In 2009, Israeli writer-director and former tank gunner Samuel Maoz stormed past the competition at the Venice Festival with his searing debut, Lebanon, winning the Golden Lion. He couldn’t quite repeat the trick with his even better, but far more difficult, follow-up, Foxtrot, a multi-genre masterpiece that surpasses its predecessor to become a truly definitive account of the psychological impact of the absurdity of war. Enormously ambitious, Maoz’s film uses every trick available to convey the un-coveyable; grief at losing a child, the simultaneous bone-zapping fear and numbing boredom of army life, and the camaraderie of the men in the trenches.
Foxtrot’s first third centres around a world-shattering announcement. Early in the morning, Michael and Dafna Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) are awoken to the message that their son Jonathan has been killed on the Israeli border. As a portrayal of grief, it’s one of the most effectively tragic films in recent memory, a savagely difficult and distressing watch. A very objective style forces the audience to absorb the piercing shrieks of sadness – the sound design in this segment is brutal and nerve-shredding– in the Feldman house, with Maoz occasionally turning to audacious spinning overhead shots, inducing a sort of vertigo that gets you into the swirling headspace of the bereaved parents.
Ashkenazi and Adler knock scene after scene out of the park, by turns practical, furious, and stunned into lifelessness. The very out of his depth army funeral counsellor, with his futile attempts to install a logical order to this most incomprehensible of events, is so unhelpful that it’s almost comedic. However, by the point he shows up, Foxtrot has seemingly already ripped the capability for laughter out of you. That is, until, a change in focus from the Feldman household to a desolate roadblock, codename Foxtrot, which introduces us to a young Israeli squadron, bored out of their skulls and indulging in uproariously funny comedy.
These two polar opposite moods should by no rights be in the same film, but in a single scene which I shan’t spoil here, Maoz unites the two ends of the emotional spectrum with jaw-dropping skill. Scenes at the roadblock are absolutely hilarious, both as tension-puncturing techniques following the spiritual annihilation of act one and as great standalone jokes, particularly a series of ever more silly sight gags, all of which also carry a powerful poignancy. The switchover from the rapidly deteriorating world of the older characters to the static one of the youth brings with it not just a change in energy, but also in visual style.
Where the Feldman apartment has a muted colour palette, with shots there composed for maximum mundane believability, Maoz turns to the outlandish for Station Foxtrot. Bold technicolour shoots from the sky, and dreamlike images abound, with one sequence even transferring to a simple animation instead of staying in live action. All of these elements seem irreconcilably different from one another on paper, but in practice are woven together without a visible fault line. A soldier waltzing with his gun as his partner lets a lone camel through the roadblock is just one of many indelibly surreal images conjured.
Foxtrot itself is a decidedly weird tiny corner of the world, rusting and basic structures housing the men and their equipment. Their shipping container/barracks is, day by day, sinking into the mud, muddy water seeping through the rotting floor like a sucking wound. The base’s tech is painfully outdated, like the squad has stayed so still during their deployment that they managed to go back in time.
If spending time with the IDF in a film directed by an Israeli veteran seems like it might be slightly propagandistic, rest assured it is not. Each time a Palestinian driver crosses the gate, Maoz makes sure to imbue them with humanity and pathos, whether or not they get dialogue and regardless of how long they’re actually on screen for. It’s this empathy that informs the conclusion of Foxtrot, far quieter than the rest of the film, but no less heartbreaking, funny, or powerful for it. This is a howling tragedy, a side-splitting farce, and a visionary look at human responses to conflict. It’s Foxtrot, and it’s one of the best war films ever made.