Along with a short experimental film to come about a decade later, called Report, and a gruesome documentary with sticky racial/colonial baggage, called, The Mad Masters, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer was–at the time that I saw it–the most difficult movie on the List to find—and the dude who watched all these movies before me and did an Ask Me Anything on reddit, the guy who basically gave me the idea to start this whole Project, mentioned that Hill 24 was one of the titles he had to wait longest to watch. Just had to routinely Google it and hope that it’d turn up somewhere. The fact that I’ve finally gotten my hands on, watched, and sat down to write about it feels like a checkpoint in the whole journey. I remember sitting at the big table in my parents’ living room three years ago, making special note of the movies he said were so difficult to find, wondering if I’d make it as far as those movies and if they might hold up the whole Project…
And here I am.
Right now you can watch Hill 24 on YouTube but I got my copy of the DVD, which is a crude rip from a VHS tape, from Australia, I think, for $50. Thereabouts. Like The Crowd before it, or It’s a Gift or The Bitter Tea of General Yen, there’re these conflicting impressions when you sit down to finally watch an obscure movie that you’ve been looking for: you figure on the one hand that it’s probably not very good, and that its obscurity is the result of a general disinterest; but it also feels like a relic. There’s something almost mystical about watching this thing that was so fucking hard to find, it’s almost like somebody didn’t want you to see it.
What little writing there is about Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer suggests that it’s a first: that it’s the first Israili feature (which I doubt), that it’s the first mainstream movie to ever have its stars speaking Yiddish, that it’s the first Israeli movie to premiere at Cannes (this one sounds believable. And, as one critic rightly says, it’s more historically significant than artistically.
But the movie’s really good! It’s basically an anthology piece about this team of mercenary-types who are all about to go out on a military operation, on the eve of Israel’s birth, to secure a strategically-valuable hill. We digress into the backgrounds of each mercenary to see what their motivations are and to flesh them out so that we care about all of them by the time we reach the final scene and they’re taking Hill 24.
It’s bit by-the-book in terms of story: there’s a politically/racially tormented love between an Jewish exile in Palestine and an Irish officer, there’s the story of a young man who loses his faith after being injured in battle, another (the most cinematic and exciting of the bunch) about a Jewish soldier who finds himself trapped in a cave with a former Nazi.
Like so much cinema born of the 1950s, this feels…low-budget. It doesn’t look bad, not at all, but the settings are simple, the story is simple, the actors are giving fairly conventional and staid performances. I’m still trying to put my finger on what it is about the 1950s that feels so lackluster and bland.
That last digression in the movie, where a Jew confronts an injured former Nazi in a cave, features this remarkably suspenseful scene where, for fear of being captured, the former Nazi pulls the pin on a grenade, prepared to blow them both up. Our hero clenches the Nazi’s hands before he can toss it and they proceed to grapple, just beyond the mouth of the cave, rolling over rocks and fighting for control of it. Instead of a suspenseful string-heavy score, we get the sound of mortars dropping all around them every few seconds. That the Jewish character finally wrestles the grenade into his own possession and, rather than tossing it away, re-inserts the pin, commenting on how “these things cost money,” is, I have to imagine, a joke against Jewish stereotyping.
As a movie, it’s nothing remarkable, but it definitely wasn’t so disorienting or abstruse as I was afraid it’d be. I thought it’d be invoking tons of history and politics—and maybe that stuff is all there, and it’s going over my head, but I was able to enjoy it on grounds of simple drama and also, toward the middle there’s a theological debate that’s pretty interesting. An injured Jewish soldier is confined to a cot in a sickroom and he’s being consoled by a rabbi who’s telling him all is well, they’re in God’s hands, etcetera. The wounded soldier questions it, though. Says he’s no fan of God, doesn’t understand the cruelty.
So the rabbi steps away to a book case and comes back with this massive tome and he says to the solider that the most virtuous among us, the most faithful, are destined to suffer the worst destruction, the greatest casualties.
The soldier, apoplectic, asks how a loving God should allow this.
The rabbi says explains, then, that those who have put their faith in God will, by extension, have chosen to defend what’s Good. The things in life that are Good will forever be under attack by that which is Evil.
Not exactly a penetrative insight, but it’s delivered with a kind of simple grandeur, and a viewer like me feels pretty well sated when, as the credits roll on a movie, I’ve gotten an ephemeral but charming love story, some intellectually stimulating dialogue, and a scene of terrific action-suspense.
Despite its TV-movie polish, there’s something about the grittiness of its setting, the dustiness and the sight of rebelling soldiers with machine guns called Roberto Rossellini to mind. Paisan, especially, because of the whole anthology thing.