by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith / March 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper
The 1972 Summer Olympics had just begun when a group of Palestinian terrorists known as Black September kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes from the Olympic Village, in Munich, Germany, and murdered them. The incident was a reaction against the Israeli government’s atrocities against Palestinian Arabs.
Steven Speilberg’s fictionalization of the Black September disaster is the subject of his film, “Munich,” loosely based on George Jonas’ controversial book, “Vengeance.” The film was nominated for five Academy Awards; including Best Picture and Best Director.
In the film, Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Mier, played by Lynn Cohen, clandestinely gathers in her cozy living room an assassination team headed up by Avner (Eric Bana), a Mossad intelligence officer. Speaking with weary resignation, she says that she has no other choice than to acknowledge that the Palestinians “want to destroy us. We must show them we’re strong.”
The team’s not impossible but costly—physically, morally, and materially—mission was to kill everyone behind the brutal act at the Olympics.
“Munich” is dark, gruesome, complex, and heart-stopping. Spielberg and writers Eric Roth and Tony Kushner fleshed out the characters playing the assassins so that we allow them the familiarity we give to a relative or friend. Geoffrey Rush plays Efraim, the organizer and Mossad officer, like the back-office bean-counter you hate, who complains about the cost of everything. Hans, the bomb-maker (Mathieu Kassovitz), is the typical nerd with his slight build and whiny voice; his real job is toymaking.
The men go about their work methodically; in fact, Avner lacks expression. He appears grounded, rational, and pragmatic, which is what one wants in a leader. They kill men who look just like them—a middle-aged poet, a musician whose pre-adolescent daughter is almost blown up with him when she runs back into the house to retrieve her schoolwork.
The men wrangle amongst themselves over which is more dependable and effective, guns or bombs; deciding that bombs are “preferable.”
At some point the team begins to doubt the validity of their mission, and Carl says, “How do you think we got the land? By being nice?” The team travels all over Europe searching for people from names given to Avner by his contact, Louis (Matthieu Almaric), a mysterious, unassuming man whose family business is people-finding for a price.
Louis also arranges their safe-houses, one of which ends up being not so safe. The team is attacked by fanatic idealists of another stripe, in a case of mistaken identity. Soon, Avner is totally paranoid himself. He slashes open his mattress, breaks down his telephone, tears paneling from walls and floors, and basically goes berserk, looking for bombs.
Throughout, in archival film clips and fictional re-creation, Spielberg subjects us to Avner’s relentless flashbacks of the kidnapping and killing of the athletes, once even when he is safe in London, making love to his wife.
Though Spielberg raises questions, he takes no moral high ground in “Munich.” Some viewers may feel confused or affronted, but these emotions should not add up to a denouncement of the film, as many pro-Israel commentators and officials have done. Spielberg respects his audience’s intelligence. He lays it out as though saying: Here it is, this is what happened, make up your own minds.