In his long hybrid film, Rabin, The Last Day, a compound of documentary and reenactment, Amos Gitai unfurls a rightly unnerving answer to the question Who done it? by welding to it the question What was done?
This is not to say that Gitai—whose film was reviewed for Tablet magazine by J. Hoberman—finds fault with the verdict reached by an Israeli court: The ultranationalist religious zealot Yigal Amir was the assassin. The crime was ideological and the assassin was, and remains, unrepentant. Amir arranged the means and the opportunity because he was on a sacred mission. He believed he had Talmudic sanction to murder Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who in his view had endangered Jews by brokering a deal with the Palestinians and opening the way to a forfeit of what the land-worshipping Israeli right considers God-given Jewish land. On Amir’s reading of the Talmud—a reading embraced by a particular clique of rabbis—the land under Israeli occupation was holy, and to turn it over to the enemy would be a crime against God. Accordingly, to kill the criminal, the “thief” of the Talmudic provision, was holy work.
The murder of Yitzhak Rabin reversed not only the momentum of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy but the culture of the Israeli nation. The Oslo Accords were far from perfect for the purpose of securing a peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but they did open a door into a livable future in which Jews and Arabs might coexist without endless savagery and murder. What would have followed is unknowable. In The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins recently argued that the door would have opened only a crack.
But it’s safe to assume that Yigal Amir, now 46 years old, has reason to feel pleased with himself—and not only because he has been permitted to marry, and father a child, while in prison. To many, he is a hero. In 2006, 10 years into his life sentence for the murder, an Israeli poll found that one-third of Israelis supported his “future pardoning.” Moreover: “Among respondents defining themselves as right-wing, 54 percent support a pardoning, with 47 percent setting the pardon in 25 years.”
Much as Amir might resist any attempt to liken him to the goyim, he has a lineage—all the inflamed and professedly righteous who take it upon themselves to kill on behalf of a nation that they consider to be divinely sanctioned. In this company, Amir shines, since not since 1948 has there been so consequential an assassination as the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Amir, like Nathuram Vinayakrao Godse, who murdered Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, is an inflamed nationalist, as was Gavrilo Princip, the Serb who in 1914 assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the interest of securing a Yugoslav nation. The nation, for all of them, is the supreme truth. The enemy is at the gates and the land is indivisible. The leader who deals with the enemy has become the enemy. For Amir and Godse, the assassination bore the fruit that the assassin intended. Princip’s Yugoslavia also came to pass, but after some 70 years it bit the dust at the hands of its more parochial component nations. Godse’s ideological heirs, suitably domesticated, now rule India. In Tel Aviv, Yigal Amir assured the breakdown and reversal of a diplomatic dynamic that, however tortured, however vexed, however tenuous, still pointed toward a livable resolution of the awful conflict.
How shall a film give a successful and consequential assassination its due? One approach would be to ask the traditional question, Who done it? and trace a cascade of causes and effects to the fatal moment. For this sort of story there is a considerable tradition. The murder mystery is a genre made in heaven to deliver the reader, or moviegoer, with the diversion of an escorted tour into hell. Beneath the surface of everyday life an abomination emerges—or two, or three. Under the detective’s blazing scrutiny, the mystery at first deepens, but in the end it has been stripped of mysteriousness altogether. Reason—or what the detective story’s inventor, Edgar Allan Poe, called “ratiocination”—unmasks the villain. Scales fall from the detective’s eyes, and from our own. When the writer or director shows her cards, something clicks in the audience mind. The question Who done it? yields a more or less crisp and satisfying answer—Col. Mustard, in the Conservatory, with a lead pipe—but more than that: a motive, shining proof that, in the end, there’s reason and order in the universe.
That’s the theory: the thriller as deferred reassurance. But there have always been dissents and disapprovals. One line of argument against the detective story is to twit the genre for banality and predictability. As Edmund Wilson sniffed in 1944, the detective story was imprisoned within a primitive formula:
Everybody is suspected in turn, and the streets are full of lurking agents whose allegiances we cannot know. Nobody seems guiltless, nobody seems safe; and then, suddenly, the murderer is spotted, and—relief!—he is not, after all, a person like you or me. He is a villain … and he has been caught by an infallible Power, the supercilious and omniscient detective, who knows exactly where to fix the guilt.
After some of Wilson’s New Yorker readers howled with indignation, Wilson bounced back with a follow-up article best known for its title, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” There he proclaimed as if from a great height: “The reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.”
But enough of Wilson’s snobbery. There’s a more sophisticated, indeed postmodern line of critique that, if it doesn’t exactly prefigure what Amos Gitai is doing in Rabin, does shed some light on his choices. In 1958, the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt published a remarkable novella called The Pledge, wherein a brilliant, preternaturally unrelenting policeman fails to solve the murder of a child—but not because he lacks the skill, or the commitment. He promises the victim’s mother that he will not relent. He persists, in fact, into his retirement. He is the incarnation of justice as well as reason. But his well-laid plan doesn’t work. The villain fails to show up. The policeman is empty-handed—not because the killer is unusually devious, or because the evidence has melted away, but strictly, trivially, because an accident intervenes. The policeman’s will is pure and his intelligence keen, but reality will not cooperate. His failure is, to put it mildly, unnerving. Dürrenmatt, a master allegorist of Nazism, meant it that way. He didn’t want to leave his reader satisfied. He wanted the reader left with ragged edges and blown solutions. The original edition of Dürrenmatt’s book carried the subtitle: Requiem for the Detective Novel. Before he let his career devolve into celebrity interviews, Sean Penn made a splendid film of The Pledge, starring Jack Nicholson.
Amos Gitai has a similar idea. Don’t draw a diagram. Go for disturbance. Go for lack of solution and of resolution. Flirt with the uncanny. Show (with reenactment) the ferocity of the settlers. Stare head-on at rule by violence in the degeneration of a democracy. Take with utmost seriousness the stark and unignorable fact, caught on film, that a month before Yigal Amir picked up his gun, the future prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke proudly to a fired-up nationalist rally from a Jerusalem balcony from which hung a huge banner that read: “DEATH TO ARABS.” In the crowd below, fanatic nationalists carried signs depicting, for example, Rabin in a Nazi uniform and, again, in an Arafat head-dress. The chant “DEATH TO RABIN!” comes from the crowd. And: “Rabin traitor!” And: “We’ll get rid of Rabin with blood and fire.” From that balcony, Netanyahu the incendiary declares, “We are fighting for the expansion of Jewish settlements,” as directly below him, cheering supporters burn effigies of Rabin in his Arafat head-dress. On another occasion, Netanyahu was photographed standing a few feet from a coffin inscribed, “Rabin is killing Zionism.”
Gitai takes with utmost seriousness that such incitement went, and continues to go, unpunished. An actor playing the attorney general fumblingly tries to explain why he took no action against rabbis who called for the execution of the bad Jew. (Gitai quotes the rabbis.) His explanation is no explanation. Take with utmost seriousness that the investigating commission looked into appalling lapses in security at the fatal Tel Aviv rally at the same time it was charged not to investigate the politics of the assassination. Take with utmost seriousness that the security forces were not alone in their (to put it mildly) naiveté, for there, on camera, is Yitzhak Rabin himself fearing no harm, saying, “I feel good and safe,” and refusing to wear a bulletproof vest. Jews didn’t shoot Jews. Right.
It is not Gitai’s project to connect dots to a neat cause-and-effect argument. He wants unsettlement. Ominous chords and dangling themes evoke that atmosphere of relentless and unbounded menace that preceded—and followed, and continues to follow—the murder whose chief political beneficiary continues in uncontested power.
Suppose, in other words, that the side that won Israel’s civil war with an act of shattering violence is the side that still rules with impunity, virtually without opposition. The problem the film sets for itself is: How to convey the enormity of a moral collapse? Gitai wants his audience to stare long and hard at the harsh, unending, unyielding grotesquerie of the outcome. He wants his audience to face a double agony—the agony of watching as its elected leader is murdered, compounded by the agony of watching its duly constituted authority shrug. Toward that end, he evokes the atmosphere of incitement that preceded the assassination and casts light on the weak official investigation that followed.
The principle underlying the film is that the assassination was so sinister, so revelatory, so foundational, so undigested, so shattering, that it deserves—even requires—an unorthodox and unsettling treatment whose purpose is to leave audiences shaken, not because we can diagram precisely what happened but because the immensity of what happened is such that we cannot get our minds around it.
Not only was the assassination made possible by stupendous lapses in security, lapses so severe as to suggest that the security forces had no idea what country they were living in; not only were those lapses also occasioned by the fact that the victim, despite the bottomless cleavage in Israel’s public morality, did not expect it and was, arguably, cavalier about the danger. The murder of Rabin exposed—and continues to expose—an utter breakdown of the ethical foundation of a Jewish state. There is no collective guilt, but there is collective responsibility. Israel’s self-mystification as a righteous nation bled to death on Nov. 4, 1995.
This is why I think Gitai is justified to pull out the cinematic stops to sketch what was at stake in this de facto putsch. He wants to scramble the equanimity of any solution-seeking viewer who wants the narrowest possible answer to the question of what happened in Kings of Israel Square, in front of Tel Aviv’s City Hall, on Nov. 4, 1995, and is not satisfied to wrap up the discussion, as Israel’s schoolchildren are taught to do, with the conclusion that Yigal Amir was the criminal, he fired the gun, what a pity, a tragedy, a crime; too bad; end story with national unity.
I should disclose that I have counted Amos Gitai as a friend for some four decades. I consider his Kippur the finest of antiwar films. (It recounts his experience in the 1973, Yom Kippur War, when the helicopter in which he was traveling was shot down over Syria.) I am not equally enthusiastic about all his work. But that is neither here nor there. What he has done in Rabin, The Last Day is smack-down disturbing and rightly so, as befits the appalling facts on the not-so-holy ground that Israelis refuse to see.
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Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.