Israel’s Eytan Fox’s new release explores how to love a man during perpetual wartime
The story does not end there. The agent’s supervisors forced him to go into therapy before they’d allow him back in the field, and in the course of the treatment he went through a dramatic transformation. He decided to leave the Mossad and go back to college, where he immersed himself in literature, philosophy and art history. In one of his classes he met a younger man, fell in love and the two started a romantic relationship.
“My shrink admitted to me that at first he was not sure whether he ought to encourage the relationship,” Fox recalled in an interview earlier this month. But soon, the therapist realized that the ex-agent “was changing in unbelievable ways. He had become more aware, more in touch with his feelings, more alive.”
Then the story took another turn.
“He met his boyfriend’s sister, fell in love with her, and the two started a family.”
Fox, whose last film, “Yosie and Jagger,” became an international hit, used that story as the inspiration for his latest effort, “Walk on Water.” The film, which opened last weekend on four screens in Manhattan, follows the relationship between Eyal, a fierce, emotionally repressed Mossad agent (Lior Ashkenazi, star of “Late Marriage”) and Axel (Knut Berger), a young, gay German who is the grandson of an aging Nazi war criminal Eyal is hunting. Working undercover as a tour guide, Eyal befriends Axel and his sister Pia (Carolina Peters), who is living in a kibbutz in northern Israel as part of an attempt to turn her back on her family’s dubious heritage.
Unlike the characters who inspired the film, Eyal and Axel don’t embark on a sexual relationship; Eyal’s heterosexuality remains intact till the end. But what develops between these two unlikely friends is no less impressive. “It is a love story with no sex,” Fox said.
“When I heard the real story it blew my mind,” he continued. “I thought it was such an amazing turn of events, and I wanted to understand what really happened to these people. I felt that the story could illustrate something that I had always been interested in, the notion that there are many ways to be a man—even a straight man. I felt I could explore through this story the whole question of masculinity, to put together two competing models of masculinity.”
Fox didn’t want the sexual aspect of the original relationship to be the focus of his film.
“I didn’t think it was necessary. When there is sex, it takes over the entire story. Everybody is interested in who does what to whom. I wanted to explore the possibilities of this kind of relationship beyond the sexual. Very early in the movie you realize that this tough Israeli man, who has always been told that he had to be strong and never show emotion, is drawn to this German guy, someone who’s so loveable, sweet and kind, an almost too-good-to-be-true kind of man.”
Fox has turned his career into an exploration of Israeli masculinity. His first movie out of film school, “Time Off” (1990), dealt with sexual orientation in the Israeli Army. “Yossi and Jagger” (2002) showed that the ritual of loss and mourning that comes with fighting for survival—a theme central to Israeli society—isn’t the exclusive property of heterosexuals; gay people can die for their country, too.
“Walk on Water” is much more ambitious than these movies in its exploration of themes like the relationship between Germans and Israelis and the ways in which younger generations in both countries are dealing with the burden of the Holocaust.
“I did try to capture a larger scale,” Fox admitted, “but I think that ‘Walk on Water’ deals with the issues I have always been interested in. I am trying to ask how we became what we are, how this Israeli male collective psychology was formed. I think that a lot of that goes back to the Holocaust. When our parents and grandparents who survived the Holocaust came to Israel, they created this new Jewish type—the warrior, the tough Israeli macho whose job is to defend his family and his country at all cost and never let anything like that happen again. On one hand, we did create a strong country that’s able to defend itself, but we had to pay a huge price while doing so. It made us hard, repressed people who aren’t able to acknowledge our own pain, not to mention the pain of others. We were taught that we had to repress feelings, that being emotional would take away from our survival skills.
“This is why our soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza are sometimes so brutal,” he continued. “Many of them are emotional cripples. They are unable to see what they are doing, the pain they are inflicting on other human beings. That is true for the rest of us who are no longer in the army. We don’t see how sad we have become. All we know is our own paranoia. We are all feeling, to some degree, that the world is still against us. We are still living under that siege mentality, determined to protect ourselves no matter what.”
For young Israelis like Fox, who grew up in the ‘70s, being gay wasn’t even an option.
“The message you received as a young man was that by the age of 18, you would go to a combat unit and you’d become a soldier, a tough macho man. Being straight was the only choice, no question about that. As an Israeli man you were always supposed to be on top.”
It was at the age of 17, while touring Germany with a Jerusalem folk dance company, that Fox first began to question the Israeli view of the world.
“During the trip we stayed at the homes of Germans our age. We had prepared ourselves to meet these cold, ruthless people, the sons and daughters of those responsible for the Holocaust. But instead we met these beautiful, sweet, young people who welcomed us with open arms. They were very different from us—politically and socially aware—and we formed amazing relationships with them. I couldn’t help but think that maybe these young Germans did learn something from what happened to them during the Second World War. They seemed to possess a deeper understanding of life. They developed a response to their history which forced them to be more open, more sensitive to others, more considerate and more in touch with their own feelings than we were.”
The character of Axel, Fox said, is to a large degree based on the people he met in Germany during that visit.
Of course, things have changed in Israel since the late ‘70s. In spite of the political power still enjoyed by religious parties, Israeli society is one of the least homophobic in the world outside of San Francisco and Amsterdam. Fox and his partner of 17 years, Gal Uchovski, who wrote the script for “Walk on Water,” represent a new generation of openly gay men and women whose successes turned them into major celebrities. All of the major Israeli publications fought to have the pair on their covers before the movie came out, and the star of the film, Lior Ashkenazi, traveled the talk shows circuit on Israeli television after admitting in an interview that he had once had a homosexual affair. Ashkenazi, who’s straight, is seen butt-naked on the cover of Time Out Tel Aviv, embracing a fully-clothed Fox—shades of John and Yoko.
“It was his idea,” said the director. “He wanted to do something really outrageous.”
The friendship that was formed between Fox and Ashkenazi—a gay director and a straight actor—has become a topic of intense rumors and whispers. “My friends would ask, ‘Did you pull him out of the closet?’ and his friends wanted to know if I tried to come on to him,” recalled Fox. “People had a hard time accepting our friendship. They didn’t understand why we enjoyed hanging out so much. They thought there was something strange, fishy, between us, and the fact that Lior was going through a painful divorce at the time didn’t help.”
It was only fitting, Fox said, that the relationship between him and his star mirrors what happens in the film. “It is a testament to what I was trying to say—that one encounter can really change people, no matter if they are gay or straight.”