March 31, 2005
High Marks for Jewish Swimmers
"Watermarks" is a life-affirming documentary that celebrates the constancy of courage and grace, from youth to old age.
Its setting is the waltz-loving Austria of the 1920s and '30s, where the lithe young swimmers of the fabled Hakoah ("the strength") Vienna sports club are beating their "Aryan" rival clubs year after year.
Freestyler Judith Deutsch alone breaks 12 national records in 1935 and is the toast of the town, until she refuses to compete for Austria at Hitler's 1936 Olympic Games. As punishment, she is barred from competition for life and all her marks are erased from the official record books.
After the Reich's takeover of Austria in 1938, the swimmers scatter to Palestine, the United States and England, marry and establish professional careers.
Some 65 years later, Israeli director Yaron Zilberman decided to track down eight of the swimmers, now in their 80s, in their adopted countries.
He persuaded them to return to Vienna for a reunion and one final lap, in custom-fitted swim suits, in the swimming pool of their glory days. One is Annie Lampl of Los Angeles, who didn't let her blindness keep her away.
The reunion has its bittersweet remembrances, but few moviegoers are ever likely to encounter as feisty, feminine and fun-loving a bunch of octogenarians.
In 1995, the Austrian swimming federation invited Deutsch to travel from Israel to Vienna to have her medals and records restored in an official ceremony.
Deutsch declined, so the Austrian delegation traveled to Israel to do the honors.
"Watermarks" opens April 1 at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills (310) 274-6869, and on April 8 at the Fallbrook 7 theaters (818) 340-8710 in West Hills.