Watermarks (2005) ****
Directed by Yaron Zilberman. Photography, Tom Hurwitz. Editing, Yuvals Shar & Ruben Korenfeld. Producers : Yonatan Israel & Yaron Zilberman. 84 minutes. Not rated.
Many of the Jews of Austria were historical figures. At random: Musicians, Hans Eisler, Artur Schnabel, Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Johann Strauss (had Jewish father) and more. Theatre people included Max Reinhardt. Writers Arthur Schnitzler, Vicki Baum, Stefan Zweig. Painter Gustav Klimt. Philosopher Wittgenstein. Psychologists Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Wilhelm Reich, etc. Even some athletes, notably female swimmers.
Jews numbered about 300,000 in the early 1930s. There was anti-Semitism but nothing like that of Hitler's Germany. Then, on 13 March 1938, came the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into the Nazi "Greater German Reich." Needless to say what happened to the Jews.
Let's backtrack to 1909. Austria's powers-that-be invoked an "Aryan Paragraph," a clause which excluded Jews from all athletic organizations. Losing no time, the Jews founded their own athletic club "Hakoah-Vienna." Hakoah is Hebrew for "The Strength." The members thrived athletically. Eventually they won the championship of Austrian football clubs. They also were the first foreign team to beat England (5-0) on British soil.
The Hakoah, growing to pan-European status, won in other sports too, again and again. By the 1920s-1930s, its women swimmers were at the top. They even participated in the Jewish Olympics in Palestine. One champion, Judith Deutsch, held several top wins. She and other gals, later escaped to several democratic countries. Now. A number of them, all well over 80 (and totally lucid) A number of those ladies, are interviewed and/or are filmed by the makers of "Watermarks" in wonderfully unobtrusive ways. They have lot to say. For instance, Judith Deutsch explains, among other matters, how she refused to take part in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. (That was the event which was filmed the famous/infamous, propagandistic "The Triumph of the Will" by Leni Riefenstahl (who died not long ago). Ironically Ms. Deutsch's last name means "German." When she was told that in public places of Hitler's Germany there were posters saying "Jews and Dogs Forbidden," she refused to participate in the Berlin Olympics. Austria retaliated by banning Judith from all competitions, and erasing all mentions of her swimming records. (This was, many years later, canceled.)
In addition to interviews with the octagenerians, we have conversation among themselves, reminiscences, private lives, lessons about democracy, etc. Better yet, thanks to photographs and movies, the film becomes a fascinating trek through history. There is a profusion of the swimmers in their youth, talking, clowning, amusing themselves. Without exception, those girls are both lively and beautiful.
We also learn how, shortly before World War II, their coaches and others miraculously managed to save the swimmers and send them to various countries, including England and the U.S.A. There, most of them held important jobs. The old ladies are amazingly youthful, intelligent and interesting. And to my eyes, they're still beautiful.
What the filmmakers achieved, beyond a magnificent use of old black-and-white pictures and film footage, was the plan to gather the surviving swimmers and have them visit Vienna for the first time in many decades.
The visit was a success, though not without sadness mixed in with pleasures. Has Austria changed? Well, one old gal ( she is vivacious, like all her peers, who are all multilingual) notes that her nice taxi-driver, under 30 I'd say, refers to the city's Jews of the swimmers' days as "non-natives and non-Germans." The lady has to inform him that many of their families had lived in Austria for centuries.
To the best of my knowledge, Nanne Selinger, a New Yorker for several decades, was the only one in the group to have returned earlier to Austria. She left it again when the Austrians elected as president Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the United Nations who turned out to be a former Nazi. (For details on your computer, type the man's name, then read an article in Slate "Arnold's Nazi Problem.")
In Vienna Revisited, the movie's director takes all the ladies wearing replicas of their old swimsuits—for a swim in their big, beautifully maintained pool. It is a sequence that's happy, splendidly emotional, and which crowns the film.
Now and then we get a beautiful musical background of songs celebrating Vienna. I wish there were more of them. The city has been the subject of songs, enormously (and rightly) popular, which are not kitschy but genuinely top class celebrations, like "Fruhling im Wien," "Wiener Blut," etc. etc.
Note: The film's director graduated from MIT, in the mid-1990s, with a BS in Physics and an MS in Operations Research and Finance. This is apparently his first film, or perhaps the first one to be released.