Unlike any other film brought to us by Steven Spielberg, Munich defies sentimentality and affirmation. Ostensibly engaged against escalations of violence, shaken in revelation about the futility of revenge, its subject is too raw to reduce to adage just yet. It shakes us with anger, but it does not assuage. It defies objectivity and universality. Even the most removed of viewers cannot separate himself from its resonances. Though anchored in events from decades past, it hangs in the present. It is personal. It is political. It is philosophical. Master of manipulation though Spielberg may be, powerful though his film, the effect it creates is beyond his control. He cannot dictate--or does not understand--the buttons it pushes; he cannot determine the strings that it pulls. What one comes away with from a viewing of Munich depends a great deal on what one came in with. I came away with heart broken and blood boiling.
I was already trembling in the film's opening moments. As the prologue unfolded, imagined reenactments interlaced with archival news footage, I felt unable to breathe.
It was Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut. The XXth Olympiad, the first in Munich since Hitler's show, politicized even before the torch was lit by the last-minute expulsion of Rhodesia. The games had begun. In the early hours of September 5, 1972, eight members of the terrorist group Black September, an operational cover for the PLO, scaled the walls of the Olympic Village looking for the quarters of the Israeli athletes. Within 25 minutes of finding the contingent's rooms, they had killed two men: Yossef Romano, a 31-year-old wrestler, father of three, whose attempted self-defense was met with a fire of bullets (his body, according to reports, came apart at the waist as it was taken away), and wrestler Moshe Weinberger, 33. Weinberger, by all accounts, had continued to fight back after being shot first in the face and then in the chest, but was finally felled by a shot to the head, his battered body thrown to the ground outside the building. Nine more of the athletes had been taken hostage. The terrorists had one demand: the release of 234 prisoners from Israeli jails, and two from Germany.
The games were temporarily halted. The Olympic flag and flags of other countries were lowered briefly in respect, until the Germans and the IOC bowed to protest from the Arab nations, and the flags were quickly ordered back to full-mast. Outside the room where the bound and bruised hostages awaited their fate, other athletes sunned themselves and bided their time. It would not be long. Before the next dawn, during the last in a series of botched rescue attempts by the German police (who had not permitted the Israelis to defend their own), all of the athletes were gone. Also killed were five of the terrorists and one German police officer. The bodies of the terrorists were flown to Libya, where they would receive a hero's burial. After a memorial ceremony that same day, the Olympic games recommenced. Spectators with a banner marking the 17 deaths were expelled from the stadium.
Munich, directed by Spielberg from a screenplay by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) after the book Vengeance, by George Jonas (previously made into the made-for-tv drama Sword of Gideon), is a fictional account of what some say happened next: reprisal by Israeli agents against the architects of the massacre. It does not dwell on the events of that day in 1972; some of them it does not touch upon at all. (Those who remember little or never knew much might find their memories and their consciences jostled by the 1976 made-for-tv account, 21 Hours at Munich, or the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September). Nor does the Spielberg film cash in on the irony that fuels the documentary: that the German machine, so efficient in the killing of six million Jews, was completely inept in the rescue of 11. But there can be no mistake about it; these form the omnipresent backdrop of historical horror against which his tale is told. Munich counts on flashback and audience recollection to keep them on our minds; to give the cause of Israel weight against its own alleged doubts. In this, it betrays a certain naivete.
The montage of events that starts the film in motion shows us two sets of homes: the Arab and the Israeli, each of which rises or falls, cheers or cries, as the news accounts alternate status reports and survival statistics. Mistaking facile equivalents for equal time, the structure clearly intends balance (the tears of a terrorist's mother for those of his victim's) and paves the way for the film's central thematic pairing of terrorist and counterterrorist, the acts of one mirrored repeatedly in the acts of the other. In its transition from tragedy to thriller (and effective thriller it is, in large part), Munich gives us a team of five Israeli agents (reflecting the number of terrorists originally believed to be in the Munich compound) assigned the task of hunting down 11 Arabs (reflecting the number of athletes murdered) responsible for orchestrating the attack.
Eric Bana plays Avner, the leader of the Israeli squad, with admirable complexity. Native born of German ancestry, his character is drawn to evoke a sense of home: sabra, Jew, son of a Mossad operative, raised on a kibbutz, he is thrice child of Israel. And as a dutiful child, he answers his larger family's call, even though he has a wife and child of his own on the way. More Hector than Hulk here, Bana's movements are measured, refined. Humanity tempers his righteousness, but it does not place it in question. If he suffers any compunctions, they are never for his cause.
Officially cut off from the Mossad so as not to be traced (a premise fairly disputed by other historians), Avner's team answers to an officious fatherly type played by Geoffrey Rush, whose focus on receipts for reimbursements feeds an uncomfortable stereotype. Comprised of men who came home to Israel from other places (South Africa, Germany, Belgium--the movie gives them different origins than does the book that inspired it), each of whom has a talent of use (forgery, explosives, "sweeping"), the team becomes a makeshift family of a different sort (ideas of family and home reverberate through the film). Every night they eat together, every day they seek ways to catch their prey.
Despite the famed resources and the diligence of Israeli intelligence, the film has them rely on a sleazy French operator who will assist any man, but no state. Louis (Mathiew Amalrac), in effect a namesake of both king and vampire, is the man to let them in on their targets' whereabouts. Subscribing wholesale to a worldview it does not acknowledge outright (i.e., that the State as an entity is evil in itself), Munich thus succumbs to the myth that prostitution is more honorable than principle--that it is less suspect to sell one's soul to the highest bidder (that is unless the soul is yours or your brother's) than to give oneself over to any government. In Louis' stateless world, ruled over by a father even Avner calls "Papa" (Michael Lonsdale), there is goodness and greenness, hearty cooking and laughing children. It brims lovingly with dispassionate amorality.
Loyalty to a state, in contrast, and most of all to the state of Israel, is embedded with immorality in relief. The film locates each anti-Israel target at a far remove from the brutality of the acts for which he is called upon to answer. Each is portrayed in his most human dimensions: father of a pretty young girl (whom the film puts at risk for Spielbergian effect), amiable translator of Scheherezade ("a tale of survival"), chatty hotel guest. Their smiles banal, the film gives us to imagine these masterminds of murder have no teeth, and gives the operatives pause to doubt, asking themselves: but what have they done to us lately? Rather than know their answer from the attacks on citizens that follow each of their follow-throughs (the film intercuts footage here, as well), Munich places responsibility for each terrorist act on the reprisal that preceded it, positing counterterrorism implausibly as the cause of what it counters. Logic thus gives way to the illogical. Pride gives way to paranoia. Hope gives way to despair. The regrets of the Israelis for having had to do what they did is mistaken for remorse for having done it. Spielberg and his critics seem to imagine that their feeling bad is the same as their conceding they've done wrong. (It isn't violence that doesn't pay; it's second thoughts.) Because they feel sorrow, we are to believe them unjust. This is not self-evident, nor is it sustainable. It would mean that morality was reserved for the cold-blooded. It would mean that only the heartless could be righteous.
Roger Ebert takes Munich for a criticism of Israel's acts, which Spielberg may well have intended, and finds it timely; with a pretense of balance, he condemns an already-deceased Arafat and celebrates a time of new [Palestinian] leaders. The irony, I think, may be lost on most of the audience. For while the world sees Israeli operatives in from the cold struggle with their consciences and believes them thus at fault, just this past year it has seen Mahmoud Abbas, a.k.a. Abu Mazen, reported (per Abu Daoud) financier of the athletes' murders, become Chairman of the PLO and president of the Palestinian National Authority. Because he does not weep for his actions, are we to believe those actions just?
Spielberg's film concludes with images of unresolved tragedies and unappeased sorrows: Avner, entrusted with the security of his people, now too distrustful to find rest in his own bed--having fought for his homeland, now in self-imposed exile an ocean away. Bookended sex scenes, awkward though they are, show what violence makes of love. But what are we to make of the film's position when he is in the last invited to "come home," and declines, or its change from the book's final conversation, which ends with a greater hope, "shalom" (peace)? A final shot of the Twin Towers (which I read differently than did many others) does not, as some have argued, cheaply copy Scorsese's Gangs of New York close. An idea wholly apart, it draws connections that depend, like the rest of the film, on where one's allegiances lie. But the epigraph pasted over what is now ground zero, the lens angled at the numerical allusions of the once-standing buildings (an 11 themselves, attacked on 9/11) and the lives there lost, cannot but haunt us with their echoes.
©2005 Shari L. Rosenblum