Road Rules: Israel

A Nazi hunter finds tangled emotions in Walk on Water

Apr 27, 2005 at 4:00 am
Most contemporary thrillers aren't concerned with moral dilemmas; the emphasis is on action and intrigue. The Israeli film Walk on Water -- which, conveniently for American audiences, is primarily in English (the rest is in Hebrew and German, with English subtitles) -- not only raises questions about right and wrong, but also addresses issues of intolerance, bigotry, forgiveness and identity that will resonate with all sorts of viewers. In other words, you don't have to be Jewish -- or German, Israeli, male, female, gay or straight -- to relate.

Directed by Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger), the film opens with an assassination. Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi), a steely Mossad agent with a hard outer shell and an even more rigid, callous interior, kills a suspected Palestinian terrorist in front of the man's wife and young son. Not even the boy's tear-stained face moves him. So divorced is Eyal from his own emotions that when his wife commits suicide, he can not bring himself to weep.

Eyal's new assignment is to track down and "terminate" Alfred Himmelman, a former Nazi war criminal who has never been brought to justice. He protests, arguing that it's a waste of time. Born a generation after the end of World War II, he doesn't understand why some Israelis are still so consumed with the Holocaust.

In order to discover Himmelman's whereabouts, Eyal is ordered to befriend the old man's grandchildren. Pia (Carolina Peters) left Germany several years ago and now lives on an Israeli kibbutz. Her younger brother Axel (Knut Berger) is coming for a visit, and Eyal poses as a tour guide assigned to show him around the country.

At first surly and unsociable toward the pair, Eyal discovers that both Pia and Axel are extraordinarily kind, knowledgeable and fair-minded people. Perhaps his greatest shock -- and discomfort -- comes when he learns that tall, strapping Axel is gay. Refusing to mask his disgust but unable to abandon his mission, Eyal is forced to interact with Axel on a daily basis. Slowly, almost against his will, he finds his assumptions about people -- be they Germans, gays or Palestinians -- being called into question.

Just when Eyal thinks he can wash his hands of the two, he discovers that Alfred Himmelman is very much alive and may be coming out of hiding in order to attend his son's -- Pia and Axel's father's -- birthday party in Germany. Mossad orders Eyal to Germany, where he is forced to accept Axel's hospitality while plotting to assassinate the young man's grandfather.

Walk on Water explores a wealth of issues and conflicting ideologies -- those that separate people and those that reside within a single individual. Certain prejudices, such as Eyal's homophobia, are obvious. Others reveal themselves more slowly: Eyal's growing awareness of how his society's emphasis on being tough has stunted his own emotional development, and how Israel's fear of being victimized again has blinded its citizens to their own mistreatment of the Palestinian people.

Even more daunting are the choices that Pia -- and, later, Axel -- must face concerning their family history. Questions of loyalty, betrayal, self-respect, social responsibility and forgiveness are not easy to reconcile.

But then, director Fox doesn't want them to be. All of his characters are complex and all must live with painful truths, not only about themselves but about their families and homelands.

Much of the credit for the film's success must go to the three lead actors, all of whom give nuanced and convincing performances. Pia is relaxed and smiles easily, but there is a depth to her eyes that suggests a deep-seated sadness and great strength of character. Axel exudes both masculinity and gentleness; the audience doesn't know he's gay until a scene at a gay bar. The chemistry between brother and sister is also totally believable.

Ashkenazi is perhaps the biggest surprise. At the beginning of the film, he seems to have very little depth (as if perhaps he had been hired strictly for his good looks), until one realizes that he's playing a man completely tuned out to his own sense of unease. Impatient, emotionally remote, physically stiff, he is uncomfortable in his own skin. Whenever he's on screen, he makes the viewer uneasy, as if he'll suddenly explode.

His exposure to Pia and Axel, who do not fit into the boxes he has assigned them, confuses him. He is too smart, however, not to recognize that his conceptions are being challenged, and the ensuing internal struggle is clear.

The film itself ends on a challenging note -- then tacks on a second ending, a sop to those who demand unequivocal happiness. It's the one thing about Walk on Water that doesn't feel real.