Yonatan Zilberman may have been a bit hesitant when he began thinking about directing his first film, the documentary “Watermarks.” After all, his academic background at MIT was in physics and business. He was executive producing another documentary when he first learned of the amazing story of the Hakoah Vienna sports club and its assemblage of world-class Jewish athletes, but he wasn’t — strictly speaking — a filmmaker.
His friend and soon-to-be-co-producer, Yonatan Israel, however, never had any doubts.
“It’s just the way he told me the story,” Israel recalls, leaning back in a chair in a café near Lincoln Center. “I listened to him for three hours and was never bored. He had articulated this whole world.”
That skill, the ability to tell a story compellingly, is at the heart of making a good narrative film, whether documentary or fiction. As Israel says, “I think that in filmmaking you need to appropriate [to] yourself whatever you’re talking about.”
Zilberman clearly has that skill. “Watermarks” has an inherently fascinating story: how a group of Jewish athletes defied the anti-Semitic stereotypes rampant in Central Europe, created a veritable sports empire and then used the mechanisms of their organization to escape the Nazis. And by focusing on a handful of those athletes, eight of the women swimmers who dominated European aquatic sport in the mid-’30s, reuniting them for a final swim in Vienna, the scene of their greatest triumphs 60 years earlier, Zilberman found a splendid vehicle for telling the story.
Surprisingly, he attributes the formal ingenuity of his film to his scientific training.
“What drew me to physics was my fascination with how the world works,” he says. “Everything in physics is about relationships, expressed as equations. What you learn in science is that mathematical equations represent physical reality. It’s the same within the structure of a film. How the structure works is how the elements of the film will work together.”
“Watermarks” is a good example of that principle in action.
“We had two lines operating in parallel,” Zilberman explains. “There is the historical route, the creation of Hakoah and its rise and the rise of the Nazis and the Anschluss and the response of Hakoah, that’s one line.
“The second line is the gathering of these women, the Hakoah swimmers, from all over the world, uniting to go back to Vienna for the film and their triumph over the traumas of the past, culminating in the swimming pool one more time.”
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the magnificent record of Hakoah swimmers that brought the club to Zilberman’s attention. The film he was working on when he first heard of the sports organization was a profile of the world’s great soccer players, and the Hakoah team had been one of the dominant European footballing teams of the 1920s, enjoying a run of success that reached its culmination with a 5-0 drubbing of West Ham United in London.
But it was the women’s aquatic triumphs and the intricate personal relationships surrounding their beloved coach Tsigo Wertheimer that engaged him the most. He developed the idea of reuniting the surviving swimmers, who numbered 13 at the time the project began, for a final swim in their old pool in Vienna. Eventually, eight of them were able to participate.
As impressive as Hakoah’s athletic records were — including Olympic medalists in several sports including swimming, diving and wrestling — and as important as their visibility was in bolstering the spirit of the Jewish community in Austria, the organization’s greatest achievement undoubtedly was its success in saving its hundreds of members from the Nazi murder machine.
“All but 39 Hakoah members escaped from the Nazis,” Israel says. “They were remarkably organized, and they put the entire organization to work on getting their people out. The only ones who didn’t escape were people who were elderly and couldn’t move or a few who were no longer actively involved in the club.”
It was that same organizational skill that made it possible for Zilberman to make the film. From the moment they relocated to London the heads of Hakoah kept in touch with their members scattered across the globe through an alumni newsletter and association that was maintained long after the war.
“You don’t have people like that any more,” Zilberman says. “What they did for the rest of their lives was an extension of what they had done before.”
The women who participated in “Watermarks” are a remarkable group of overachievers; among them are educators, psychiatrists and a professor of social work. The same focus that made them champions in the water has made them successful on land.
Zilberman believes that some of that success also stems from the atmosphere in which they grew up.
“Think of the environment in which they were raised, Vienna at the end of the empire,” he notes. “It was the city of Mahler, Freud, Wittgenstein, Zweig, Klimt, Schiele. The intellectual life was in the coffeehouses, not just some remote elite. They lived in a sophisticated, cultured community.”
Israel nods in agreement, then adds somberly, “But Vienna’s place as an intellectual and cultural center died with the Anschluss.”
In the aftermath of the war, the Austrians developed the notion that the crimes committed by Nazism were entirely the work of Germans.
“They convinced themselves they were also victims,” Zilberman says. “They were afraid to confront the truth, afraid that Austria would end up with a civil war.”
Until very recently, the public face of post-war Austria has adhered to that myth, most notably in the scandal surrounding the election of Kurt Waldheim as prime minister and in the recent electoral rise and fall of Jorg Haider.
“They claim they were victims, and that is a lie,” Zilberman says bluntly. “The only way to heal the wounds is to open up that sore.”
And a film like “Watermarks” is a small but telling contribution to cleaning out and healing the infections of history.
“Watermarks” opens Friday, Jan. 21 at Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St. For information, phone (212) 255-8800.