Killing Me Softly
A Mossad assassin gets in touch with his inner mensch in Walk on Water
You can’t fault director Eytan Fox for lacking ambition. In this follow-up to his 2002 queer military love story/indie hit Yossi and Jagger, the director addresses the many blunt faces of machismo, the lingering aftereffects of the Holocaust, the beauty of kibbutz life, and the thrill of German gay club culture, all in an offhanded way that elegantly shifts between tragedy, thriller, and light farce. Although the U.S.-born Israeli doesn’t pull all of this together seamlessly—it’s probably impossible to do so—and some themes could use a bit more exploring than feature length possibly allows, it’s exhilarating to witness such a wide worldview unspool with such dedicated humanity.
Walk on Water opens in Istanbul with Mossad assassin Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi, a smoky-eyed smoulderer of the Goran Visnjic school) coolly terminating a man in full view of his family. By just following orders (irony fully intended) and keeping in perpetual motion, he avoids having to deal with a personal tragedy that’s turned him into a near automaton.
But his numb denial dissolves when given a new assignment: act as a tour guide for German neo-hippie Axel (Knut Berger), who’s visiting his kibbutz-settler sis Pia (Caroline Peters, lambently beautiful in the nontraditional way of an early-’20s Franka Potente). The reason: Their grandfather was a Nazi, but is now a near-vegetative relic leaving his American exile for one last visit with his family. The meaninglessness of this assignment will cause Eyal to question his superior’s wisdom; his relationship with the German youths will shatter every assumption he had about just about everything.
Eyal’s fall to grace begins with a sort of macho face-off, and the film’s most hilarious sustained sequence. The taciturn Israeli takes Axel to a Dead Sea beach, where he dick-swingingly strips for a swim. Afterward, the two naked men rub anti-burn goop on each other’s bodies. Axel notes that Eyal is circumcised, and then recites a nostalgic personal reverie on the penis shapes of Europe. At this point, it dawns on the now-adorably-slow Eyal that Axel is gay.
Worse, he really likes him—which leads Eyal to confronting the traditional Mossad culture of macho that’s keeping him in emotional stasis and, later, his hatred of Arabs via a confrontation with Axel’s sweet Palestinian boyfriend. Even worse, he’s falling for Pia, but is stuck having to jet off to Berlin to kill the grandfather she’s never met and whose Nazi past is unknown to her.
Fox creates an unobtrusively multi-POV style using simple but effective cinema syntax to ape novelistic style. Axel and Pia’s moments alone have a warm-toned, near-fuzzy look. When Eyal comes to Berlin, the color scheme turns blue-toned and chilly, the buildings looming ominously, effectively echoing Eyal’s fear—but not his belief—that he’s entering the heart of darkness. The scenes in Axel’s upper-class home are the film’s weakest, as they find Fox trying to pull a Jane Austen on upscale German mores while also attempting to portray every possible modern German’s relationship to the Holocaust.
Although not billed as such, music is a major player in the film, to the point that many scenes would barely make sense without Fox’s savvy tune choices. Eyal claims Bruce Springsteen as the “only real music,” but what he keeps playing isn’t the swagger of the E Street Band, but the near-pitiful heart wrench of Tunnel of Love-period Boss. Despite this dedication, the delirious abandon of house music almost pummels Eyal into a more open view, while the quirks of gender roles get playfully skewed by the Yiddish folk music, which Eyal despises for representing a too-fey Jewishness, and which gay Axel finds irresistible.
Fox does superlative work on a personal level, but stumbles with the overtly political. While a dramatically shifting recurring scene of Axel shooting at a gun range with an Alias-hot female Mossad agent works as sly gun-culture commentary, his otherwise all-dark view of Israeli-style intel is arguable and too coarse a political gesture amid such nuance. And it could be said that Eyal’s conversion to humanism, as well as Axel’s resolution with his family’s Nazi past, have a whiff of deus ex machina. Finally, Walk on Water’s basic assumption is perhaps a bit too hopeful in its belief that inside everyone is a mensch struggling to get out. Then again, perhaps more films should have such problems.