I was impressed with the 2004 Israeli film WALK ON WATER. What a wonderful, humanizing production concerning Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-German cultural and political tensions– factoring in the issues of homophobia and toxic masculinity as well.
Handsome Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi skillfully plays Eyal, a seemingly callous hit man for Mossad, Israel’s official security service. Having just successfully killed a representative of Hamas while in Istanbul, Turkey, Eyal returns home for briefing on his next assignment. At his residence, he finds his wife has killed herself. Ever the hardened stoic, he continues working without engaging in psychotherapy mandated by his superiors, though his immediate boss Menachem (Gideon Shemer) doesn’t press the issue. However, Eyal is reassigned a “less challenging” mission: to track down the whereabouts of a very elderly Nazi war criminal and kill him “before God does.” To do so, he must first befriend the two adult grandchildren of this man via posing as their tour guide. The granddaughter Pia (Caroline Peters) has moved to a kibbutz after distancing herself from her parents in Berlin. Axel (Knut Berger), her gay younger brother, visits his sister with the hopes of convincing her to return to Germany with him and celebrate their wealthy father’s seventieth birthday.
Shortly after making their acquaintance at the kibbutz, Eyal bugs Pia’s room and proceeds to spy on the siblings’ conversations. The story unfolds from there, whereby Eyal grows increasingly conflicted around having to befriend two German, non-Jewish liberals, with one of them being a gay man who soon spends time bonding with Rafik (Yousef ‘Joe’ Sweid), a gay Palestinian. Already isolated in his suppressed grief, the homophobic, Zionist-leaning Eyal is increasingly pushed out of his comfort zone. Steadily, his cool but tense exterior begins to crack. One night, he abruptly leaves a gay dance club Axel and Pia bring him to as part of their sight-seeing and taking in of local night life. Later, in an outdoor market stall, he bullies Rafik’s merchant father to accept a pittance on Axel’s purchase of a new coat. Both of these incidences occur after Eyal has spent much time touring the countryside with the two siblings, especially with the brother, who he takes for a mud bath by the Dead Sea. This ends with the two men showering naked together. Axel’s and Eyal’s intimate moments of long hours driving in the same car and getting a spa treatment in such a peaceful, remote setting facilitates much conversation about their respective lives and perspectives. They listen to CD’s, discussing what kinds of music they each like, touch upon differences (such as circumcision norms) in their cultures of origin, and wax political, including about the Holocaust. Much later, in Berlin, where Eyal is tasked to complete his mission, the assassin reconnects with Axel. Initially surprised, the young German warmly gives him a partial tour of the historic city before inviting Eyal to his parents’ villa. Hence, the seasoned spy successfully manipulates his way into this long-planned destination.
As Eyal begins to emotionally soften around the edges and grow more morally sophisticated, becoming less vengeance-oriented, we viewers start to witness a hard edge surfacing from the otherwise gentle and open-minded Axel. Their friendship by calculated design becomes genuine, as does Eyal’s connection with Pia, though this alliance is less focused on in the movie. However, actress Caroline Peters does an excellent job conveying her character’s attraction to Ashkenazi’s Eyal, such as how she begins to look at him. It gradually becomes evident that the protagonist is a complex, even caring person underneath his macho exterior, a persona constantly reinforced by frequent news of suicide terrorist attacks on Jewish civilians and ongoing sanctioned oppression of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.
The movie artfully walks a fine line of being a cat and mouse suspense drama while relaying an emotionally and morally compelling story about human relationships and the struggle to become a psychologically healthier, better person in the face of major demographic differences all around and personal life crises, particularly that of loss and grief. Kudos to skillful screenwriter Gal Uchovsky, nimble director Eytan Fox, and the excellent cast, each of whom were either Israeli, German, or Arab. Mostly English was spoken throughout, followed by Hebrew, German, and, briefly (if I remember correctly) some Arabic, respectively. Hearing such different languages spoken, depending on where the setting happened to be and who was speaking to who felt fascinating and a little humbling to me, a monolingual American.
At times, I was quite drawn into the film’s aesthetics, namely when Israel’s countryside appeared, particularly the few scenes along the Dead Sea. What a mystical-looking place. And the variety of diegetic music was interesting and often fun to listen to, from Israeli folk and pop tunes, to Club music, to some old-time (1960s through ’80s) American and European hit songs. I suspect I’ve missed a few other music genres that were represented in the movie. I would love to track down the soundtrack to WALK ON WATER if one was ever released.
This is a refreshingly international screenplay with only overt musical references to the U.S.A. and nothing else blatantly American. (Given the coronavirus pandemic’s ongoing effects, traveling abroad just by watching movies is where it’s at for me for a good while.) I often felt transported to somewhere else in the world and satisfied with the overall narrative, including its resolution. The production’s overall message is ultimately a life-affirming, cautiously hope-filled one. I recommend WALK ON WATER be viewed by anyone who is open to watching something that’s non-American, informally culturally and historically educational, emotionally and morally intriguing, and visually and musically interesting.