I first saw the Israeli film “Walk on Water” on a rainy weekend afternoon back in May of 2005, at the Avon, on Thayer Street in Providence. I left the theater somewhat confused, but exhilarated; the movie presented too much to be absorbed at a single sitting.
Much to my delight, the film turned up at the now-defunct Cable Car Cinema a couple of weeks later, offering me a second chance to explore its layered complexity of plot, character development and multiple themes.
What is the movie about? On one level it is about the personal transformation of Eyal, an Israeli Mossad intelligence agent and assassin who is trying to put the pieces of his shattered life back together after his wife’s suicide.
His redemption comes about as a result of his relationship with a German brother and sister, Axel and Pia. Pia has exiled herself from her parents in Berlin and is living a simple life working in the fishponds of a kibbutz. Axel has come to Israel in hope of persuading Pia to return to Germany for their father’s 60th birthday.
Meanwhile, Eyal’s superior has assigned him the task of posing as a tour guide to find out from Axel and Pia if their Nazi grandfather is still alive and has in fact returned to Berlin from Argentina.
On another level, “Walk on Water” is about almost everything: the ongoing struggle between Palestinians and Israelis; intergenerational conflict; the question of how young Israelis, still living in the shadow of the Holocaust, ought to relate to Germans of their own age, who were not even alive during Nazi rule; the need to remember versus the need to forget.
Add to this potent brew the tangled issues of sexual identity, the power of guilt, the power of forgiveness, our need to hate, and our need to love, and you have a richly textured and deeply satisfying film.
On still another level, “Walk on Water” is about how language both reveals and conceals. The movie is shot in Turkey, Israel and Berlin, and is spoken in three languages – English, Hebrew and German – with a smattering of Arabic as well. The Hebrew and German dialogue have English subtitles.
When they are together, Eyal, Axel and Pia speak English to each other as their common language. Axel speaks no Hebrew at all, and Pia’s Hebrew is still rudimentary; thus, she has placed a sign with MIKARER written in bold Hebrew letters on her refrigerator to remind her of the Hebrew word for it.
Presumably, Eyal doesn’t know any German. Ah, but here’s the rub! Eyal’s mother is a German Holocaust survivor, and as a result he is fluent in German.
After hiding a bug in Pia’s cramped living quarters, Eyal is able to eavesdrop on her private conversations in German with her brother.
Nothing is as it appears to the brother and sister: the privacy and safety of conversing in Pia’s room in their native tongue is an illusion; German is not a foreign language to their Hebrew-speaking tour guide; and their tour guide is in fact an agent of Mossad.
“Walk on Water” forces the viewer to navigate the confusing and elusive path that wanders between appearance and reality. Though Eyal is the one character who is fluent in all three languages, he uses them to deceive as well as to illuminate.
To a large degree, Eyal’s recovery of his own humanity rests upon his decision to renounce the language of deception and concealment, and to embrace a language of truth. This enables him to be fully present to Axel and to Pia, and – perhaps for the first time – fully present to his own self.
Though almost 17 years have passed since my review of “Walk on Water” appeared in the Barrington Times, the film has continued to haunt me – especially one particular scene, set just outside of Berlin in the elegant home of Axel’s and Mia’s parents: the prodigal son – naively, maliciously, or both – manages to infuriate his father at his 60th birthday celebration by insisting on teaching the assembled guests an Israeli circle dance to the languid tune of a contemporary Hebrew song, “Erev Ba” (“Evening Comes”).
For reasons I cannot yet fathom, I felt compelled to watch “Walk on Water” (on a Netflix DVD) for a third time just a few days before Vladimir Putin’s savage invasion of Ukraine.
How much the world has reshaped itself during the past 17 years. Today between 10,000 and 12,000 Jewish Israelis have chosen to make their homes in Berlin. Today the face of Hitler has been followed by the cruel and evil face of Putin. Today, the hero of our fractured world is a 44-year-old secular Jew, Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, who, some would say, walks on water.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.