Dawn, Palestine, 1947
by Amos Lassen
Romed Wyder’s film, “Dawn” is a psychological thriller based on the novel by Elie Wiesel. The story takes place in Palestine in 1947, during the British mandate period as Zionists are fighting for the establishment of a Jewish state. When the British deny entry to the survivors of the concentration camps coming by boat to Palestine, they become “enemy number one” of the Zionist project. A member of the armed Jewish underground is sentenced to death by the British authorities and in return, the resistance kidnaps a British officer. The insurgents spend the night together, awaiting the outcome of the negotiation. If the British hang their friend at dawn, one of them will shoot the British officer held as a hostage.
Four comrades in arms attempt to influence the young Elisha, to make him overcome his conflicts of conscience and fully commit to their cause. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “Dawn” sheds a new light on a key moment in history that allows for the resituating of the current political disputes. The film is a frightening and lucid journey into the mind of Elisha (Joel Basman), a young Zionist terrorist who is consumed by doubt and haunted by the ghosts of an ever-present past.
Elie Wiesel wrote a story about the state of mind of a “trainee” terrorist, a man who chooses violence as his only weapon and escape. This ambiguity, the desire to put yourself in the shoes of the enemy, of a dark alter ego that spies on us relentlessly, characterizes the entire film, transforming it into a moment suspended between an abhorrent past and a future that is as enticing as it is uncertain.
We go back to a moment in history that is too often forgotten— Palestine was under British mandate and the armed Zionist resistance fought the intruder with all its forces to accelerate the creation of the long yearned-for Jewish State. “Dawn” tells the story of Zionist terrorists whose mission it is to detain and kill a British official should the British army decide to ignore their demands and execute a member of their guerrilla gang who has, in turn, been taken prisoner. From the very beginning it seems clear that their chances of success in these negotiations are slim. Indeed, the central subject of the film shifts almost instantaneously from the narrative to the psychological. Confined in a small space, awaiting a verdict (which will be given at dawn), the protagonists start to reveal, against their will and with building and relentless tension, the deceptively small grey areas that fill their existence are considered.
Beginning with an overview allegory, Wyder gradually focuses in on the state of mind of Elisha, who has survived imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp and been converted, perhaps against his will into a terrorist. Chosen as the one who must kill the British official, Elisha withdraws increasingly into the horrors of doubt, regret and rage that are in his mind. How can he think rationally when the world around him has lost all substance? What’s left to hold on to when his homeland, his family and his roots disappear? Is there a need to reinvent a future for himself so strong that it transforms him from a victim into a persecutor? These are the questions that are there throughout the film, which gradually changes from being the simple representation of a specific historical moment to a universal reflection.
Wyder takes us into the intricacies of a situation that seems never-ending: where freedom and oppression are two sides of the same issue. We see Elisha as the young survivor of Wiesel’s “Night” and we are well aware of his moral conundrum of whether the end justifies the means.
Romed Wyder has externalized the ethical debate with very convincing, charismatic, and strong characters. Joel Basman is amazing as the fragile and innocent Elisha (aka Elie Wiesel). Jason Isaacs demonstrates his force and charisma as the ambiguous prisoner. Sarah Adler is seductive, motherly, and sly rolled into one woman. Morris Cohen explodes and browbeats and we realize that this powerful movie is the result of a powerful cast. The opening scene sets the tone and places us inside the life of Elisha and we watch his training for a job that he really does not want.
The members of the cast are subtle, disturbing, disturbed and refined. We do not often get this caliber of acting from an entire ensemble. Not every one knows that there were Jewish terrorists who were not only enemies of the British, but also of the Ben Gurion and the Haganah? The internal conflicts within Palestinian Zionists were really incredible and we see here what Hannah Arendt said—we are all just millimeters away from doing evil, and being murderers.