Big issues displayed on the big screen

Published in the Jewish Chronicle July 8 2005

If you?re looking for glad tidings from Israel, here?s a tip: look beyond the news pages.

A glance at the sports section will tell you that Israel?s football team is, for the first time since 1970, in with a serious chance of qualifying for a place in next year?s World Cup finals. The science pages will lift your day with Israeli success stories, the latest centring on a new treatment for Parkinson?s disease. And a look at the culture supplements will bring some truly unexpected news.

A film, ?Walk on Water,? is getting rave reviews and is on course to be the most successful Israeli film ever, winning audiences in America and across the world.

It?s styled as a thriller, following a Mossad agent on the trail of an aged Nazi war criminal. But it?s better than that sounds. To find the villain, our hero must get close to the Nazi?s grandson, a sandal-wearing, bleeding-heart, young German called Axel, visiting his equally muesli-munching sister on the kibbutz which she has now made her home.

It?s a neat way into a perennial Israeli theme: how the Jewish state deals with the Holocaust and with the nation that perpetrated it.

?Walk on Water? admits that the issue is an old one. Eyal the assassin regards his assignment as a pointless di-version: who cares about old men from so long ago? (In-deed, this is surely the last movie that will be able to rely on the menace of a surviving Nazi: the war criminal in this story is 90 years old. A genre that reached its zenith with ?The Odessa File? will no longer exist except as period drama.)

And yet, to see this film is to realise the question will hardly disappear. One Israeli colleague told me he found the central relationship between Eyal and Axel highly be-lievable since, in his experience, young Israelis and Ger-mans often became friends. ?They have so much in common,? he said, from compulsory military service to a painful past that neither society can escape.

The movie addresses those issues but with a deft touch. In a tiny but rather brilliant moment, Eyal shows his passport to an immigration official at Berlin airport. The trained killer suddenly looks small and fearful: he is a Jew presenting his papers to a German.

More difficult to take is the scene in which Eyal humiliates an Arab trader in the Jerusalem souk, as his German charges look on. In that brief exchange, one of the thorniest aspects of the Israeli psyche is laid bare. No sloganising about victims of the Nazis turning into persecutors of the Arabs but, rather, an understanding of the collective Jewish need to feel strong having once been so weak.

And yet all this is only half the film?s concern. It is also a witty essay on the machismo of Israeli society. Eyal is the quintessential Israeli hard man, down to the defective tear ducts which leave him unable to cry ?even if I wanted to.? Yet he has to open up to Axel, to soften him, if his mission is to succeed. Eyal can?t decide which is tougher ? for a Jew to befriend a German or a straight man to befriend a ?homo.?

These double stories are played out in Istanbul, in Berlin but mainly in Israel ? and not the Israel you see on the TV news. We get a glimpse of the cheder ochel, the communal dining room of a kibbutz; we witness an excruciating kibbutz talent show; and see an evening session of rikudei am, Israeli folk dancing, in which the young German volunteers are the most enthusiastic participants ? a scene I can vouch for, having witnessed versions of it with my own eyes.

We see a trip to the Dead Sea, our protagonists caked in black mud; a night-time bonfire, complete with an im-provised brew of nettle tea; and a Tel Aviv gay nightclub. We hear Israeli radio, playing only sad songs after a suicide bombing. We learn that you can?t get a signal on your mobile phone after a terror attack: the lines are jam-med with people calling to make sure loved ones are safe.

Those who know Israel well will recognise such details. But for most cinemagoers, this will be an introduction to a place only ever glimpsed in minute-long news despatches, filled with images of tanks and politicians. Perhaps for the first time, they will see Israel as it looks on the inside.

Raging in our community just now ? as so often in the past ? is a debate about how best to win the public relations battle for Israel. Some suggest a hard-hitting advertising campaign, complete with posters and full-page ads in the papers. Others prefer high-level diplomacy, quietly lobbying journalists and decision-makers. Still others keep writing outraged letters to the editor.

But ?Walk on Water? suggests another approach. A few years ago, the New Israel Fund hit on the inspired idea of screening a few, translated episodes of the latest Israeli TV smash. It was called ?Florentene, a tale of Tel Aviv twentysomethings? ? a Hebrew ?This Life.?

Those few hours of drama gave a fuller, richer picture of Israel than any number of lectures, seminars and de-bates. And who created ?Florentene?? None other than Eytan Fox, the director of ?Walk on Water.?

It worked then and it could work now. So if you want to do your bit for Israel, there may be a painless way to start. Go and see this movie ? and then tell your friends.