Imitating One’s Enemies: Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water
Violence and Intimacy in Germany, Israel, and Palestine
“We have put up many flags,
they have put up many flags.
To make us think that they’re happy.
To make them think that we’re happy.”
—Yehuda Amichai, “Jerusalem,” Selected Poetry
Walk on Water, written by Gal Uchovsky and directed by Eytan Fox, is a film about an Israeli intelligence agent, a member of the Mossad who performs the duties of a detective and a professional killer (it’s fascinating to have American and Israeli films that take for granted that government employees, other than those in an army established for national defense, are hired and trained to kill: and yet, of course, denials arise usually when those people are actually charged with killing: culture contains more truth than politics). The film begins with the Mossad agent’s cool killing of a leader of Hamas, a militant Islamic group that fights Israeli control of Palestine, when the leader is on an outing with his family—there’s the lovely Istanbul coastline, the Hamas leader’s charming little boy, and the Mossad agent’s poison-filled syringe. The Mossad agent, Eyal, played by Lior Ashkenazi (Late Marriage), an actor I was not familiar with but I have learned that he is—quite understandably—a major star of television and film in Israel. (Several reviewers have compared him to the English actor Clive Owen. Lior Ashkenazi admires the actors Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and Edward Norton and the writer David Mamet, according to a February 2005 interview with JewCentral.com’s Sandy Chertok.) Lior Ashkenazi’s Mossad agent is a quick, effective bullet of a man, and he is assigned to act as a tour guide for a young German man, Axel Himmelman (Knut Berger), who is visiting his sister Pia (Carolina Peters) in an Israeli kibbutz. The German siblings’ grandfather was a Nazi believed to have escaped to Argentina, and the Mossad are trying to track him down to kill him. Whether the only justice for a murderer is his own death is an implicit question that becomes explicit. However, the film, which is inevitably political, is presented as more of a family drama and an action thriller than an overt political drama; and that presentation is part of why it’s so effective: it’s easy to relate to and it’s entertaining. Director Eytan Fox, who was born in New York, but moved to Israel as a child with his parents, studied television and film at Tel Aviv University and his previous film Yossi and Jagger won acclaim that surprised even him. Walk on Water presents a fascinating scenario in which to explore ideas (the film does not just have people talk about its themes—it provides story and action). The film works on more than one level at once. It is even comic, as the Mossad agent—hard, manly, smart, and cynical—finds the young Germans, Axel and Pia, sweetly naïve and silly: in seeing the difference between their sensibilities and that of the Mossad agent, the audience laughs.
The sister Pia is not pretty in a predictable way but she is one of the most charming women I’ve seen on screen in a long time: her charm comes from her openness to people and experience, from her hard-won morality and high-spirited friendliness. (When Eyal as tour guide brings Axel from the airport to the kibbutz to meet Pia, she takes off her head kerchief, and this seems something she does, instinctively, for Eyal. At the end of her brother’s trip, while saying goodbye to both of them, she puts her kerchief back on.) Pia works hard, and has had difficult times with her parents and an Israeli boyfriend, but her smile is constant. Her brother, at her parents’ request, wants her to return to Germany for her father’s birthday party. Pia’s character is never explained fully and so her behavior has a sense of normality, though this kind of goodness does not seem very normal to me—if normal means common. The relationship between Pia and her brother Axel has a warmth that is itself easy to embrace. Their childhood together give them the possibility of being children again even as adults (on stage they sing along with a song they liked as children, for her kibbutz friends). However, there were scenes in which the brother seemed a little too light on his feet for my taste—not merely fey but shallow (luckily, most of the time his thoughts and responses are alive, perceptive and perceptible).
When the two men, Axel and the Mossad agent acting as a tour guide, Eyal, are near the sea of Galilee, the young German walks on the edge of a log over and into the water and Eyal tells him that he can’t actually walk on water and Axel says that he thinks if someone is pure enough and practices enough he can walk on water, a childlike thought (Eyal smiles). At the end of the film, Eyal dreams that the two of them, as friends, walk on water. It’s a very poetic image, but I also thought it didn’t really fit the film—not the characters and not as a proper summation of what we see go on in the film: the Mossad agent may become happy but he will not ever be pure—and the young German has done something irreversible that cannot help but compromise his spiritual being. What I found myself wondering about is how a Jewish man (the Mossad officer) could be a killer: is it possible to take one’s religion seriously and to go about killing people? I would think the answer is no, but then I would be forgetting the wars fought on behalf of religion, including wars begun by Christians against Muslims, and undertaken between Protestants and Catholics. Several times a Mossad administrator says he wants to get to the still-living Nazi before his god does: isn’t that a clear usurpation of religious power? It is as if the Germans and the Jews exchanged personalities and ethics: the Jews are tough and the Germans sensitive. (Germany has given billions of dollars of military and humanitarian aid to Israel over the years.) The public image of a Jewish male is often that of someone who is predominately intellectual or emotional or sensual or professional or religious. The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai has a poem, “Like the Inner Wall of a House,” in which he compares the way he feels to a war-damaged house in which walls are exposed to the elements: although he claims that it no longer hurts and that he no longer loves, he says “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Now I understand/what it means to lift up the eyes, what a heavy burden/it is…” That has a spiritual aura, and it suggest something of what I mean; and, consequently, seeing a Jewish man who is aggressive and physical has a strong appeal, though moral questions arise. I am reminded that our ethics are rarely descriptions of what we are; and that, more often, they are proscriptions against what we might become—and they call us back after we have strayed, providing direction.
Walk on Water is a film that offers pleasure and insight, including the pleasure of insight, as it explores family, politics—the relationship between Germans and Israeli Jews, and the possibilities for friendship, love, and sex. Its characters are made believable by their moods and their thoughts, whether it is cheer or bitterness that they feel. What does the present owe the past, and how much must the personal yield to the political? How can honesty and hope coexist? The film’s embrace of complexity is refreshing, stimulating, and satisfying. Walk on Water offers images of Istanbul, Israel, and Germany that alone make the film worth seeing. More than seventy locations in Israel and Germany were filmed in less than a month. The film cost a little over half a million Euros but it looks as if it cost much, much more. It is panoramic and intimate. Walk on Water’s cinematography is by Tobias Hochstein. Commenting on the film on a web site devoted to its production and accessible March 2005 (Walk on Water), the film’s director of photography Tobias Hochstein stated that “when I saw the script of Walk on Water I realized it deserved an organic look. I wanted to capture believable angles and lighting in a similarly simplistic way without intervention, so sometimes instead of adding lighting, I built up contrast by subtracting it or by strategically placing a practical source and setting the action around it.” The film’s art directors were Avi Fahima and Christoph Merg, and its music is by Ivri Lider. Its editor was Yosef Grunfeld. Its look, its music, its mood, and its concerns create both realism and enchantment.
When the film introduces a gay tone—the Mossad tour guide, who has been in the army, and does not know the young German is homosexual, treats the young man with the casual camaraderie he’s used to sharing with men—and the two men, Eyal and Axel, sit on a beach half-nude in mudcake, swim, then shower naked together, and put out a fire by urinating on it, the homoerotic tone does not fit easily with the rest of the film. (The possibility of emotional intimacy between the men is more interesting than the possibility or presence of physical closeness. Axel’s sensitivity—and playing of the music of women singers—touches Eyal, gives him more access to his own feelings; and when Eyal messes up at target practice, Eyal mutters, Too many women singers.) It is hard not to feel as if the film, by suggesting erotic possibility between the two men, is servicing a queer fantasy of being near a handsome straight man. It may be unfair to complain in this case about the transformation of desire into aesthetics—into imagery and plot—as much of mainstream western film can be described as the transposition of heterosexual desire into aesthetics.
It is very understandable, however, that when in a Tel Aviv nightclub with Axel and Pia the Mossad agent Eyal sees Axel dance with and touch a Palestinian man Axel has befriended (Rafik, played by Yousef Sweid; and Rafik and Axel look very attractive together), Eyal becomes angry: Eyal extended an intimacy he considered ordinary to someone who might perceive him from a sexual perspective (that would be similar to a man treating a woman like a man—bathing and urinating in front of her though they are not sexually involved). That gives their time together a voyeuristic aspect that is cheapening: how could the young German not suspect that the other man would feel uncomfortable? (March 4, 2005, The San Francisco Chronicle’s Ruthe Stein, who called the film highly original, described Eyal as feeling an irrational betrayal. I think Eyal’s response seems irrational if one has remained distant from his character.) After Eyal has recovered, he asks Axel about his sexual practices—how easy it is to meet men, and what sexual role Axel prefers; and there’s a moment when Eyal seems abashed, shy, as if he can imagine too clearly what had been unimaginable. Oddly Axel has slept with a wide range of men but no German man. I wonder if his promiscuity is painless because he is socially and financially secure—he doesn’t need the resources that encourage the establishment of marriage or family. His (gay, white) sexual consumerism might be compared to the western appetite for appropriating the resources of others, not merely their fine goods or raw materials but their cultural objects and laboring power—the forms in which their energies can be found, including their bodies. It is as if Axel’s promiscuity is an extension of friendship and trust, or a lawless though benign lust, which does not extend to German men.
The Palestinian Rafik, who has spent the night with Axel, takes him to a relative’s stall, where Axel buys a coat. The ride to the market is punctuated by Eyal’s sharp comments about Palestinian-Jewish relations (Eyal recalls Palestinian soldiers who shot Israeli citizens near a border). The objection to the violent rebellion of Palestinians seems hypocritical when one thinks of the activities of militant Jewish or Zionist groups such as the Haganah, Irgun, and Stern gangs. These people killed Palestinian men, women, and children and terrified hundreds of thousands of people into leaving Palestine for the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. It was terrorism that made Israel possible as a modern Jewish state in 1948, as well as the guilt-ridden collusion of western powers such as Britain, France, and the United States, following centuries of western anti-Jewish feeling, thought, and practices and Hitler’s final solution. (It is almost impossible not to feel regret and even sorrow regarding past Jewish suffering; and it is nearly equally impossible not to want to stop current Palestinian suffering. There are now more than six million Palestinian refugees, according to The Palestine Chronicle Weekly Journal.) The objection to Palestinian violence seems less connected to law and morality than to psychology and politics—and the fear that it will be as effective as Zionist terrorism had been. Earlier in the film, after a Palestinian detonated a suicide bomb, Axel asks Eyal if he ever wonders about the motivation to do that; and Eyal says Palestinians are animals and do not need motivation (Eyal tells his supervisor that he wanted to slap Axel for the question). It would have been rewarding to know more about the Palestinians—about the Arabs who inhabited Palestine before the Israelis; and about the Canaanites and their descendants before them—but in Rafik we have someone who rarely appears in film: a Palestinian who is a city worker, is friendly, sexual, intelligent. (Sodomy is a crime in the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank, and young men suspected of homosexuality have been beaten and even killed by their families.) When Eyal thinks Axel is being charged too much for a coat by Rafik’s relative, Eyal rudely retrieves most of the money (Axel will send the balance from Germany). One might imagine someone commenting that this is an unusually blunt and self-directed tour guide, as they do not know that he is Mossad. Rafik makes a comment about Jews who obsessively remember their suffering—but Eyal doesn’t allow him to complete his statement. [“And we have little to tell/On this or any feast/Except of the terrible past,” wrote Adrienne Rich in “At the Jewish New Year,” a poem in which the American woman poet of Jewish ancestry also states, “Whatever we strain to forget,/Our memory must be long.”] The film’s director Eytan Fox was profiled in an article by Tom Tugend in The Jewish Journal, February 25, 2005; and Tugend quoted Fox as saying, “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. 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.”
“The Jews I’ve felt rooted among/are those who were turned to smoke,” wrote Adrienne Rich in a long poem, “Sources,” published in a book of the same name in 1983 by California’s Heyeck Press. In the poem, Adrienne Rich considers her own Jewish identity, as well as American, European, and middle east history, and she also wrote:
The persecuted, pale with anger
know how to persecute
those who feel destined, under god’s eye
need never ponder difference
and if they kill others for being who they are
or where they are
is this a law of history,
or simply, what must change?
After Axel returns home to Germany, Eyal follows, having learned that Axel and Pia’s grandfather, who had been a Nazi responsible for many Jewish deaths, is himself alive and not dead as Axel had thought.
Axel and Eyal walk through the door of Eyal’s family’s villa. The housekeeper says she hopes Eyal is taking care of the young man—this is not long after Eyal has defended the young man’s friends from an attack by thugs. Eyal says, Someone has to; and it is not clear whether he registers that the housekeeper assumes the two are lovers. The German parents of Axel and Pia—rich, self-involved, indifferent to larger issues (they refused to turn the grandfather in; and kept in touch with him during his exile)—are not presented as evil, but it’s easy (in this film; and against my own inclinations) to see people who insist on the personal as the ultimate defining standard as being immoral or, at best, amoral. That may indicate—strongly—that morality is situational.
Seeing Axel dressed up for his father’s birthday party, Eyal tells the young man that he looks German; and Axel says, Thank you. The son’s birthday surprise for his German father’s birthday is an Israeli folk dance—he shows the formally dressed crowd how to dance to a folk tune. That doesn’t seem foolish, but sweet. (I have seen the film twice, first the day after it opened; and then a week later—and at the first screening, no one laughed at that dancing scene, but at the second screening there was much laughter and that might be attributed to at least one prominent review that discussed what the writer perceived as an odd sight, a review the audience has had time to find and read. If so, this seems a time when criticism has encouraged a jaded response to art, since the people dance with care, pleasure, and sincerity: indicating that culture does not have to be limited to those thought to have produced it, especially as many of these folk dances are the products not of old Jewish culture but of early twentieth-century East European immigrants to Israel. There is another possibility for the laughter—regarding the Manhattan audience: the first screening I attended was at the Angelika near Soho, and the audience was primarily art-house and Jewish, and the second in a Chelsea cinema was primarily gay men and it may be that those men could not reconcile the stylistic differences they perceived. The film has been playing only in three Manhattan theaters—the third is on the upper west side, where the audience might be collegiate or educated and Jewish. The film—any good film—deserves more than tribal marketing and tribal responses, though the Angelika audience seemed wonderfully appreciative. The most serious critical impulse—to see, to understand, to judge, to praise—is gratified by the creation of works that give new characters and new stories and fresh interpretations of what has been taken for granted.)
Walk on Water is a journey to grief; and it is also a journey to love. Someone dies at the beginning of the film Walk on Water, and is not mourned until the film’s end. (She, Iris, is seen seated on the beach in a memory—was it a dream?—in which she looks beautiful: what a dull word that has become. With dark hair, an oval face, and pale, possibly lightly freckled skin, she is haunting. The woman, whose crying face is rhymed with that of the little boy whose father Eyal kills at the beginning of the film, is a lost ideal.) The man who loved her, a man seen as a bringer of death, is at the end of the film responsible for a birth.
Eyal seems a different man at the film’s conclusion, and while I did not like his deadly profession, I liked his sensibility, which was modern—aware, experienced, knowing: of the city and the world. Although Eyal had been limited in his partiality and dangerous in his insensitivity, his sensibility had a compelling force. Few characters and few people seem to embody knowledge of the world, and he did. Give me back my beast. Eyal makes a few dark (more like gray than dark) comments at the film’s end, but his context has changed and the impact is gone—and it’s obvious that part of his force came from his context, and that what he knew and was willing to do were part of the authenticity of his sensibility. (That may be where aesthetics elude ethics; and it becomes necessary to acknowledge the personal and social cost of the man’s power and then the cost of the loss of that power.) Eyal becomes a tamed beast.
The film has a few shortcomings or at least things that I question or do not like, some of which are more significant than others. When the Mossad agent has unknowingly recorded the sister’s admission to her brother that their grandfather is still alive, he is then assigned to go to Germany. He does not adequately explain to Axel why he’s there. Eyal says something about the difficult time he’d been going through—he can use his personal turmoil for his spy job, but refuses to express it in a personal or therapeutic situation; and he says that his tour-guide work has dried up and he took the plane to Germany partly to make up for his bad mood the last time he saw the German. (When he had seen Axel off at the Israeli airport, when invited to Germany, Eyal said he had no wish to go there.) An unemployed man might be expected not to take on new expenditures; or expected to be concerned about getting another job. Some of Axel’s friends in Germany are a gaggle of giggling, gruesome drag queens—and Axel and Eyal see them in a subway. I found the automatic extension of liberalism to them unpersuasive (many of us tend not to look favorably on emphatically silly, useless behavior, especially when it involves lewd or harassing commentary—so why accept them?). After Axel says something in defense of the character of the men, Eyal tells Axel not to patronize him and reminds Axel of a performer who became very popular in Israel. (I think that performer is Yaron Cohen, known as Dana International, who went from being a male transvestite to becoming a transsexual woman.) Eyal defends Axel’s friends from attackers. Was Eyal really concerned about these feminine men, or did he relish the opportunity to beat up Germans—or did he see himself as an international policeman, or all three? Eyal has arrived in Berlin—which he thinks is nicer than he expected (no horns on people? no Nazi rallies? attractive women observable?)—and he has arrived with the intelligence file he was given on Axel and Axel’s family, and Eyal leaves these photos and papers in the unlocked room he has been given in the family villa—and Axel finds the file. Would the intelligence agent be so careless? Would Axel, who seems decent, have gone through someone else’s luggage; and would he not feel betrayed by Eyal; and would he have such a negative—and impersonal—response to his own grandfather? The actor who played Axel, Knut Berger, has said that he had serious reservations about what his character does near the end of the film. Apparently, while some of the additions or changes the actors suggested were incorporated into the script, Berger’s request for a change here was rejected. Other than the fulfillment of genre expectations, the ending suggests that the Germans—not the Jews—must hold themselves responsible for the German past; and if anti-Semitism is a problem for Germans, Germans must diagnose and eliminate it. One person’s—or one group’s—suffering is not interchangeable with another’s, though there may be similarities; and though our pain might explain our cruelty it does not excuse it: and, sometimes, to remember constantly that pain is to make cruelty a surety: it may be better for the injured man to pursue joy rather than justice.
Walk on Water is “glossily commercial and brimming with intellectual ambition,” according to Ella Taylor in the print publication LA Weekly, in a review available online in early March 2005. She remarked on the film’s controversial issues, and its dramatization of the struggle between vengeance and forgiveness, and wrote that “its suggestion that Israel, of all nations, should know better than to persecute minorities within and across its borders, give the film a thrilling universal appeal.” In another online review available about the same time, Slant’s Ed Gonzalez described Pia as kooky and Axel as a flaming queen, and called the film sweetly allegorical but not complex; and he wrote that the film “is a gay-straight buddy comedy posing as a salve for strained German-Israeli relations.” While Newsday’s Jan Stuart, despite taking issue with the film’s genre devices, found that director Eytan Fox utilized “the gift for humor and engaging characterization that he employed in Yossi and Jagger,” Sheri Linden described the film as well-meaning but implausible, and claimed that the characters remained schematic, in The Hollywood Reporter (both reviews appeared March 4, 2005). “Though it is marred by an implausible climax and a cloying conclusion, this movie’s quiet intelligence sneaks up on you, marking the director as a talent to watch,” wrote Dana Stevens, of The New York Times (published also March 4, the day of the film’s opening in the United States).
The existence of this film—intimate and social; speculative and truthful—says something very good about Israel: some countries cannot tolerate this kind of evaluation. (I first saw the film on a Saturday night, and on the following Sunday morning I read a piece on the censorious conservatism of Egyptian cinema.) The film is expected to be distributed to about thirty countries around the world. Walk on Water is also inspiring in that it’s clear that the filmmaker loves and respects his country, though he makes no pronouncements to that effect—and gives us evidence in the short-tempered, unforgiving Israeli intelligence agent (and his equally murderous colleagues) to allow us to condemn the country if we want to. The beauty of the land, the complexity of the history, the importance of the ideas presented in the film, as well as the fascination of its drama, make condemnation less easy. Seeing the film reminded me of how little I know about Palestine and Israel, despite having had Jewish friends, despite the newspaper accounts and handful of books I have read on the middle east. It is chastening to think that American citizens can approve—or disapprove—of their government’s policies on Israel and Palestine based on so little knowledge of history and current events. The film encourages its viewer to find out more about the past, and to be more imaginative and intelligent about the present and the future.
Experience shapes culture: and there are cultures of pain, of poverty, of rage, of regret. If one has suffered greatly, one does not simply survive—one survives changed; and to pretend that one has been only made stronger—and has not become damaged in some way—is dishonest, and if one does not face the damage, one is likely to replicate it. Can a person, or a people, move beyond an established cultural view and embrace more liberating, more sensitive, more thoughtful values; and put those values into practice? If we are defined by one trait or cultural form that leaves out all our other elements and possibilities, does it matter if that narrow definition is perceived by us or others as positive or negative? Such a definition limits our humanity, limits understanding. How can we learn to recognize human impulses in people whose appearances, personalities, habits, and values are different from our own? All human recognition—all understanding—does not lead to acceptance (and I do not think it could), but it’s not necessary to destroy what we do not accept. One of the final images in Walk on Water is of two very different men who have been able to know each other against great but common odds; and the film suggests they have attained a purity—but that purity is only—and can be only—a dream: our work, and our promise, is not to be pure but to be human and good. There is no chosen people and there is no chosen place, as there is no god: god has never been more than a metaphor for energy, nature, spirit, morality, a metaphor given personality and authority by human need and human hope.
Amichai, Yehuda. The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996.
Rich, Adrienne. The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001. Norton, New York, 2002.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, founded the Cultural Politics Discussion Group (1989-1993), and participated in House of Poets (1985), the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Writing Workshop (1988), and the East Village Writers Workshop (1997). Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, IdentityTheory.com, PopMatters.com, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, TechnologyReports.net, 24FramesPerSecond.com, and World Literature Today.