Hitler aspired to wipe out the Jews but he couldn’t have anticipated the tenacity of those who were in better shape than he was — the athletes of Vienna’s Hakoah sports club who, now aged between 81 and 107, are the inspiring stars of “Watermarks.” Snappy, affecting docu should grab attention as a forthcoming Kino release in the U.S.
Smashing the common belief that Jews were scholarly physical weaklings, Hakoah trained Jewish athletes who beat gentiles at — literally — their own games. Their men’s soccer team was the first-ever foreign one to beat an English team on English soil. When the players who bested West Ham United in London in 1924 dispersed to America and beyond, the club’s swimming program took precedence. (Visiting competitor Johnny Weissmuller broke a world record during a Hakoah meet.)
With Stars of David prominently displayed on their trunks and swimsuits, Austria’s best hopes for swimming medals at Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics were Jews, particularly women. When record-holder Judith Deutsch refused to participate, she was banned from competition and her accomplishments were wiped off the national books. It took six decades for them to be reinstated.
Documaker Yaron Zilberman interviews surviving swimmers at their homes in the U.S., England and Israel, putting their formative years and long lives into perspective. Zilberman’s goal is to bring seven of them back to Vienna — which they fled in 1938 after Hitler annexed Austria — to swim again in the pool where they set records and forged friendships.
Sometimes funny, sometimes wrenching and persistently bittersweet, tale is a fascinating account of strength and solidarity, bolstered by vintage photos, edifying newsreels and winningly frank interviews. Seg during which the now-elderly swimmers happily sing along with the songs of their youth takes an uncomfortable turn when the cabaret performer entertaining them sings a song composed in a concentration camp.
Spry interviewees are in fine form, and tech credits are pro.