In Israel, understanding the present sometimes requires traveling to the past. And what better guide than Susan Sontag: although she is remembered primarily for her writing, the renowned intellectual dabbled in filmmaking as well, and, in the fall of 1973, traveled to Israel to shoot a documentary,
Promised Lands, which will have a rare screening in Brooklyn on Tuesday. She couldn’t have picked a more dramatic moment: the Yom Kippur War was raging, and everywhere Sontag trained her camera she found a country newly despairing over the future prospect of living in peace with its Arab neighbors. The Israel of 1973, it turns out, is depressingly, and clarifyingly, familiar.
Before we can talk about the film, though, it’s helpful to consider the filmmaker: Susan Sontag, director? She is famous for her essays, of course, and for her glamorous, engagée intellectual activism. She was also one of the first American writers to take cinema seriously, an early champion of foreign auteurs like Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and particularly Jean-Luc Godard.
Promised Lands, released in 1974, was her third film, and first documentary. Both her inexperience and her influences show in the frequently tedious movie, which seems like the work of someone who is a little too obsessed with Bresson’s viscously slow films. More problematic are the film’s meandering, structureless form and its utter refusal to aid the viewer: so radical is Sontag in her cinematic purity, that the film’s interviewees are not even identified. Unsurprisingly, The New York Times panned it at the time of its release; The New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann was only a little more encouraging.
Despite its flaws, however, and despite the fact that the reality Promised Lands depicts undoubtedly reflects Sontag’s deliberate and somewhat politicized choices, the film provides a valuable document of a traumatized society. Consisting largely of interviews with prominent Israelis, accompanied by regional music that is periodically juxtaposed with what sounds like artillery fire, Sontag’s camera takes its time, lingering for minutes on a ceremony at Jerusalem’s War Cemetery, empty tanks and dead bodies on the battlefield, a funeral for a fallen solider, a center for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and, always, the gorgeous hilly landscape that everyone in the region seems to be constantly fighting and dying over.
“We have this pogrom complex here,” explains Yoram Kaniuk, the leftist Israeli writer, who is Promised Lands’ conscience and main voice. He adds, “And this time, in this war, it was almost so.” Speaking into a microphone in a nondescript hotel room, smoking a pipe, Kaniuk looks worried and sad. He and others like him are the film’s greatest asset, allowing viewers an unmitigated glance at the distraught consciousness of those days.
Watching the film from a distance of three decades, viewers—especially ones vaguely familiar with Sontag’s intellectual commitments—may wonder what interest she found in the topic, especially as she had rarely, before or since, seriously explored Israel or even her own Jewish heritage. Sontag seems to have wondered as well: in a brief essay in Vogue, published around the time of the film’s release, she insisted on her subject matter’s “uncanny fit with themes in my writings and other films.” The fit isn’t immediately apparent, though, and the film’s numerous declarations of sympathy for Israel are surprising coming from the staunchly leftist Sontag.
But one element of the film that does seem to jibe with Sontag’s other preoccupations is its tragic element. “Being rather tuned into sadness, to the tears in things, I put a lot of that in Promised Lands,” she wrote in Vogue. “Alas, it’s not just in my head. It’s what Israel does seem to me, at this moment, to be about.” The film presents, in a subtly polemical fashion, a tragic trajectory for the Israeli experience, consisting of three distinct, non-overlapping epochs.
The first, spanning from Zionism’s fin de siècle beginnings to June 1967, features the pure land of Labor Zionism, during which, as Kaniuk puts it, the Jews “took a lot of beautiful things out of Judaism and merged it with Tolstoy and song and dance.” This Israel is the star of the film’s most powerful segment. Sontag, the famed analyst of campiness, films a Tel Aviv wax museum that depicts great moments in Israel’s history, from Theodor Herzl orating to David Ben-Gurion feeding milk to a lamb with a baby bottle. That the scenes, despite their kitschiness, manage to inspire suggests just how invigorating the Zionist project had been at its inception.
The final wax diorama is of a Jewish soldier weeping at the Western Wall: perhaps the iconic image of the 1967 war, it was the moment that both culminated and, as the film goes on to explain, killed that first epoch. For after Israel’s stunningly lopsided victory, it became an incredibly confident modern consumer society—“Like America in the ’50s,” Kaniuk sighs. “Socialism went out the window. In Kaniuk’s analysis (and by extension Sontag’s), post-’67 Israel made a gargantuan error in overconfidently failing to extend magnanimity to its foes, justly vanquished though they were. And what does pride come before? Kaniuk reminds us, in what could serve as the film’s epigraph: “The Jews never understood tragedy. That is why the Greeks invented tragedy, and we invented, kind of, drama. In the Bible, there is no tragedy. Because tragedy is where a right is opposed to another right. And here is two rights opposing each other. The Palestinians have a full right to Palestine, and the Jews have a full right to Palestine.” He adds, “Do you have any solution to a tragedy? Of course you don’t.”
And so Promised Lands concludes by depositing us squarely in Israel’s third epoch, where the imperative is not to reclaim and restore the land, nor to build a modern, successful state that also happens to be Jewish, but merely to keep on keepin’ on. Now, viewed 35 years later, the tragedy articulated by Sontag’s movie is not that Israel failed to survive. The tragedy, rather, is that survival remains Israel’s most ambitious goal.