Beaufort (2007)

Beaufort first published by Film4

Summary: Josef Cedar’s film uses the grunts’ prespective to dramatise Israel’s difficult 2000 decision to abandon a long-held outpost in Lebanon. 

ReviewMasada has etched itself deeply into the Israeli psyche. Under siege in this mountain fortress during the first century C.E., every last Jewish man, woman and child committed collective suicide rather than surrender to Roman dominion – and so in the twentieth century, Masada became a place of pilgrimage for Israeli Defence Force recruits, who would regularly be taken there at the end of their basic training to swear an oath that “Masada shall never fall again”. This location has acquired mythic proportions which greatly inform the Israeli national character – and cast their long shadow over Joseph Cedar‘s film Beaufort.

Beaufort (or Qal’at al-Shaqif as it known to the local Arabs) is, like Masada, a mountain fortress defended by Jewish forces against an encircling enemy. The site of a castle dating back at least to the Crusades, this elevated position was bloodily seized by Israel at the beginning of the First Lebanon War in 1982 (in which Cedar himself served as an infantryman), and remained an occupied military outpost for the next eighteen years, during which casualties on both sides of the conflict were enormous. Then, on 24 May, 2000, something unprecedented happened. Under domestic pressure, the Israeli government withdrew its military presence from Lebanon, and blew up its own concrete garrison at Beaufort. This was a turning point, when for the first time Israel was abandoning not only a hard-won post, but also the example of her ancient ancestors at Masada. Instead of refusing to surrender at any cost and fighting to the bitter end, Israel was choosing to return home and to go on living. It was a choice that would expose all manner of cracks in Israel’s long-ingrained bunker mentality, and it is these tensions which Beaufort, set almost entirely within the beleaguered fort during the weeks leading up to the exit from Lebanon in May of 2000, dramatises with such claustrophobic effectiveness.

The film’s half-hour opening sequence sees young, driven Beaufort commanding officer Liraz (Oshri Cohen) first insisting that the newly arrived bomb disposal expert Ziv (Ohad Knoller) carry out what Ziv himself regards as an unnecessarily dangerous and largely pointlessly assignment, and then breaching all normal protocols to accompany the newbie personally on what does indeed turn out to be a suicide mission. Liraz is no stickler for rules – rather, he embodies the Masada mindset, unable to abide fear, defeat or surrender, and forbidding his men permission even to talk about the evacuation that they all know is coming. 

If Liraz feels oppressed by the weight of Beaufort’s history – the number of men who have died taking and then defending it, and the futility of such deaths that any retreat would entail – then he is under more immediate pressure from the Hezbollah shells that rain constantly on the outpost, from protests at home against the Lebanese occupation, and from an enemy growing ever more daring in its determination to make the impending tactical withdrawal of the Israeli forces look more like panicked flight. As more of his men are injured or die, Liraz is forced to acknowledge for the first time his own instinctive sense of fear, and to concede reluctantly that Beaufort might after all be better off as a Lebanese tourist attraction than as a vain stronghold of self-destructive Israeli machismo.   

If Beaufort is unquestionably a war movie, it is also a rather unconventional one. Sure, all its characters are male, with women existing only on the unseen end of either a telephone or a future plan, but here, unusually, the enemy remains just as invisible, as the IDF soldiers spend their time just sitting and waiting to see which will come first – departure from Beaufort or death from above. 

By the film’s second half, many of the genre’s more flagrant clichés have started to dig in. The merest mention of a hope or ambition for the future from one of the barely individuated characters virtually guarantees that he is about to become cannon fodder, and even Ishai Adar’s electronic score drifts from its initial stark minimalism into something altogether more stirring and emotive. For the first hour or so before all this, however, Beaufort builds its tensions from a quietly unravelling mood of bunkered isolation that is more akin to Alien (1979) or The Thing (1982) than to your average war epic. And like those horror films, Beaufort features an enemy who attacks as much from within as from without. 

“If one thing’s not vital here then everything’s not vital.” So declares Liraz, justifying his refusal to obey the incoming orders to pack up all non-vital goods for removal from Beaufort. He might as well be talking of the Jewish settlements within the Occupied Territories, or of the final status of Jersualem in any future dual-State agreement with the Palestinians, or even of the Israeli nation as a whole, surrounded by a foe who would happily exploit any sign of weakness or surrender. 

It is what makes Beaufort a deeply political film – and even if it never even attempts to address the perspective of the invaded enemy (the Israeli forces are the invaders here), nonetheless it reaches conclusions that are far from simplistic. Restored at last to the Israeli side of the border, Liraz is shown in the film’s final image sinking to his knees and weeping – but whether they are tears of relief at being alive, or of anguish for having abandoned a Masada, is left entirely open. Of course what Liraz cannot know, but we do, is that the Israeli military would return six years later to Lebanese soil, with disastrous consequences for both sides and an even more controversial withdrawal.   

Verdict: Moody, tense and claustrophobic, Joseph Cedar’s unconventional war movie allegorises the political tensions within a beleaguered, bunkered Israel.  

© Anton Bitel