The Spy Who (Almost) Shagged Me: Eytan Fox’s “Walk on Water”
by Michael Koresky, with responses from Jeff Reichert and Jeannette Catsoulis
New York-born, Israeli-raised director Eytan Fox isn’t as interested in truly subverting set codes of masculinity as much as gently prodding and tweaking them. Whether or not this will prove his undoing in the long run remains to be seen; his fascination with the homoerotic undercurrents within contemporary Israeli sociopolitical custom produces hugely worthwhile movies, if not fully realized narratives. “Yossi and Jagger”‘s minimal plotting and truncated running time somewhat justified its crummy DV aesthetic, and the lead performances of the two soldiers in love were more than engaging, yet the terseness and brevity granted it the feel of an “issue film” rather than a completed character piece. At least judging from what’s been released of Fox’s oeuvre in the U.S., “Walk on Water” seems to represent a large step forward for the director’s storytelling skills; it’s a remarkably fluid and gently compelling crime thriller, less urgently political than interested in delving into classical themes and genre motivations. If the film’s social commentary at times seems derivative and more than a tad schematic, the heartfelt melodramatics that Fox trafficks in allow for a certain tonal gravity.
“Walk on Water”‘s agenda is to set up a series of binaries and then attempt to collapse them into one another: Israeli/Arab, Jewish/German, straight/gay. Fox’s ultimately optimistic and rather chivalrous cinematic nature lends itself wonderfully to the conventions of the spy-thriller genre. The dashing Lior Ashkenazi portrays Mossad agent Eyal, introduced here taking down a Hamas leader with one quick flick of the (hypodermic-clutching) wrist; his next mission is to ingratiate himself with the grandchildren of nearly-expired Nazi war criminal Alfred Himmelman by posing as a tour guide in Tel Aviv. Ashkenazi’s scrupulously conflicted brow, put to such devastating use as “Late Marriage”‘s desperately contained Zaza, here projects a similarly frustrated masculinity, though one slightly more telegraphed by Gal Uchovsky’s script. (Early on, when he finds his wife dead, Eyal can barely bring himself to cry; you see, he was born with dry tear ducts.) Eyal soon finds his assumptions about national and sexual boundaries put to the test when he forms a surprising emotional attachment to his unwitting subjects, Axel Himmelman (“patronizing German peacenik,” Eyal initally grunts) and his charming sister, Pia.
With rote political commentaries dispersed throughout the numerous fish-out-of-water scenarios that ensue — “Don’t you ever think about their families?” Axel asks Eyal about the Palestinean suicide bombers that make the daily headlines in Tel Aviv; “There’s nothing to think about; they’re animals,” responds Eyal — it’s up to the actors to freshen things up, and they’re more than capable. Nicely offsetting Ashkenazi’s swarthy stoicism, Knut Berger’s fair-skinned Axel is all wide-eyed grins and Teutonic hedonism. Waiting for that first gay smooch eventually moves from a flirt to a tease to a resigned sigh: naturally, the openly gay Axel is here to loosen up the homophobic Eyal; it’s “Queer Eye for the Mossad Guy,” only rather than teaching Eyal how to pick out which pocket-square will match his blazer, Axel needs to help him out with something a little grander: by accepting intergenerational responsibility for his grandfather’s war crimes and therefore freeing Eyal from the clutches of Jewish vs. German history — one of the film’s more daring conceits.
Generous, if simple, “Walk on Water” appealingly contemplates whether all these historical gaps and age-old vendettas can be resolved on the individal level. Eyal’s final emotional release, reflecting the lack of closure that his counterterrorist actions have granted him, seems a genuine statement of personal longing, the political disintegrating into the helplessness of everyday life. As in “Yossi and Jagger,” all that ultimately matters to each of us is love; yet so easily can passion be co-opted into militaristic and political violence. Fox may be quite blatantly trying to appeal to a wide niche audience, as a film such as this one surely will eke out a small fortune in certain markets, but his messages are true and lucid. His finest moment comes when a young, gay Arab man whom Axel picks up one night at a club confronts Eyal and tells him that “You Jews are so obsessed with what was done with you in the past. Maybe if you’d let go…” Eyal abruptly cuts him off; Fox’s film embodies both points of view, and bears witness to the ridiculousness and truth of the statement, the impossibility of getting beyond the past but the acknowledgement of its necessity. Through this brief exchange, Fox’s plurality of voices finds some sort of common ground: both men end the scene with a barely perceptible, sly smile.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]
By Jeff Reichert
Though it might seem a backhanded compliment to call a rather serious-minded film from Israel a “guilty pleasure” when Hollywood churns out at least two or three choice tidbits a week (yeah, I saw “Constantine” opening weekend), I can’t think of a more appropriate way to describe the experience of watching Eytan Fox’s “Walk on Water.” Fox definitely seemed thoroughly concerned with my pleasure, what with the greatest hits tour of Israeli sightseeing hotspots following a trio of attractive characters (who speak to each other in attractively accented English) plugged into a James Bond Jr. narrative that’s easily backgrounded in favor of smoldering glances exchanged among the aforementioned triangle. Even the moments of quiet reflection on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the German Holocaust legacy feel calculatedly implanted to remind one that the film is really more than just a waiting game to see if its two lead hunks eventually do the deed. The whole thing reminds me a bit of Truffaut‘s “Jules et Jim” which I’ve seen convincingly argued as a gay love story unable to reconcile with itself, hence intrusions like Jeanne Moreau‘s Catherine, the WWI interlude, and the lapses in narrative time. “Walk on Water” is a little more upfront and sly about its homo-hetero collisions but no less coy in its resolution.
Still, even for wearing an eager to please badge on its sleeve, “Walk on Water” manages to do just that. The moment Israeli undercover Mossad agent Eyal (Lior Ashkenazal) steps foots in Berlin, a new seriousness sets in — the look our dark, Jewish hero exchanges with a blonde, German customs agent, brings the weight of the underlying history crashing to the fore and Fox manages to sustain the gravitas up until the film’s final moments, creating a fascinating dichotomy with his Israeli adventure tours first segment. Covertly personal Holocaust-memory diary or the great will-they-or-won’t-they Israeli-German espionage love thriller of the year? The choice is yours.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures and co-director of the Providence French Film Festival.]
By Jeanette Catsoulis
No one can accuse Israeli director Eytan Fox of lack of ambition: “Walk on Water,” like 2002’s “Yossi & Jagger,” attempts to backlight the psychological cost of racial hatred with soap-opera melodramatics and a remarkable use of music. Superficially the forced march toward tolerance of Eyal (“Late Marriage”‘s Lior Ashkenazi), a racist, homophobic Mossad assassin, the film is fundamentally concerned with German guilt and the generational contamination of ethnic warfare. As Eyal targets a terminally ill Nazi war criminal by befriending his troubled grandchildren, the siblings’ flight from their past manifests as an emotional rejection of their own race. Pia (Caroline Peters) attempts assimilation with Israelis by living on a kibbutz and ignoring her parents, while homosexual Axel (Knut Berger), excludes only other Germans from his active sex life. (Axel’s professed ignorance of his grandfather’s crimes is both a subtle prod at the whole question of deniability and a comment on the insidiousness of family secrets.)
Despite some unfortunate subtitling — a celebratory toast of “L’chaim!” following the successful killing of a Hamas operative is leeched of all irony by the “Cheers!” stamped on the bottom of the screen — “Walk on Water” is pleasantly unpredictable and unafraid to distribute blame wherever it sees fit. As Eyal and Axel share anatomical knowledge and musical preferences (much of the film’s emotional weight rests on its marvelous soundtrack), the filmmakers experiment with several different tones, settling only tentatively on one; but their insistence that even the worst of us can change — or simply develop a conscience — is a welcome one.
[Jeannette Catsoulis, a freelance film writer based in Washington, DC, is a contributor to Reverse Shot who has also written for the Independent, DC One Magazine, and a number of independent weeklies.]