So many of the reviews about Foxtrot have focused on politics and the Occupation, which is well enough, as these operate as the background situation to the action and non-action of the 2017 film by Samuel Moaz. The focus on the political has had as much to do with the condemnation of the film by Israel’s far right Minister of Culture Miri Regev, who opined as if this was some sort of ordinary political film, as if what is on view in the film is a “realistic” or “unrealistic” perspective on anything having to do with Israel and Palestine. About this, Regev was actually not completely off base. The film is a surrealist nightmare, and, as such, not “realistic” in any conventional sense. It layers trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma, crippling guilt on top of crippling guilt, transmitted across three generations, of, well, yes, Israeli Ashkenazi Jews (something else that must have provoked Regev).
In fact, the film is not conventionally political, i.e. organized around the overt political contents that make their way into and out of the film. Foxtrot is about structures, political, yes, but also the formal construction of cinema. In this sense, the movie is perfect, cold and claustrophobic. Broken into three segments, Foxtrot moves neatly like the dance, from part to part, the film’s final scene completing the picture into a whole, a perfect square, the main subject of which is death, violent death itself, not life, death and trauma, the deadening of death upon the living..
The primary cast of characters are also three, Michael and Dafna are a handsome and well-preserved couple who live somewhere/anywhere on a high floor in a stylish and deluxe Tel Aviv apartment, darkened and disconnected from the street, from society, from the “periphery.” This location is the primary setting for parts one and three. Their son Jonathan, the primary subject of interest in part two, serves out his compulsory military service at a checkpoint somewhere/nowhere in the West Bank. The physical horizons are broader there, but also, it seems, disconnected from any “real” sense of social place.
In part I, Michael and Dafna spiral into deep depression upon learning that their son has been killed on military duty. The camera is allowed to do its work, conveying disorientation by way of this trick and that. By the end of this section, the parents will learn that it was not their son, Jonathan Feldman, who was killed, but another soldier with the same name, “Jonathan Feldman.”
Part two shifts to the checkpoint where Michael and Dafna’s Jonathan and a small squad of fellow soldiers spend most of their time bored out of their wits, passing on the occasional car of Palestinians through the checkpoint on a miserable road. Where they come from is a mystery, appearing, it seems, almost always at night, as if on their way back home from a night out, but, in this deserted place, with no town anywhere on the horizon. The Palestinians who appear are isolated in their cars, forced to sit and wait or stand in the rain under the strong illuminating light of a military searchlight. Death, that someone is going to die, is preordained, formal, part of the structure of the film and the film situation, anticipated in the dance macabre of a soldier with his personal weapon. Like in a play by Chekhov, the gun placed in the first scene will go off before the end of the play. Indeed, something goes terribly wrong, something has to go wrong, not due simply to human error, but by the very cinematic and political structure of the situation of the film. Out of nowhere and as if on cue, the soldiers will panic and open fire at close range with a heavy machine gun killing a group of young Palestinians in their car while out on a night of drinking,
In part three, it suddenly turns out that Jonathan is, in fact, dead. We’re back in Michael and Dafna’s now thoroughly darkened apartment. The strain in the marriage gives way, at least for a moment, as the couple embrace, and Michael teaches Dafna the secret of the foxtrot. But we don’t quite understand what happened to their son, not until the very last closing short scene of the film, which constitutes the formal closure of the work.
Foxtrot, for all the life that the name of a dance suggests, is a catatonic film about catatonic people living in the nowhere of a catatonic society, as if already dead in the midst of life in darkened and darkening settings. The grandmother suffering dementia survived the Holocaust; she responds to Hebrew but only speaks in German. In intentional acts of self-wounding, the father intentionally scalds his hand in hot water and the mother will scape her knuckles bloody with a metal kitchen implement. The grief upon learning the first time that his soldier-son is dead only aggravates trauma that extends back the father’s own unheroic conduct during his own stint in the army, a survivor’s guilt at the death of comrades in arms about which we will eventually learn in the second part of the film. As for the son and his fellow-soldiers, they are listless and deadeyed; a senior officer brought to cover up the killing at the checkpoint is cast physically as a monster, a rhinoceros of sorts.
In the penultimate scene of the film, Michael explains to Dafna that the foxtrot is a dance in which the dancers move two steps forward, two steps to the right, two steps back, two steps to the left. The dance ends where it began, the movie with death and trauma.
And then cut to the final scene. After the murder of the Palestinian young people, Jonathan is being taken home to see his parents. His father arranged it with someone he knows in the army who knows some general up the chain of command. We know his name, but never see his face. The military vehicle taking Jonathan home swerves off the road and careens into a deep gully. The formal satisfaction provided by the film is not in the death of the young soldier, deeply loved as he is by his parents and sister. About him, the camera feels only this or that little sympathy. We have already seen how his parents will grieve his death. What is satisfying lies in the formal closure of the narrative loop designated by his death and the way that death, introduced so abruptly, abruptly ends the film.