By David D'Arcy
December 26, 2005 - 1:17 AM PST
Steven Spielberg's Munich, the intrigue based on the assassination campaign that avenged the slaughter of Israeli athletes by Black September commandos at the 1972 Olympics, is now exactly what the director and his team seem to have intended it to be, the trigger for a discussion of killing in the name of virtue and survival in the past and the present.
Munich is a revenge drama, if you want to link it to a tradition in novels, theater and film. It relies on an infinitely variable formula in which a story begins with an act of violence that leads to a sequence of killings in response. Besides the bodies which pile up, and there are plenty of them in Munich from beginning to end, the other element of the revenge drama involves the meditation on the validity of revenge that threatens to corrode and corrupt its practitioners.
For those who don't remember the events of September 1972, at the Olympics in Munich, a team of Palestinian commandos stormed into apartments where Israeli athletes were staying. Armed security was rejected in the Olympic Village. Instead, German guards in blue suits and white hats watched gently over the compound.
Looking down the gun barrels, some athletes chose to put up a fight rather than be led to the slaughter (a clear reference to the painful images of Jews filing dutifully to the transports in the Nazi era). They were shot dead.
Rounded up and put on buses, the Israelis are driven away while the world wrings its hands. The clips from television coverage bring some disturbing reality to the film. The incompetence of it all can be troubling and comical. The Germans play every opportunity wrong and, eventually, the Black Septembrists, in helicopters at the airport, blow up the hostages. The final death toll is eleven. (Months later, a Lufthansa aircraft is hijacked and the hostages in that plane are exchanged for the three Palestinians in a German prison. (Later that "hijacking" is shown to have been arranged by the German government to get the Black Septembrists out of prison.)
The Israelis get some public sympathy, but not much more - the games started up again - hence the assassination campaign, which Israel has never disclosed publicly, although everyone you talk to in Israel knows about it. The Mossad was never officially involved, we're told, and in Munich our team of Israeli avengers suspects Israeli spies of exploiting and even sabotaging their work to obscure its official nature.
Intentions notwithstanding, it didn't turn out to be the assassination campaign to end all assassinations. Assassinations today are harder to hide, since, as we know from the newspapers every few days, they happen by targeted missile in Gaza and the Occupied Territories. And they happen all the time. Looking at other parts of the Middle East, like Lebanon, we know that Israelis are far from the only ones doing it.
Yet in Munich, the Israelis are doing it better than anyone else because they have assembled a team of like-minded outcasts who surround Avner (Eric Bana), the son of a war hero chosen, among other reasons, because he seems like a blank slate. He doesn't correspond to anyone's notion of how a killer should look. It's a team of spies, accountants and tech-nerds, each brilliant in his idiosyncratic way, an odd mix (as Israel itself was in those days) that makes you think of The Dirty Dozen or Ocean's Eleven or even Reservoir Dogs. Watching the quirky Spielberg-style warm comradery among these willing martyrs who cook for each other, you can almost hear the director and writers saying, "That's entertainment, and that's exactly what we have to do to keep the audience with us." It's the sugar coating on the bitter message-pill.
After a murder or two, Avner learns what he suspected he knew when the whole thing started: that killing doesn't set you free. The film ends as he's haunted by the accumulated bloodshed, even after he has fled to his wife and child that he sent off years before to the leafy streets of Brooklyn. Whether killing makes a country like Israel safer is another question - that's one of the arguments that Golda Meir makes after watching powerlessly as the Munich strike moves from kidnapping to massacre. It's also made by David Kimche, the former head of the Mossad in One Day in September, the 1999 documentary about the slaughter which won an Academy Award.
At the Olympics, once again Jews are being murdered in Germany, and once again the response is "never again." Obviously, the validity of the eye-for-an-eye approach is one that Spielberg and Tony Kushner (who wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth) are questioning, and the references to the present are all over Munich.
You could drown in all the critical blather about Munich. The first commentaries that I read attacked Spielberg for his presumed viewpoint that "decisive" retaliation had a less than decisive effect on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. You could anticipate chicken-hawk charges of "Hollywood" wimpishness (a routine Fox talking point), but what about David Brooks's criticism in the New York Times that Spielberg doesn't understand the true nature of the threat facing Israel: Islamic fundamentalism. That's odd, the Black Septembrists were secular nationalists, as were the PLO, PFLP and other armed groups targeting Israelis for decades. So much for the facts.
Beyond the pro forma digs at the "well-meaning" or earnestly naļve Spielberg who ends the film as Avner's feelings catch up with him, there's the nostalgic view of Munich that sees it as an homage to the 1970s grey and gritty thrillers. At the time, those films passed over the Munich story for drug scandals and official graft. Their low-tech street-smart cop heroes were urban existentialists, rebels against the corrupt bureaucracy of law enforcement even as they chased down criminals. Also, the look of Munich isn't a Friedkin or Schrader palette, as some have suggested. It's much closer to Traffic or Syriana.
There's something more troubling here. All the fuss isn't really about history, but about "history" that's been shoe-horned into a movie that, Hollywood-style, has to take liberties with character, motivation and dialogue to achieve its "dramatic truth," that is, to be a suspense film that justifies a $70 million budget.
Welcome to the tyranny of movie culture, in which the screen version of an event becomes, if not the document of record, at least the dominant document. For a tenth of that budget (which represents production, not including prints and advertising), you could make the definitive documentary on the Munich events and their aftermath, with a lot left over. (Bear in mind that the doc One Day in September is a start.) So is the book Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response, by Aaron J. Klein, which has just been published in the US by Random House. It fills in some of the context that Spielberg seems to have abandoned in his failure to talk to most of the press about Munich.
If any film needed contextualizing, this is it. With that in mind, I've taken the liberty of appending my interview with the Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi, born in 1956, whose documentary, Avenge But One of My Two Eyes, finds revenge (and suicidal revenge) at the core of an Israeli identity that appears to be accepted by a growing part of that country's Jewish population. For ten years now, Mograbi, a supporter of conscientious objectors to Israeli military service, has been a first-person truth commission trailing government officials and soldiers, chronicling daily life in Israel and official Israeli rhetoric, and the gulf between.
The documentary looks at two aspects of revenge - the national myth of the suicide defense of Masada, where outnumbered Jews fought to the death rather than surrender to their Roman occupiers; and the resistance to withdrawal or negotiation on the part of many Jewish settlers who see themselves as living under siege in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank.
I talked to him in New York after Avenge But One of My Eyes played at the New York Film Festival.
Munich and its criticsInterview with Avi Mograbi
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Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.
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