The Israeli Film "Foxtrot" Wages War on War

12/05/2017 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2017

Foxtrot, the searing yet exhilarating follow-up to Lebanon by Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz, explores the ordeal of an Israeli couple who are told in the story's opening moments that their young son, serving in the military, has "fallen in the line of duty." The most strikingly original aspect of the film (awarded the Silver Bear at Berlin) is the way Maoz shapes the narrative into a triptych, each panel with its own style, color palette, and possibly alternative realities. Some viewers will scratch their heads. Others will applaud Foxtrot's slow fuse delivery, which continues to unfold its dark meanings long after the closing credits.

Part One employs a sort of hyper realism to depict the grief of the boy's parents, Michael and Daphna Feldmann (Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler) on learning their son has "fallen" -- the term insisted upon by the military. Then, maybe forty-five minutes in, the film cuts to a remote desert outpost manned by four young soldiers, the intense tedium of their daily routines conveyed in surrealistic manner. Among the kids is Feldmann's son Jonathan (Yonathan Shiray). To reveal further details about this intriguing plot reversal would be a spoiler. Part Three circles back to the Feldmann's apartment in Tel Aviv, where the couple struggles to absorb further twists in the convoluted story.

In the opening section, when Daphna opens the door on a pair of soldiers, she faints dead away before they even speak. The scene is all the more cruel when you think that successive Israeli generations have endured a similar moment. The hyper realism has a (welcome) distancing effect; there’s even a touch of gallows humor in the military's efforts to routinize and sanitize trauma. With practiced skill, the soldiers sedate Daphna and instruct her husband Michael, frozen in murderous disbelief, to drink water every hour "for the shock." The army chaplain lays out details of the funeral service, adding, "You can play a song. We have a great sound system." Michael wants only to see his son's body -- until he fears there isn't one.

When Part Two cuts to the desolate border patrol manned by four boys who might be freshly out of high school, the tone turns eerily surreal. Maoz uses crane shots and odd camera angles to enforce the sense of dislocation. Home for these soldiers is a shipping container that appears to be sinking into the muck, beside it a vehicle displaying a smiling blonde from a 50's ice cream ad. Sometimes the kids raise the gate for a passing camel; at others, Palestinian travelers. In one scene a couple dressed for a wedding are ordered out of their car and made to stand in humiliating fashion in a downpour.

Mostly these boy soldiers battle tedium, watching birds through a telescope (the lush strains of Mahler on the soundtrack), rolling a can of vile potted meat down the shipping container's incline, or tuning in old radio broadcasts with staticky voices from some Stygian realm. In a set piece that's both freakish and thrilling, Jonathan explodes in a wild, sexy dance with his rifle, as an old ballroom chestnut blasts from the sound track. Maoz's vision thwarts expectations at every turn, and before long a tragedy is unleashed, largely triggered by the soldiers' lack of experience.

At the Ophirs, the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards, Foxtrot won eight prizes, including best picture, and will rep Israel's bid for a foreign-language Oscar. Make no mistake, the film mounts a multi-pronged attack on the Israeli military (Israel's Culture Minister has condemned it sight unseen). Yet Foxtrot is more ambitious than merely a political broadside. As Michael, Lior Ashkenazi, often shot in extreme close-up, goes beyond the usual actor's toolkit to convey a fury that tips toward madness. (In preparation for the role, the actor kept himself in a sleep-deprived state.) Foxtrot speaks to the inability to process what cannot be absorbed. That's likely why Maoz opted for a splintered structure over conventional narrative. No glass of water every hour or "good sound system" can assuage the outrage of a son's life squandered.

Maoz reaches, too, for a larger message about the ironic and inscrutable workings of fate. As in a foxtrot, where the dancer's feet return each time to the starting position, the characters are destined, no matter what, to end up in the same spot. “This is the dance of our society,” Maoz has said. “The leadership has to save us from the loop of the foxtrot dance, but they’re doing the opposite.”

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