Screens A Nazi hunter finds himself

'Walk on Water' probes the root causes of the modern Israeli psyche

Lior Ashkenazi and Knut Berger play the descendants of Holocaust perpetrators and victims who are trying to escape the weight of history in modern Israel.

Berger (left) and his sister, portrayed by Carolina Peters, are the grandchildren of a Nazi war criminal who Ashkenazi's Eyal befriends to find the old man.

When Eyal (Ashkenazi), a crack Mossad assassin, returns to Israel from a lethal mission in Istanbul, he finds his wife dead in their apartment. "You kill everything that comes near you," reads the suicide note. Because of defective tear ducts, Eyal is incapable of crying. Walk on Water portrays the liquefaction of a sabra, the cactus pear that is the prototype of the native Israeli, prickly on the outside but soft within.

After the trauma of his wife's death, Eyal refuses to see a Mossad psychologist. And, considering it a distraction from crucial work, he resists his next assignment: to track down Alfred Himmelman, a Nazi murderer who fled to Argentina after the war. "No one gives a damn anymore," complains Eyal, who would rather be fighting current battles than chasing after a doddering old fossil who committed his atrocities 60 years ago. "I want to get him before God does," insists Eyal's boss, who orders his agent to go undercover.

Tormented by dark family secrets, Himmelman's grandaughter, Pia (Peters), has abandoned Germany and moved to an Israeli kibbutz. When her brother, Axel (Berger), comes to visit, Eyal, posing as a tour guide, ingratiates himself with the two young Himmelmans in hopes of prying information about their grandfather.

Walk on Water uses the structure of a political thriller as a pretext for a study in national memory and identity. The dialogue mixes Hebrew, German, English, and Arabic, as befits the characters and situations. As Eyal drives Axel around Israel, to Jerusalem, Galilee, the Dead Sea, and Tel-Aviv, the film becomes a kind of buddy drama of the open road, except that in tiny Israel the end of the road - and the illusion of freedom - is always near. Axel and Eyal - German and Israeli - bond, even after Axel reveals that he is gay and even after Eyal learns that the European visitor's grandfather is alive and unrepentant. Set against the backdrop of daily suicide bombings, the journey through Israel takes on the character of an inquest into the soul of the Jewish state. "You Jews are always obsessed with what happened to you in the past," a Palestinian says to Eyal in the Old City of Jerusalem. Yet, amid a landscape that is a cluttered palimpsest of eras and cultures, the past is never past.

Eyal drives Axel to an icon of the Biblical past, the Sea of Galilee, where, imitating Jesus, Axel plays at walking on water. If he could pull it off, it would be as miraculous as bringing peace to the Middle East. Ultimately, Walk on Water is a miracle play, a sentimental fantasy about an end to enmity and violence, a world without anti-Semitism, homophobia, repression, and oppression. In service to a vision, the plot takes several implausible twists before a tough man puts down his gun and becomes a fawning papa. But perhaps it is better to pretend to walk on water than continue trying to skate on thin ice.

A conversation with Eytan Fox

Eytan Fox

"I love Israel deeply," insists Eytan Fox, who was born in New York but grew up in Jerusalem. "The criticism I have is from a loving place."

Fox speaks by phone from Washington, D.C., where the Aspen Institute has organized a symposium centered on Walk on Water. "Films can create dialogues between people," says the director, who dreams of showing his work to Palestinian audiences.

Six years in the making, Walk on Water had its origins in a true story that Fox's psychologist told him, about a Mossad agent who fell in love with another man after his wife committed suicide. The syndrome of the sabra has, Fox says, been a psychological burden on young Israeli men. He faults the warrior mentality, derived from the trauma of the Holocaust, for many of his country's current woes. "We have to find ways of putting our guns down. We are not the victim anymore. We have to find ways of overcoming our fear." Fox also notes changing definitions of masculinity: "There are many ways to be a man. You can cry, express emotion, things that were not in our lexicon when I was growing up in Israel."

Walk on Water

Dir. Eytan Fox; writ. Gal Uchovsky; feat. Lior Ashkenazi, Knut Berger, Carolina Peters, Gidon Shemer, Carola Regnier, Hanns Zischler (unrated)
Walk on Water is handsomely designed and photographed. But budgetary limitations forced Fox to switch the film's opening scene from Paris to Istanbul. However, Muslim Turkey proved appropriate, along with Israel and Germany, to the theme of Jewish reconciliation with current and former antagonists. Fox's next film, The Bubble, will be set in Tel-Aviv, but it might as well be Paris, London, or New York for the group of cosmopolitan young professionals who are its subject. When a Palestinian enters their circle, they are yanked back into the here and now.

While Fox was shooting Walk on Water in Berlin, his mother, Sarah Kaminker, a leftist city planner, died. Proud of her activism in promoting empathy between Jews and Arabs, the director dedicated the finished work to her. "She used to invite Palestinians to share shabbat dinner," Fox recalls of a spirited woman who created the kind of dialogue he hopes his own film might provoke.

- Steven G. Kellman