Uri Zohar (left) and Arik Einstein in Metzitzim (1972)Wikipedia
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Sex on the Beach Is Overrated

On the 50th birthday of the Israeli cult classic ‘Metzitzim,’ a look at the tragedy behind the country’s iconic summer comedy

Dana Kessler
March 25, 2022
Uri Zohar (left) and Arik Einstein in Metzitzim (1972)Wikipedia

Nobody remembers when exactly, but at some point, the popular beach located at the northern edge of Tel Aviv’s seashore changed its name from “Sheraton Beach” to “Metzitzim Beach.” It probably happened around the time that Metzitzim—a once-forgotten cinematic gem from the early 1970s—suddenly developed a huge cult following, as well as recognition as one of Israel’s best-loved movies of all time.

Metzitzim (or Peeping Toms as it is known outside of Israel), first released in 1972, will turn 50 this year. It’s considered by some to be the greatest film in the history of Israeli cinema. This is one of the rare cases in which film critics and the mass audience agree on a movie, but it is probably just because when they watch Metzitzim, they see two very different films.

Metzitzim revolves around a gang of grown men who refuse to grow up. Imagine the Mediterranean version of Richard Linklater’s or Kevin Smith’s slackers, or maybe Seinfeld’s gang. Gutte (played by Uri Zohar, who also directed) and Eli (Arik Einstein, who wrote the script with Zohar) are two thirtysomething beach bums who do all they can to help each other stay submerged in a constant state of denial about the fact that they really should begin to take responsibility for their lives.

They hang out at the beach, looking to get laid and pulling silly pranks. Eli, a good-looking musician, has a loving wife and a little girl at home but prefers to hang out with Gutte at the beach, constantly whining about his life and blatantly disregarding the vows he took. As Arik Einstein once described Eli’s character, “He’s a little Dreck.”

Gutte works as a lifeguard and lives in a shack on the beach, which he lets Eli use for his sexual escapades. Although a big part of his everyday chores is driving away the voyeurs who come to the beach to catch a glimpse of what goes on inside the ladies’ showers, Gutte can’t resist a peek through the wall whenever Eli picks up a groupie after playing a club gig.

Today Metzitzim is a part of Israeli history and a landmark of Tel Aviv culture. It was the first of three Uri Zohar films known as the “The Tel Aviv Trilogy,” followed by Einayim G’dolot (Big Eyes), which also paired Zohar with Einstein in the leading roles and may even be superior to Metzitzim in quality (but certainly not in popularity), and Hatzilu Et HaMatzil (Rescue the Lifeguard), Zohar’s last film, a dumbed-down version of Metzitzim done in terribly poor taste, which might account for its box-office success.

These days you’d be hard-pressed to find an Israeli who hasn’t seen Metzitzim at least once or twice or a 100 times. While the old shack from the movie has been demolished by the local government and the beach has been renovated to cater to families rather than the wayward teenagers that used to frequent it, bored soldiers still amuse themselves by quoting naughty lines from the film (one thing you should know about Israeli male soldiers is their undying love for Israeli cult films), while aging bohemians with cracked tans boast about being extras in it in their long-lost youth.

It is hard to believe today, but when Metzitzim was first released, the masses didn’t flock to see it. Many excuses have been made during the years for this failure—excuses that blossomed into myth. Since Israeli mythology usually has something to do with one war or another, some people believe Metzitzim failed because it was released immediately before the Yom Kippur War. But since 10 months had passed between the film’s premiere at the now-defunct Orly movie theater in Tel Aviv and the Arab coalition’s surprise attack, that excuse doesn’t really hold water. Another explanation—perhaps more plausible—is that Metzitzim is a summer movie (even though it doesn’t have the mandatory summer movie happy ending) but was released in winter. No one in their right mind would release Grease in December, so dragging the audience out in the cold to see Uri Zohar sweat his hairy ass off at the beach probably wasn’t the best of ideas. Apart from that, most of Israel’s moviegoers probably weren’t ready at the time for Zohar’s dirty mouth and filthy behavior. When accused of blatant and unnecessary vulgarity in an interview, a few weeks after Metzitzim’s release, Zohar quoted one of his idols, Lenny Bruce, who said, “If God created the body, and the body is dirty, then the fault lies with the manufacturer.”

Apart from being well received at the 23rd Berlin International Film Festival, where it entered the competition in June 1973, Metzitzim was pretty much forgotten for many years. It resurfaced in the 1980s at midnight screenings at art-house cinemas in Tel Aviv, and with the help of the VCR, it started to gain cult status.

It was nonetheless surprising that Metzitzim initially bombed, as Uri Zohar and Arik Einstein were key figures in Israel’s entertainment industry. Both were all-around entertainers who did pretty much everything in the biz. Zohar was a popular actor, comedian (sometimes credited as being Israel’s first stand-up comic), and entertainer. And while his TV career was often of the embarrassingly mainstream kind (at one point he hosted Israel’s first game show, a local version of I’ve Got a Secret), he always strived to be a serious film director, and indeed an auteur.

Zohar already had an impressive filmography under his belt by the time he made Metzitzim, ranging from satirical comedies to very personal modernistic films influenced by the French New Wave. At first, Zohar, like many international directors, adopted the method of “one for the money, one for the soul” (most of the time, the one for the money was made to recuperate the losses from the one for the soul). But it seems that with Metzitzim he tried to combine the two, merging two opposing genres that traditionally appealed to two very different types of audiences.

Arik Einstein, a singer, actor, and comedian, was no less of a star. He died in 2013 and to this day is considered a cultural icon and Israel’s greatest male singer of all time. In the early ’70s, Zohar and Einstein collaborated on the sketch-and-song TV show Lool (Chicken Coop), which also eventually became a cult hit. The show’s creators and cast became known as the “Lool Gang,” and together they produced Einstein’s albums at the time and a couple of movies, one of them Metzitzim.

The Lool Gang is remembered not only for its art but also for its lifestyle. Uri Zohar, Arik Einstein, Shalom Hanoch (Israel’s prime rocker, who wrote the music for Metzitzim), and their friends will forever be credited—or blamed—for bringing the ’60s to the Jewish state. They brought the sound, the look (it’s hard to say they were hippies, exactly, but they did sport an unkempt style and long hair), the drugs and, above all, the spirit of free love. Together with a handful of albums, movies, and other cultural artifacts, Metzitzim became a symbol of late ’60s and early ’70s Tel Aviv bohemia. Of course it didn’t hurt that the film’s starlet and sex symbol, Mona Zilberstein, who made her mark with a sexy scene in which Uri Zohar hoses off her sandy body, later died of a heroin overdose.

In 2014, Israeli journalists Orly Vilnai and Guy Meroz aired a story on their investigative TV show on Israel’s channel 10, claiming that Zilberstein had been sexually abused or sexually exploited on the set of Metzitzim and that other sexual misconduct had taken place on set. The shocking promos implied that Vilnai and Meroz were sitting on a ticking bomb, but as is more often than not the case in these kinds of promos, their promise (or threat) was empty. The story that aired was based on minimal proof, just speculation. One of the interviewees mentioned rape, but it’s unclear who was raped and by whom. And regarding Zilberstein, the film’s long deceased female star, the journalists’ only evidence was Zilberstein’s cousin saying that her face on the screen during the famous rape scene of the movie shows she was actually raped. He didn’t say she ever told him anything, nor did he claim to have heard anything from anyone else. It was all in her face. The possibility that his cousin might have been a good and believable actress apparently hadn’t crossed his mind.

After it was aired, the Vilnai and Meroz piece was generally deemed as empty sensationalism and nothing more than a witch hunt. No one ever claimed the Lool Gang behaved nicely. Like everywhere else in the world, 1970s rock n’ roll culture in Tel Aviv included bad boys behaving badly and groupie girls doing what it takes to get in on the action. It was all part of the territory, part of the endless reckless party. From today’s perspective, much of it is shocking and appalling, but the TV story revealed nothing more than what we already knew.

Up until the past decade, when the movement against sexual harassment began to gain momentum, Metzitzim was generally perceived as pure nostalgia. A large part of the film’s charm lies in its local color, in the way it authentically captures a certain moment in the history of Tel Aviv. The film’s believable characters, the use of non-actors in the cast, and Adam Greenberg’s superb cinematography (before he immigrated to the United States and was later nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day) make up a large part of Metzitzim’s realistic charm. As Haaretz’s film critic at the time, Yosef Shrick, beautifully described it 40 years ago, “Adam Greenberg’s camera followed the gang around as if it were a stray dog.” Anything Gutte, Eli, and their friends did or said, no matter how vulgar or shocking, the camera loved. And that’s the magic of cinema: What the camera loves, the viewer can’t help but fall in love with too.

Metzitzim was atmospheric and, of course, funny. At first glance it is a hilarious comedy, with enough vulgarity to match American Pie, but Metzitzim is much more than a piece of Israeli nostalgia. As Arik Einstein pointed out many times, the film was, and still is, misunderstood. Since it combined elements of the two opposing genres that dominated Israeli cinema at the time—the popular comic melodramas known as “Bourekas films” and the personal films that critics loved but the public ignored—it is no surprise that the audience didn’t exactly know what to make of it. But watching it today, it is impossible to escape its persistent, almost depressing melancholic undercurrent. Under the film’s light façade lies Gutte’s heartbreaking loneliness and the feeling that even if the ’60s were a glorious time of freedom and frivolity, the emptiness of this hedonistic lifestyle left quite a few souls deeply wounded.

If we look back at Zohar’s well-documented biography and the history of Israeli society, it is clear that what may seem at first like a lighthearted comedy about a gang of useless beach bums is in fact a harsh depiction of the inevitable identity crisis the Jewish nation faced a quarter of a century after its foundation.

At the heart of Metzitzim lies the deep existential crisis that Zohar went through in his personal life, one that characterized his entire generation. Not only were the new Israelis—born in the late 1930s and the 1940s—devoid of the Zionist passion of their immigrant parents, who came to Palestine to build their people a homeland, but also they neglected to fulfill their parents’ expectations. Instead of showing the strong collective that Israel was founded upon, Metzitzim depicts a group of lost individuals with empty lives who swapped the lofty ideals of their parents for cheap thrills: some booze and a roll in the sand with a banana model, or at least a peek at it through a hole in the wall.

While in the United States the ’60s ethos of free love was accompanied by anti-war protests, in Israel it reeked of escapism. Metzitzim came out just before the end of the post-Six-Day-War euphoria and just before the trauma of the Yom Kippur War. In those days, (almost) no one in their right mind would protest against Israel’s military actions. Zohar and his friends weren’t into fighting, and they weren’t into the Ashkenazi bourgeois life that was expected of them either. They preferred to hang out at the beach as if they were carefree teenagers. The only problem was that they were much too old for that. Einstein once told an interviewer that a film critic who had written about Metzitzim when it was first released claimed it was ridiculous that he and Zohar played the roles of beach boys at their age, but—as Einstein pointed out—that was the whole point. It was high time for them, and for Israel, to grow up.

Gutte and Eli’s disregard of the establishment and bourgeoisie can easily be compared to the disillusionment with the American Dream seen in movies like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, just a few years before. But of course, this is the Israeli version, and in real life, Uri Zohar found a very Jewish solution to his problem.

Many believe that the aimless existence of Metzitzim’s protagonists—based on some level or other on the Lool Gang’s real life—eventually made Zohar a Hozer betshuva. At the peak of his success, Zohar decided to trade in the spotlight for a brighter light, as did quite a few of his friends and peers from Tel Aviv’s bohemian scene. (Arik Einstein’s ex-wife and children also became Orthodox Jews at the time, and Einstein’s two daughters eventually married Zohar’s two sons.) Abandoning their parents’ ideals must have created quite a father complex for Zohar’s generation, and turning to God was only to be expected.

In 1977 Zohar retired from show business, moved to a yeshiva in Jerusalem, and became a rabbi. The only reminder of his former life was commercials, which he directed for Shas, an ultra-orthodox religious political party, as part of its election campaign.

As Metzitzim clearly shows—at least to whoever cares to see more than the film’s horny exterior—Zohar was part of a lost generation, one that struggled to find new meaning for life, having lost the one its parents had. Zohar was impatient and turned to God. Had he waited a couple of decades, the mind-numbing capitalistic rat race that finally caught up with Israel might have given him, as it did the rest of Israel’s secular population, a new raison d’être.

The fact that Zohar left the entertainment world and became a rabbi saved him from having to face the allegations his film has faced since the #MeToo movement came into being. In the summer of 2020, keeping in step with the times, Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, instructed a mural of youngsters peeking into Metzitzim Beach’s ladies’ changing rooms to be removed from the outside wall. The mural, painted by Rami Meiri in 2002, had already been vandalized by feminist activists before, and the mayor’s decision to erase it was made at the height of protests taking place across the country after a horrific gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Eilat.

“Even though the freedom of artistic expression is an important value of our city, the fact that this painting is perceived as legitimizing a wrong and criminal act, we’ve decided to get rid of it,” Huldai posted on Twitter after the mural was removed. “Erasing the painting doesn’t erase history or the film that depicted it, but rather voices the kind of message that we bestow upon the next generations.”

Rami Meiri, the godfather of Israeli street art, claimed the painting doesn’t perpetuate aggressive behavior toward women and can just as well be interpreted as opposing that kind of behavior, but he did admit he wouldn’t have painted it today.

Many also claim that a film like Metzitzim couldn’t have been made today. Others believe it shouldn’t even be shown today. In recent months there has been much talk and speculation about whether the film should be banned from Israeli cinematheques and whether it should be shown on TV or not. The woke generation, with its PC rules, has no problem, it seems, eliminating it altogether.

I fail to see why. Metzitzim tells of rape culture, but in no way does it glorify it. Gutte and Eli, the two characters at the heart of Metzitzim, weren’t supposed to be role models. They weren’t depicted as positive characters or anything anyone should aspire to. They were flawed, sad, and pathetic. Their inability to emotionally connect to women—seeing them solely as sex objects or as Band-Aids for wounded egos and endless emptiness—is just one manifestation of their tragedy.

The film realistically depicts a type of man that existed in the fringes of Israeli society at that time. It doesn’t idolize that man or even legitimize him. Quite the contrary—it takes a long harsh look at him. And if 50 years after it was made this cinematic gem were to fall prey to cancel culture, that, in my eyes, would be another tragedy.

This piece was adapted from Dana Kessler’s 2017 essay in The Unholy Land: An Unconventional Guide to Israel, edited by Ithamar Handelman Smith.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.