after him? Six months from now, I’m gonna ask if you if you remember how we kidnapped Subkhi. We gotta cut that shit out.” This introspective moment that the two soldiers share, however fleeting, contemplating their heroic acts just as they are about to make their triumphant return to Israel as national heroes, is the very crack that starts to show in the ethos. These heroes continue to carry out the same missions that their predecessor protagonists of earlier heroic-nationalist genre films had – expect now, they start to consider the impact and consequences of their actions, in the spirit of the more individual-centric ‘New Sensibility’ films that feature protagonists who have grown weary of treading a path predetermined for them, and instead start raising all these questions marks.

Slow Down

Slow Down is an act of rebellion! Avraham Heffner created these 15 minutes of utter perfection the same year that saw the theatrical release of He Walked Through the Fields (the definitive heroic-nationalist film), and Scout Patrol (for which he wrote the script) – not to mention 999 Aliza: The Policeman – the ultimate popular-working class film of the day. In the tradition of all great modernist pieces, Slow Down also rebels against its predecessors – in this case, the films that dominated Israeli cinemas in the country’s earliest decades. Heffner turned the camera away from the blood-soaked battlefields and into the nooks and crannies of a small Tel Aviv flat. He broke with Israeli film’s stock protagonists, including the rough and rugged sabra or the clever and smarmy Mizrahi hero – and instead opted to focus on a withered, elderly woman staring at herself in the mirror. The fight for the land made way for a different kind of fight, of the more nonverbal variety – a elderly married couple’s existentialist struggle in a moment of crisis.

Heffner’s act of rebellion not only plays out in the content sphere, but also on the aesthetics and form front. Every bit of dialogue in the film is delivered in the form of voiceover narration, verbalising the main protagonist’s own stream of consciousness – her innermost thoughts. Whereas other filmmakers were busy celebrating life and military triumphs, Heffner’s focus was all about death – the death of a relationship, of love, and of course the impending corporeal death that stalks these elderly characters, growing ever closer by the day. The long closeup shot of actor Fanny Lubitsch putting her makeup on in front of the mirror as forever captured through cinematographer, Adam Greenberg’s camera lens, is one of the most stunning portrait shots ever seen in Israeli film. Against this great drama that Israeli film of the late 1960s sought to portray – these years of nationwide euphoria – Heffner’s work here can best be described as drama adjacent, which is also how the film ends. Not so much with a reconciliation but acceptance: “come on then, let’s go back inside; lest we catch a chill and come down with influenza.”

Three Days and a Child

Towards the end of the 1960s, popular and heroic-nationalist films both featured prominently in Israeli cinemas; the latter of which were enjoying a resurgence in popularity in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. At the same time, more personal films – later dubbed the New Sensibility Movement – were also making their impact on the big screen and in fact, by the end of the decade their numbers were steadily growing, only to eventually decline in the mid-seventies. As the 1960s were drawing to a close, director and actor Uri Zohar had his hands in all three proverbial cookie jars, having directed at least one film in each of the aforementioned genres. Under the popular ‘lowbrow’ genre you have Moishe Air-Condition (1966) and Our Neighbourhood (1968) for instance, whilst Every Bastard a King (1968) may well be seen as a later example of heroic-nationalist films. Zohar made a point of directing films that both viewers and producers would lap up, in order to secure the funding and means that would allow him to direct his more personal pieces, at the heart of which were stories that he was bursting to tell. One such story became the film Three Days and a Child.

Ellie (Oded Kotler, who won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance in the film), a maths teacher and student at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University agrees to look after his kibbutz ex’s (Judith Solé) little boy whilst she revises with her husband for their university entrance exams. Ellie spends the next three days putting the boy through all manners of torment and in doing so, attempts to exact revenge on the woman who would not return his affections and instead, chose another.

A year after directing working class comedy, Moishe Air-Condition, Zohar takes on a project in the spirit of the type of filmmaking to which he is drawn – European modernist film and the French New Wave. As the founding father of the New Sensibility movement, Zohar was the first to pan the camera away from the battlefields and the collective and onto the city, Jerusalem in this case, and the individual, the self, the ‘I’ – Ellie, the student, in this film. Through the camera lens of cinematographer David Gurfinkel, and with the gentle Bosa Nova musical theme underscoring the film, Jerusalem has never looked so Parisian.

One flashback scene finds Ellie back in the kibbutz: walking through the fields as his thick-rimmed glasses turn into a soldier’s beret and uniform, and in voiceover narration he recalls running away from the military base and just walking – i.e., acting on his own needs and urges. This scene acts as a form of inter-genre bridge if you will. Ellie the student, the individual, was once a soldier – part of a collective. The New Sensibility protagonists, in their implied or imagined past, could well have been the same sabra heroes of the heroic-nationalist film genre; however, the passage of time has taken its toll on them, and they have either grown tired (or had their rude awakening) and have now started focusing on themselves and their own world.

Italian screenwriter and theoretician, Cesare Zavattini, broke down the guiding principles of the neorealist piece, several of which certainly do apply to the modernist work. One such principle is the favouring of the ‘simple, day-to-day narratives’ as opposed to the grander, larger-than-life events. Zohar’s film, for the most part, is drama adjacent if you will, with its focus being on lowkey, otherwise “mundane” events, in contrast to the big dramas of heroic-nationalist film, or the popular comedies and melodramas of the day.

One prime example of the above is the hide-and-seek scene: Ellie and Shye, the young boy, are playing hide-and-seek in the old Muslim cemetery in Central Jerusalem. Ellie hides behind one of the tombstones and fails to come out, purposely taunting and tormenting Shye, and drawing out the moment for as long as possible. Looking for him everywhere, Shye cries out, “Game over! I don’t want to play no more!”, waiting for Ellie to show himself – but Ellie, his expression sealed, stays in hiding. Frustrated, Shye heads for the main road and is almost hit by a car. Ellie saves him, then looks at him. Like most looks he has given the boy throughout the film, this too is a look, or glare rather, of hatred – tinged with a sense of pining, compassion, erotica, and a longing. The deep, complex gaze of an individual, representing only himself as opposed to a whole society or collective ideal.


The 1960s in Israeli film draw to a close with Siege – one of the most distinct examples of personal filmmaking and the New Sensibility movement. The film was directed by Gilberto Tofano who, until that point, was known as an Italian TV and theatre director. With Siege, Tofano essentially ushered in modernism and the New Wave in Israel (about a decade after both had exploded onto cinema screens in Europe and around the world). Contrary to other Israeli films of the period that were trying to go the modernist route and often came out looking as though they were plagiarising the genre, at best, Siege is a through-and-through bona fide Israeli modernist film to its core – in its storyline, aesthetics, and production.

Tamar (Gila Almagor) is a wartime widow and mother to a young boy, who is trying to get past her husband’s tragic death and move on with her life. Eli (Yehoram Gaon) was one of her late husband’s soldiers and is now trying to introduce her to a host of men. Tamar meets David (Dahn Ben Amotz), and the two start a relationship. When David is called up for military reserve duty, Tamar is overcome with worry. Eli takes her to go and see him, and thus begins the film’s closing sequence: the two are riding in the jeep, en route to David’s military base in the northern town of Beit She’an. The drive is cut as a montage weaving in news and documentary footage: a sign that reads Border Ahead; a sign giving directions to Beit She’an; buildings being bombed; a convoy of tanks; then back to the pair in the moving jeep; then rinse and repeat. News footage; soldiers; casualties; children; Israelis and Arabs; then on to news from the rest of the world; the existential reality of war, terror, demonstrations, and UN deliberations behind closed doors.

Returning to Israeli news footage, a Hebrew version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ – the protest song that became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the US – plays in the background. Now, we see people dancing in the streets, and also children running into shelters, demonstrations, then another hora [Israeli folk dance – EE] circle; children sleeping in shelters; cut to a classroom; a boy looks up from his desk at the teacher who is writing the word ‘peace’ [Shalom in Hebrew] on the blackboard. The music fades and we see Tamar with her back to the camera, removing her makeup; crew members walk past with lighting equipment and a clapperboard. Only this not Tamar we are watching but Gila Almagor – her portrayer; an exterior shot of the building; more crew members; a bunch of film equipment. The main cast are all stood around a transistor radio, listening to a news update about IDF soldiers clashing with insurgents.

Tofano, like Goddard, reminds viewers that the film they are watching is an act of art. He shines a light on what goes on behind the scenes of filmmaking, thereby going against everything Hollywood has ever taught us about escapism and suspension of disbelief. Hollywood urges us to vanish into the film, and if only for a moment. Tofano, however, will not let us indulge in this ‘vanishing act’, and reminds us that it’s not only the characters in the film who are besieged, but the cast too. And that ultimately, we are all under siege.

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