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Teutonic Plague

"Walk on Water" looks at the grandchildren of hatred.


When Eyal discovers, with something like revulsion, that he's growing quite fond of these young, free-spirited Teutons, his notions of national and racial loyalty start to crumble. Born in New York and raised in Israel, the talented Fox is energized by the thought that the heart can make an end run around even ancient prejudice. It's an appealing idea, but a dangerous one for a filmmaker. It can tempt him to brush aside obstacles to happiness with little regard for probability or reality. In spite of the care Fox takes in establishing the conflicts that beset his characters, he ends up giving in to the temptation, brandishing love as if it were a Get Out of Jail Free card.

We are immediately pulled into the film with a startling example of Eyal's murderous efficiency as an intelligence operative. There's no mistaking what keeps him motivated: News reports of Palestinian suicide bombings recur through the film like a grim reprise. The son of German Jews who fled the Nazis, Eyal has cultivated a tough, even thuggish indifference to any emotion that stands between him and the defense of his embattled nation. When asked if he's ever thought about the desperation that drives Palestinians to blow themselves up, he snaps back, "What's to think? They're enemies."

When his marriage ends in tragedy, he's eager for a new assignment, a fresh target. He's furious when he's ordered to dig up information on a decrepit Nazi, despite the opportunity for vengeful bloodshed. "I want to get him before God does," sneers his wily superior (Gideon Shemer). For Eyal, this is just a caper, a sideshow, and deeply unglamorous.

The Germans, both in their 20s, defy all his expectations. As played by the appealing and attractive Carolina Peters and Knut Berger, the grandchildren of the Nazi executioner are the engaging embodiment of a new Europe — hip, emotionally open and in love with American music (as Eyal is). The woman lives on a kibbutz. As Eyal watches the pair enthusiastically learn the steps of a Jewish folk dance, he's clearly wondering how these can be the progeny of SS fanatics. And although he's supposed to be a spy, he's remarkably slow to pick up on the fact that the brother is gay, in spite of the latter's penchant for karaoke and expertise on the rates of circumcision in all the nations of Europe.

Welding homophobia onto the matter of racial hatreds, old and new, is a canny move by Fox, opening up a rich territory still ripe for dramatic exploration. It throws a monkey wrench into the predictable narrative machinery and sets another stumbling block in the path of characters desperate to uphold bigoted simplifications of the world. Fox adopts a directorial style well suited to this enterprise; although the film is hardly lacking in plot, he allows the material to unfold in an ambling, almost offhand manner, dropping hints of coming revelations into the corners of scenes, where they slowly gather power and resonance.

In the third act, however, his finesse deserts him. The action shifts to Berlin, to a confrontation with the parents concealing the whereabouts of the fugitive grandfather. At this point, Fox is so intent on moral absolutes and definitive resolutions that he prods the action into implausible directions. Characters move from willful blindness and noble posturing with a punctuality that makes the sumptuous melodrama of "Casablanca" look like a study in psychological complexity.

In spite of the string of false notes struck at the close, "Walk on Water" leaves you with much to admire and to ponder, including a trio of fine performances and the potential of Fox to become an interesting director, if he acquires the strength to abandon his longing for miraculous escapes from the perplexities he charts with such vigor. (NR) *** S

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