Actor Lior Askenazi, still the biggest heartthrob in Israel at age 50, was cheerful when we spoke at a balmy garden party during the Jerusalem Film Festival last year. He had finally teamed with Samuel Maoz, the Israeli writer-director of 2009’s award-winning soldiers-in-a-tank feature Lebanon, and believes their movie Foxtrot is one of the best things he has ever done.
When Foxtrot world premiered in Venice, critics deemed it a strong awards contender and the film took out the Festival’s Grand Jury Prize. It was always going to be contentious, with Israel’s Minister of Culture Miri Regev condemning the film for harming “the good name” of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
“If I criticise the place I love, I do it because I worry,” Maoz said, defending the film. “I do it because I want to protect it, I do it because it comes from love.”
Foxtrot, which went on to become Israel’s Oscar entry (though missed out in the final selection), focuses on a couple dealing with the news that their son was killed while serving his compulsory three-year stint in the IDF. Maoz tells his story over three distinct acts, starting with the news of the son’s death and focusing on the father (played by Askenazi), then showing the son stationed at a remote roadblock on Israel’s northern border, and finally the emotional aftermath from the point of view of the mother, actress Sarah Adler from The Cakemaker.
“I built an emotional journey that I wanted the audience to experience during the film,” Maoz explains. “I thought the first sequence should shock, the second should hypnotise, and the third should be moving. It’s a philosophical puzzle that tries to embrace the concept of what we call fate and it’s quite surreal at times.”
The roadblock, he says, “reflects an anxious society and a distorted perception that comes out of past trauma,” while the accident at the end represents “the climax of an unhealthy situation. It’s quite understandable that Foxtrot is one big allegory.” This extends to the film’s title. Foxtrot, a dance where the dancers return to the same place they started, references what Maoz calls “the traumatic circle” that Israeli society is trapped in. “Every generation tries to dance it differently, but we always end at the same starting point."
Like Lebanon, which drew on his experiences in the 1982 Lebanon War, the story stems from personal experience.
“When my eldest daughter was in high school she never woke up on time and in order for her not to be late she would ask me to call for a taxi,” Maoz recalls. “This started to become expensive, so finally I insisted that she take the bus. Half an hour after she left I heard that terrorists had blown up a bus on line five and dozens of people were killed. I tried to call her, but her mobile provider crashed because of the unexpected load. After an hour she returned home. It was the worst hour of my life, worse than all my experiences in the Lebanon War. As it happened, she just missed the bus that blew up. She took the next bus.”
Ashkenazi has a daughter in the military too. Women only have to serve two years and often end up away from the combat. At the time of our interview she was about to start, but he didn't know where the 18 year old would end up.
“I never thought this day would come,” he says with a sigh. “I know it’s not going to be easy because the first scene in the movie with the finger on the doorbell is the nightmare of every Israeli. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat when your son is in the army because you’re afraid of that doorbell buzz. For Israelis the minute they saw the hand in this scene everybody understands what it is. It’s like in our genes. So although I know she’s not going to be in a dangerous place, I’m still afraid of it.” She was ultimately given a placement in the army’s theatre.
Ashkenazi admits that his own army experience disturbed him. “I had this nightmare for a long time where people are running after me and I’m running away. I’m trying to hide but there’s nowhere to hide. I’m trying to open doors but they’re not opening. I’m stuck.”
So what is Foxtrot about for him? “For me it’s not about the army and I even wouldn't say it’s about fatherhood. It’s about our fate as Israelis. Michael is not aware of himself. He’s trying to have deep emotions, but he can’t cry. He’s really fucked up. We know that's from the army, but when you see the animation in the film you know it’s from his childhood as the second generation of the Holocaust. The second generation was really fucked up. They grew up in cold homes without any emotion, without any hugs, without any love. I would say the survivors were having children just to have children, to increase the Jewish population without taking care of them.”
It’s a bit like in Germany where the second generation grew up as the children of Nazis, I suggest.
“Exactly. The children of the Holocaust survivors have the same symptoms. I was amazed when I was in Berlin shooting Walk on Water because I had a lot of friends there and I saw the same thing. The third generation is like, ‘We don't care what happened with our parents, we don't care what happened. We just have to get on with our lives’.
“But Michael also has his own issues. He’s living with a secret from his childhood and then in the army he was responsible for the death of his friends in the tank. That’s a lot to keep in. That's why we thought about him having very straight lines, how his hair is shaped, his clothing.”
Ashkenazi appreciated that Maoz had everything so well planned before filming. “Samuel has a very unusual way of writing a screenplay. Usually you read a description then the line of text, but when you read a screenplay by Samuel you see the actual movie because the shooting is already in it. We didn't do a lot of rehearsals and hardly changed a thing. It was an incredible experience.”
Sunday 6 September, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming afterwards at SBS On Demand)
Monday 7 September, 11:45pm on SBS World Movies
Israel, Germany, 2017
Language: Hebrew, German
Director: Samuel Maoz
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonaton Shiray, Shira Haas, Yehuda Almagor