“Everything we’ve experienced had killed us. We’re the living dead.” The words are those of a relief worker in Douma, site of both the 2012 Battle of Douma and the 2015 Douma massacre. I found it in a collection put together by Wendy Pearlmam called “We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria.” The kind of total despair voiced in the book finds visual accompaniment in one of this year’s most riveting documentaries, so far, on the Syrian Civil War: Feras Fayyad’s debut feature, Last Men in Aleppo.
The film takes the form, ostensibly, of a portrait of Syria Civil Defense, known more popularly as the White Helmets. I use that modifier because Last Men in Aleppo is a different beast than the many profiles of civilian groups that drip out of every conflict zone for second lives as documentarian catnip (in that camp, the Syrian conflict has provided Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts, along with Orlando von Einsiedel’s Oscar-winning and shorter take on Fayyad’s subject, The White Helmets).
Last Men in Aleppo is, fundamentally, a war movie. Not in the documentary-on-History Channel sense of a war movie, with the generals and the historians (the Michael T. Flynn-featuring Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS gives you that) but in the visceral, holed-up-in-Stalingrad sense of a war movie. The kind that comes to deliver, fresh from the front lines, William T. Sherman’s old truth: war is hell. And what hell! Almost two hours of digging children out of rubble, finding unrecognizable limbs instead of missing comrades. Delivered by aerial bombardments from Russian planes that Fayyad, in one of the movie’s few moments of placard narration, identifies as regular bombings of Aleppo since September 2015.
So, like the best American war movies, the Russians reprise their role as villains, a tyrannous force that lurks unseen in the air and bombs with the inhumanity of an angry Old Testament god. The heroes that Fayyad selects chase the air raid sirens that ring its wake and contemplate the great doom hanging from the skies. “This is our destiny.,” one opines. “We’re going to die like everyone else.”
To liven things up, sometimes Fayyad films them driving children to a playground or buying fish for a makeshift fish pond. The set-pieces feel fittingly forced, parodies of real life in the midst of war. They stare at the fish and tell us, “I’m like the fish. I can’t live outside Aleppo.” But it is visually gorgeous: the children wear bright reds and deep blues and, when it’s not being bombed, cinematographer Fadi Al Halabi crafts a version of Aleppo that is rich and saturated, dotted with vivid and grainy sunsets.
The documentary’s use of gorgeous colors embellishes every corner of the tragic tale Fayad tells. Beyond the contrasting realism of the bloodied bodies torn apart by explosions, which are ample. Beyond the rich and very human stories of the volunteers themselves, many of whom contemplate abandoning the mission, and three or four of whom have died by the time the movie was released, as the end credits reveal.
Playing throughout, just like on the sinking Titanic, is an omnipresent orchestra, courtesy of Karsten Fundal, the Danish composer behind the movies The Art of Crying and Flame and Citron. The film becomes elegiac in Fundal’s hands as his score accompanies shots of rubble and pushes the viewer tenderly toward the image of the European front toward the end of the Second World War. Occasionally, action jars into slow motion and goes mute for these orchestral moments and we might as well be watching Tom Hanks dodging Nazi gunfire on the beaches of Normandy. War is hell.
Which is a way of saying that Fayyad and his characters are well versed in the stylistics of portraying the Spielbergian grandeur of a war for an audience, like us, generally alienated from the reality of just what that means. A kid, suffering from extreme malnutrition, is taken to a pharmacy in order to give us the performance of a shop clerk looking at the camera and telling us that “due to the situation,” all relief is impossible. Meanwhile, members of the White Helmets look up and ominously point at the sky. This is the work of someone turning the facts of conflict into the emotional space of allegory.
This makes watching Last Men in Aleppo something of a nostalgic experience, harking back to the aesthetics of social realism, those photographs of starving children and glum Midwesterners taken by Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange that were packaged under such titles as “You Have Seen Their Faces” and “A Record of Human Erosion.” Children ask, in their child-voices, if they have just been rescued from rubble and wonder, like a good Steinbeck character, why such evil things happen in this good world.
Maudlinly, one of the White Helmets, a beautifully tragic figure named Khaled whose funeral the movie ends on, delivers such rippers as “Nobody cares about anybody anymore,” and “All dignity is dead.” The American war movie gets things wrong, perhaps, on the front line. People don’t talk of baseball or trench gossip but of the complete and utter nihilistic doom in front of them. Those damn Russians.