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Arts & Culture Bridges over Troubled Water: Israeli Films Focus on Past, Present

February 17, 2005
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Two new Israeli films share a liquid title and both explore ethnic and religious tensions, but they are otherwise very different. “Walk on Water,” one of the best Israeli movies in recent memory, takes a searching look at Israel’s macho culture and attitudes toward old and new foes.

“Watermarks” is a life-affirming documentary that tracks the women on a champion Jewish swimming team in pre-Hitler Vienna to a reunion at their old pool 65 years later.

While the first film explores how human encounters can change old prejudices and stereotypes, the second celebrates the constancy of courage and grace, from youth to old age.

Eytan Fox, director of “Walk on Water,” is one of a handful of American-born Israelis who are changing the movie industry of their adopted country.

He likes to open his films on a rousing patriotic note, with rugged Israelis battling the enemy, before gradually exposing the chinks in their tough-guy armor.

His widely acclaimed “Yossi & Jagger” began with an elite Israeli unit facing infiltrators from Lebanon on a snowy mountain top and evolved into a clandestine homosexual love affair between the company commander and his sergeant.

“Walk on Water” lures the viewer by posing as an old-fashioned thriller, in which a hard-as-nails Mossad operative, who specializes in quietly terminating terrorist leaders, is assigned to finish off an aged Nazi war criminal.

By the end of the film, Fox has cast a provocative eye on the awkward relationship between today’s Germans and Jews, Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians, the gay scenes in Berlin and Tel Aviv nightclubs, and the psychology of a professional killer in the service of his country.

During the opening, top Mossad agent Eyal, played by Lior Ashkenazi, one of Israel’s most popular actors, is in Istanbul, stalking and quietly eliminating a terrorist leader in front of his wife and young son.

Feted with champagne toasts by his colleagues on his return, Eyal is given an unwelcome new assignment by his boss — to find and kill Alfred Himmelman, an aged Nazi and mass killer of Jews, who has been in hiding since the end of World War II.

When Eyal demurs that the Nazi is old and sick and will die shortly, his boss answers curtly, “I want to get him before God does.”

Himmelman’s blonde granddaughter, Pia, has rebelled against her background by living and working in a kibbutz, and is visited by her brother Axel, who wants to persuade her to return to Berlin for their father’s birthday party.

Hoping to learn the Nazi’s whereabouts, Eyal poses as a tourist guide and he and Axel embark on a trip from the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee. Though the young German declares himself an expert on circumcised penises across Europe, it takes Eyal an astonishingly long time to catch on that Axel is gay.

In one scene, a young Palestinian tells Eyal, “You Jews are so obsessed with the past — if you could just let go . . . “

The brief exchange reflects Fox’s own outlook. “The Holocaust has been so implanted in our souls that we feel constantly under siege and that the whole world is out to get us,” he said.

“We Israeli men feel that we have to be tough all the time, which blinds us to the pain we inflict on others and cripples us emotionally.”

Before the film ends, Eyal undergoes a soul-searching process in which he must re-examine his role in the Mossad and his prejudices against Germans, Palestinians and gays.

The film takes its title from Axel’s attempt to duplicate Jesus’ feat of walking on the Sea of Galilee, telling Eyal, “If you purify your heart, you can walk on water.”

Fox’s films, and those of other young Israeli directors, are often quite critical of their society, and it is to the country’s credit that such movies are not only accepted by the public, but actually are subsidized in large part by government funds.

If only Hollywood and the National Endowment for the Arts, in the powerful and secure United States, would show a similar level of moral courage.

The historical setting of “Watermarks” is a world away, in the waltz-loving Austria of the 1920s and ’30s, where the lithe young swimmers of the fabled Hakoah Vienna sports club beat their “Aryan” rival clubs year after year.

Freestyler Judith Deutsch alone breaks 12 national records in 1935 and is the toast of the town, until she refuses to compete for Austria at Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games. As punishment, she is barred from competition for life and all her scores are erased from the official record books.

After the Reich’s takeover of Austria in 1938, the swimmers scatter to Palestine, United States and England, marry and establish professional careers.

Some 65 years later, Israeli director Yaron Zilberman decided to track down eight of the swimmers, now in their 80s, in their adopted countries.

He persuaded them to return to Vienna for a reunion and one final lap, in custom-fitted suits, in the swimming pool of their glory days.

The reunion has its bittersweet remembrances, but few moviegoers are ever likely to encounter as feisty and fun-loving a bunch of octogenarians.

Both “Walk on Water” and “Watermarks” are scheduled to open in theaters throughout North America in the coming months.

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