With his first feature Lebanon and his latest Foxtrot, Israeli auteur Samuel Maoz—a former tank gunner turned Golden Lion-winner—crafts sensorial cinema about trauma.
Galvanized by the 1970s Westerns he watched with his father, a bus driver who dreamt of being an actor in Tel Aviv, 13-year-old Samuel Maoz placed his brand new 8mm camera, a Bar Mitzvah present, on the nearby railroad tracks. He sought to replicate a shot where a train is captured passing right on top of the lens. Inevitably, the equipment was smashed. But rather than axing his potential, the boy’s instinctual bravado to experiment encouraged his father to buy a second camera. “There is something in him. I’ll invest,” Maoz recalls his father saying to his upset mother.
Dozens of short films materialized thanks to this second chance, but when the 1982 Lebanon War arose, his artistic ambitions were put on the back burner. Young Samuel was a tank gunner during the conflict, a position that left a painful imprint on the former soldier. “I went to film school after the war, but I was suffering from PTSD. It was slow recovery for me, but I survived,“ he explains. Classmates believed that given his affinity for the purely visual aspects of the medium he would become a cinematographer, but he wanted more. “I was a good DOP, but it wasn’t enough for me. I started as a production designer because back in Israel there were just two or three features made per year and just one TV channel.“
For years he worked in commercials honing his dexterity for upholding the power of imagery over spoken language—an indisputable quality in his current output. Nevertheless, he felt unable to make his directorial debut unless he addressed the unresolved trauma from his involvement in warfare. “I felt that the first film that I needed to do was Lebanon. I had something inside me and I couldn’t even define it to myself, but I felt that if I got it out, it would be the best cure for me. It was a kind of psychological treatment when I unloaded it and tried to do something good with it.”
He was in his late 40s when he shot Lebanon, a film directly inspired by his days inside the tank and the carnage he witnessed. Maoz would eventually win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2009. Unafraid to depict the Israeli military’s questionable practices, controversy ensued, not unlike what the official reaction has recently been towards Foxtrot, his second and latest effort—an astonishing masterpiece that swept the local Ophir Awards and became the country’s Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Language Film.
Structured as a triptych, this devastating anti-war allegory is a miracle of visual storytelling anchored by Lior Ashkenazi’s searing portrayal of repressed grief as Michael, a father who has just lost his son to another war. Maoz describes the character as the representation of his generation, children of Holocaust survivors whose struggles were always diminished when compared to what their elders went through. “Our problem was that we couldn’t complain,” he notes. “When I came back from the war, with two hands, two legs, ten fingers, and no marks on my skin, to complain that you hurt inside was unacceptable. We couldn’t complain, we had to repress it, so we have become a generation of traumatic victims. We enter ourselves into the endless traumatic circle of the foxtrot.”
Michael’s troubled soul is externalized in the form of an abstract painting seen in the opening shot of Foxtrot—that’s the first cinematic vision that Maoz had about this dazzlingly layered tale of controlled chaos. Dialogue is a secondary tool for the commander on set. Maoz fights the use of words as if it were a battle for the visual sovereignty of his work. “I treat the text as an enemy. I tell myself, ‘If I can communicate without words, if I can deliver information and feelings without words, it’s better,’ because you can be more precise. A word is a word. Let’s take the word ‘beautiful.’ In Hebrew you have a few words to say that, and in English you have about 16 words, but in a stare you have endless ways, so you can be more specific,” he eloquently conveys.
“At the end of the process, the visual serves the idea, but all ideas are born from visual stimulations, because I don’t make naturalistic cinema. My cinema is more experiential, and tries to penetrate or reflect the soul of my characters,” Maoz adds. He points to the first time we hear Michael speak after he learns of his son’s untimely passing. In one shot the symmetry of the space, the fact that he turns his back towards the camera and briefly expresses his wish to be alone, “save us pages of dialogue, because we know who he is; we know his nature.” In turn, through Samuel Maoz films we get to know the person he’s become, where he comes from, and the incidents that have shaped him. He is open to share his past aches with us, but he lets the moving pictures do the talking. “The film is a translation of my inner world, and I can’t say much about it.” MM
Foxtrot opens in theaters on March 2, 2018, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic. All images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic. This article appears in MovieMaker’s 25th Anniversary Winter 2018 issue.