An Israeli Film Juggles High Moral Purpose and Comedy
It’s nice to see a filmmaker indulge his own obsessions as thoroughly as Eytan Fox does with his new film, “Walk on Water.” Fox’s last film, “Yossi & Jagger,” was a gay romance set in the Israeli military, and his new work cooks with the same ingredients, adding in Israeli-German relations and the ever-present specter of the Holocaust to spice up the broth.
“Walk on Water,” which opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 4, and around the country during the next month, is a three-way showdown, and something of a romance, as well, between Israeli Mossad agent Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi) and German siblings Axel (Knut Berger) and Pia Himmelman (Carolina Peters). Eyal is assigned the task of following Axel on his visit to Israel, and to the kibbutz where Pia lives, posing as a tour guide in the hopes of eliciting information about the siblings’ grandfather, a Nazi war criminal who might or might not still be alive. Axel, meanwhile, is visiting his sister in the hopes of convincing her to return to Berlin for their father’s upcoming 70th birthday party.
“Walk on Water” safely juggles high moral purpose and comedy, character study and analysis of national identity. The movie is set in an Israel of tourist sites and bus bombings and, as befits such a nation, the film is constantly shifting gears dramatically. As Eyal waits in the airport for Axel, news of a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv suburb leaks out, and controlled panic ensues among those waiting for friends and family. Soon enough, though, Eyal is on Pia’s kibbutz, hissing with dismay at her kibbutz director’s cheesy chitchat, and sickened to the depths of his Tel Aviv hipster’s soul by Axel and Pia’s unrestrained embrace of Israeli folk dancing.
The bulk of the movie is given over to a pas de deux between Eyal and Axel, whose covert flirtation, often followed by spasms of repulsion, gives “Walk on Water” its edge. Eyal, the macho tough guy so impervious to emotion that he kills a Hamas leader in front of his son, and who does not shed a tear when he discovers his wife’s dead body, finds himself drawn to the open, sensitive German tourist. He does not consciously admit that Axel is gay, despite the ever-increasing signs (CD collection of sensitive chanteuses, intimate knowledge of variations in European foreskins), in the same way that later in the film, when the action switches to Berlin, Axel does not acknowledge that Eyal is a Mossad agent: The desires encoded in such knowledge are too secret, too shameful and too antithetical to their personalities to admit.
In mingling all his variegated obsessions, Fox is on to something here; there is something profoundly similar about how Eyal and Axel interact as men, and how they interact as Israeli and German. Eyal is a homophobe, but he finds himself somewhat attracted to Axel. He is irritated by Axel’s “patronizing German peacenik” ways, but these, too, have their attractions. Axel is less conflicted about his sexuality, but the need for no-nonsense Israeli bluster becomes increasingly clear to him by the time the action switches to Berlin. “Walk on Water” deftly balances the many levels of action here so that when Axel goes off with Rafik, a Palestinian he has just met, Eyal is stung and angry both as a man and as an Israeli.
Ultimately, though, the film is about violence, and its uses. To what extent is violence necessary, a legitimate need of any self-protecting individual (or state), and at what point does it become pathological? “Walk on Water” dances around this question again and again, with the figure of Axel and Pia’s grandfather the Nazi, a constant reminder of the need for the former, and the dangers of the latter. There is a profound irony here, of course — that of the German and Jew meeting, once again, with the German advocating peace and good will, and the Jew as the hardheaded killer. “Walk on Water” uses the heavily freighted interactions between Eyal and Axel to ponder violence’s efficacy, and the conclusions it reaches are bound to be surprising. Neither belligerent nor pacifist, “Walk on Water” is a heartfelt examination of violence’s true face, and of its repercussions. Looking at the subject with a fresh eye, Fox captures the profound satisfaction of self-protection, but his camera also lingers over the victims, those who are abandoned and the weeping.
Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer in New York City.