SPIEGEL Interview with Steven Spielberg "I Would Die For Israel"

US director Steven Spielberg discusses his controversial new film "Munich," which deals with the aftermath of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL he talks about the moral aspects of dealing with terrorism and responds to critics who claim he's betrayed the Jewish people.


Editor's Note: Steven Spielberg's "Munich" opens in Germany and Israel on Thursday. In addition to this interview with the director, we have also posted DER SPIEGEL's cover story  on the film as well as an editorial from the Sept. 11, 1972 issue of the magazine.

SPIEGEL

: Mr. Spielberg, can you remember the hours of the Olympic massacre? Do you know where you were when you heard the terrible news?

Spielberg: Yes, I do. I was watching a "Wide World of Sports" live broadcast from Munich when the news suddenly flashed in, and the well-known sports commentator Jim McKay became a man for the hard facts of world politics. I was glued to the TV for the next few hours. I think it was then that I heard the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" for the first time – they hadn't been part of my vocabulary up to then.

SPIEGEL: Later, you were frequently approached with ideas for a "Munich" film. For a long time you couldn't warm to the material, and kept putting it off. Why?

Spielberg: I declined for several years because I didn't like the scripts and because I considered it too complex a problem. I discussed this film with all kinds of people who mean a lot to me, in the hope that they would talk me out of it, even my parents and my rabbi. But no-one would do me that favor. So my scriptwriter Tony Kushner and myself took on the project as seriously and politically unbiased, and as uncompromisingly as possible.

SPIEGEL: And do you regret it?

Spielberg: Not at all. I am now extremely happy that I had the courage to make "Munich".


SPIEGEL: Were you really aware of the political minefield you were stepping into? You portray not only the Palestinian acts of terrorism, but above all the tough Israeli response, the campaign of vengeance. You show agents who have doubts about their moral superiority when liquidating their enemies. Did you deliberately set out to offend -- or at least consciously risk offending -- your many Jewish friends whose admiration for you was almost unlimited following "Schindler's List"?

Spielberg: Believe me, I did not approach the subject naively. I am an American Jew and aware of the sensitivities involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

SPIEGEL: You are celebrated enthusiastically by the critics, and you have also been slammed. But rarely has a director been attacked and vilified so personally for a film as you have now. You have been called a blind pacifist, even a traitor to the cause of Israel.

Spielberg: Fortunately, the people who write that kind of thing are a small but very loud minority. It saddens me to see how narrow-minded and dogmatic some of the right-wing fundamentalists here in the USA are. I thank God that people who are important to me see "Munich" quite differently. Liberal American Jews, for example, but also some families of the victims from that time in Israel. They have embraced the message of the film.

SPIEGEL: The main charge against "Munich" is political or, if you wish, ideological: you are accused of morally equating the Palestinian terrorists with their Israeli pursuers.

Spielberg: That is utter nonsense. Those critics are behaving as if we all had no moral compass. Naturally, it is a terrible, despicable crime when, as in Munich, people are taken hostage, people are killed. But probing the motives of those responsible and showing that they are also individuals with families and have their own story does not excuse what they did. Wanting to understand the background to a murder doesn't mean you accept it. To understand does not mean to forgive. Understanding has nothing to do with being soft; it is a brave and very robust attitude to take.

SPIEGEL: Your opponents say that you "humanize" terror.

Spielberg: Do these critics really mean that terrorists are not human beings? I try not to demonize them. Again, this has absolutely nothing to with relativizing their acts or sympathizing with them. But I do believe that it sullies the memory of the victims if we do not ask questions about the reasons, about the roots of terror. My film is not supposed to be a pamphlet, not a caricature, not a one-dimensional view of things. I refuse to give simple answers to complicated questions.

Steven Spielberg hesitated to make "Munich" for years.
REUTERS

Steven Spielberg hesitated to make "Munich" for years.

SPIEGEL: Isn't that also part of the problem: the situation in the Middle East is so complex that even an almost three-hour, multilayered film cannot come close to tackling it?

Spielberg: I do not claim to be providing a peace plan for the Middle East with my film. But is that a reason to leave it all to the great simplifiers? Jewish extremists and Palestinian extremists who to this day regard any form of negotiated solution in the Middle East as some kind of betrayal? Keep my mouth shut just to avoid trouble? I wanted to use the powerful medium of film to confront the audience very intimately with a subject with which they are normally familiar in an abstract sense at the most -- or only from a biased point of view.

SPIEGEL: Your film is based on a controversial book written in 1982 by the Canadian author George Jonas called "Vengeance"...

Spielberg: … which I believe to be authentic. I wouldn't have made the film if I hadn't been convinced of my sources. Together with scriptwriter Tony Kushner, I met the former agent described by Jonas and known as Avner, and more than once. We spent many hours together. I trust my intuition and my common sense: the man is not lying, he is not exaggerating. Everything he says is true.

SPIEGEL: Be that as it may, you show the efforts and imagination of Avner and his team in great detail and length as they plan and carry out the assassinations. You show how the Israelis try to avoid collateral damage. But you also show the brutality of the liquidations. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for the avengers or repulsion?

Spielberg: Every single Israeli reprisal was also designed to cause fear and terror in the enemy. I don't believe that any of the agents involved enjoyed killing, or took pleasure in hiding a bomb under the target's bed. Killing was the job of these men, and they did it as well as they could. At the start they were all convinced they were doing the right thing – and they couldn't begin to imagine what the consequences would be for themselves, for their personal development, for their own souls.

SPIEGEL: In your film, the man with the codename Avner has growing doubts about his liquidation missions. At the end, this causes him to fall out with the Israeli secret service. In your opinion, was the whole thing, given Golda Meir's blessing as the "wrath of God," a mistake?

Spielberg: I believe that Israel's prime minister had to respond to the monstrous provocation of Munich: Jews were being killed in Germany, and that at the Olympic Games. She could not let an act with such historical implications, such a gross transgression by the Black September movement, go unpunished. Munich was a national trauma for Israel. So in principle I think she did the right thing.

SPIEGEL: Only in principle?

Spielberg: A campaign of vengeance, even though it may contribute towards deterrence and preventing terror, can also have unintended consequences. It can change people, burden them, brutalize them, lead to their ethical decline. And even Mossad agents do not have ice water flowing through their veins.

SPIEGEL: A campaign of vengeance may be understandable, but it is not a solution, despite the short-term satisfaction it brings?

Spielberg: Exactly. Violence usually engenders violence.

SPIEGEL: In "Munich," you have Golda Meir say that every civilization finds it necessary to "negotiate compromises with its own values" in extreme cases. This sentence is central to your film.

Spielberg: Right.

SPIEGEL: A sentence that is so programmatic, so fundamental, that it seems like a signal fire. Like an announcement of another act of terror that represents a turning point in world politics. In a long closing sequence you show the -- then still standing -- Twin Towers of Manhattan, implying that you see a link between September 5, 1972 in Munich and September 11, 2001 in New York.

Spielberg: I don't think that these acts can be compared in terms of their perpetrators. There is no connection between the Palestinian terror of that time and the al-Qaida terror of today. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Jihadism have nothing to do with each other.

SPIEGEL: But there are obvious similarities in the aftermath of these terrorist attacks that shook the very foundations of Israel in 1972 and of the United States four and half years ago. The same basic questions arise: how much freedom should a democracy sacrifice in order to combat injustice and to provide greater protection for its citizens?

Spielberg: The film has already sparked off discussion in the USA about the Middle East and about the methods used today in the "war on terrorism" declared by George W. Bush …

SPIEGEL: … in which he repeatedly emphasizes that the enemy is evil incarnate and the enemies are not human beings. The effect of this dehumanization of terrorists ...

Spielberg: … is that you also no longer have to treat them as humans.

SPIEGEL: You have frequently criticized the Bush administration.

Spielberg: I criticize the Iraq war, the restrictions placed on citizens' freedom. I criticize it because I love my country.

SPIEGEL: How would you describe your attitude to Israel?

Spielberg: From the day I started to think politically and to develop my own moral values, from my earliest youth, I have been an ardent defender of Israel. As a Jew I am aware of how important the existence of Israel is for the survival of us all. And because I am proud of being Jewish, I am worried by the growing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the world. In my film I ask questions about America's war on terror and about Israel's responses to Palestinian attacks. If it became necessary, I would be prepared to die for the USA and for Israel.

SPIEGEL: In Israel, "Munich" is opening at cinemas on the same day as in Germany. Will you be going to Jerusalem in the middle of next week to present the film?

Spielberg: I would like to wait until the film has started and then watch it with all the victims' families. If I did that now at the premiere it would give the impression that I just want to promote my film in order to earn as much as possible at the box office. I want to avoid that.

SPIEGEL: Aren't you afraid of extreme reactions?

Spielberg: People will all react differently to the film because they take their personal convictions and life experiences with them into the cinema – and that is how it should be. Palestinians who have seen "Munich" found the film too pro-Israeli and complained that it doesn't give them enough room to air their grievances. We have already spoken about the critical Jewish voices. I have no problem with that. But it would be nicer if the film succeeded in softening entrenched positions a little and prompting real discussion. If only the dialogue in the Middle East could be louder than the weapons. In the Talmud it says that discussion on the right path is "the highest good."

SPIEGEL: During the first revenge killing shown in the film a shopping bag held by the victim bursts. The spilt milk is mixed with blood on the ground. Is this image saying to the audience: the time of innocence is now over for good?

Spielberg: Actually, the milk motif occurs several times in the film. Milk means life. I wanted to present a constant confrontation between life and death. That is why I also often show Avner's pregnant wife and the baby she gives birth to. Giving life and taking life -- in my film they follow straight on from each other.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that "Munich" is more an American or a European film?

Spielberg: It is definitely the most European film I have ever made. And I also think that "Munich" will have an easier time here, that it will be understood more easily and better. But to all the radical critics in the USA and in Israel I would like to say: if this movie bothers you, upsets you, frightens you so much -- maybe it's not such a bad idea to stop and think about why you're having that reaction.

SPIEGEL: Your last but one movie "War of the Worlds" and now "Munich" are two rather dark films. Is it now the turn of somewhat lighter material again, a big entertainment movie?

Spielberg: You wouldn't believe how many people come up to me in the street and repeat almost verbatim the lines the Martians say to Woody Allen in "Stardust Memories": "You know, we like your earlier, funnier films."

SPIEGEL: And? Do you give them hope?

Spielberg: I look at the world in which my children are growing up and when I see darkness I can't make funny films about it. As I get older I feel the burden of responsibility that comes along with such a powerful tool as film-making. Now I want to tell stories that really mean something. On the other hand, providing good entertainment for a large audience is also very nice. I have often and willingly made movies by popular demand. There is a distinction between movie-making and film-making -- but both are attractive and I want to do both.

SPIEGEL: Any particular plans?

Spielberg: No. I just want to get some rest for a while. I've been working too much recently. Now I have to go back home and introduce myself to my children.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Spielberg, thank you for talking to us.

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