Steven Spielberg's 'Munich': The Morality of Revenge
With his new film "Munich," director Steven Spielberg has triggered a heated political debate over boundaries in the war against terrorism. He tells the story of the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics and of the ensuing hunt for the Palestinian murderers. In doing so, Spielberg directs our attention to America's present-day crusade against Islamist terror.
After the terrorist attack by a PLO splinter group at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Israeli government began a two-decade act of revenge. The killing spree is the focus of Steven Spielberg's "Munich," pictured here.
These are cheerful games, almost un-Germanically cheerful, say foreign visitors, half surprised and half sarcastic, and that's exactly how the Germans have planned, prepared and staged the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. The country is presenting its best side to the world, and even the major conflicts raging out there in the real world seem half-forgotten under the clear blue skies of these late summer days. How beautiful, how hopeful, how deceptive.
September 5 began a few hours ago. The night air is mild and sensuous as a few young, slightly tipsy American athletes return home after a night on the town. They have to climb a fence to reach their quarters in the Olympic Village. They think nothing of it when they run into eight other young men, who seem to be about to do the same thing.
"Too bad the bars and beer gardens close up so early here," says one of the inebriated Americans. "Otherwise we could grab a beer together." The remark seems to make no impact whatsoever on the eight strangers. What's wrong with them, the Americans wonder, are they just unfriendly, or what? "Oh well," offers another of the tipsy Americans into the strange silence, "but I do think they need some help." The men are all young, they want some excitement and there is no one there to stand in their way -- not a policeman in sight, and there are no German Shepherds in the Olympic Village. The two groups help each other scale the two-meter (6.5 foot) barrier, walk a few steps together and part ways. "Good night and have fun," the Americans call out.
The eight silent men are not Olympic athletes -- they're Palestinians and fun is about the last thing they're looking for. They've burned their passports and made the kinds of arrangements one would make when expecting to die. They pull stocking masks from their duffle bags and load their automatic pistols with ammunition. At 4:35 a.m., an hour before sunrise, they storm the apartments housing the Israeli athletes. Their goal is to take as many hostages as possible, Jewish hostages. They are prepared to kill them, if necessary. Their goal is to send a message to the world, a signal.
That was how "West Germany's worst night" began, as German newspaper Die Zeit described it, and how Munich's cheerful games were suddenly transformed into tragic games. By the time the nightmare ended 21 hours later at the Fürstenfeldbruck airport, the eight Palestinian terrorists had murdered 11 Israeli hostages and one German police officer. The images were gruesome: the dead athletes lying, bound tightly together, in destroyed helicopters. The unbelievably amateurish attempt to save the hostages was a miserable failure. Then Chancellor Willy Brandt summarized the incident with the devastating conclusion that Munich was "shocking testimony to German helplessness."
But Munich is more than that. It's the birthplace of terrorism in the postwar world, a world that doesn't know what's in store for it, a shocked world that is rendered speechless, just as it was 29 years later on another day under a Matisse-blue sky, September 11, 2001.
The bizarre scene at the fence, as a few Americans unknowingly help a few terrorists, is also the opening scene of the thrilling and disturbing Hollywood film shot by director Steven Spielberg, under a cloak of secrecy, in various locations across Europe. The title of Spielberg's opus, "Munich," is as simple as it is momentous. The film, the event of the season, has been playing in selected American cities since early December and will debut in German cinemas this week.
Spielberg is a much-admired and important director, a gifted storyteller blessed with both a sweeping imagination and a golden touch. He is 58, a man who would love to remain an eternal child and has a penchant for fantasy tales ranging from the touching to the horrific (his credits as director include, "E.T.," "Jaws," "Jurassic Park" and the recent "War of the Worlds"). But, as Spielberg is the first to say, he has reluctantly become an adult, and this circumstance changes his way of looking at things. "As I grow older," he said in an interview with SPIEGEL, "I feel the burden of responsibility that comes with such an influential instrument as making films. I now prefer to tell stories that have real meaning."
Spielberg is essentially picking up where he left off with "Schindler's List" in 1993. But his drama about the Holocaust was almost universally praised. Instead of setting off a controversy, "Schindler's List" proved what a spell the great magician could cast, and it was greeted with wild applause. But "Munich" represents a new kind of experience for Spielberg. The movie, seen as a political film in Hollywood, has triggered a wave of outrage and anger in Israel and America. In making the film, Spielberg has plunged headfirst into a minefield of Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, murder and revenge, and he is having trouble pulling himself out in one piece.
"Munich" triggers powerful emotions, brought on by the subject, the message and, most of all, the director, who yesterday's fans are now alternately accusing of ignorance, superficiality and betrayal. The New York Times writes that the film denies the existence of "evil as it truly exists" and ignores "the essential evil in the Middle East, Islamic radicalism." This film "is desperate not to have its own opinion," writes the intellectual publication The New Republic.
The fatal flaw in "Munich," critics claim, is that it occupies a false moral middle ground. In another review, "Munich" is described as an act of cowardice, because the film skirts the real issue: America after Sept. 11, 2001. Time is almost alone in its divergent view that Spielberg has once again achieved "a masterpiece."
What is apparently at issue here is more than just a new film. At issue is a judgment of terrorists, America, Islam, Palestinians and Jews. Also at issue is a judgment of Spielberg himself, a Jewish-American who had the audacity to criticize US President George W. Bush for the country's Iraq adventure. It does not work in Spielberg's favor that he is apparently using the film as an instrument for conveying a clear political message. In an interview with Time, he said that his film is a "prayer for peace." But his apparent effort to assert his right to interpret his own work as he sees fit has failed miserably.
"I couldn't believe I wasn't seeing a movie"
Back in the summer of 1972, Spielberg was a young, 24-year-old director with big plans. He was also one of the 300 million television viewers worldwide who watched, transfixed, as the unbelievable incident unfolded. "I just couldn't believe that what I was seeing wasn't a movie," he says.
The Munich Olympics were the first games that were truly made for television, and many of that generation will never forget the images of the terrorist leader wearing a white safari hat and black sunglasses, of then German Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who led the negotiations, and of the hostages on the bus as they were being driven to the waiting helicopters.
Spielberg's "Munich" is a political film, but by no means a political manifesto, as his vehement critics have claimed. It is fast-paced and brilliantly staged, it is filled with human drama, it has sex scenes, and it has thriller-quality passages side-by-side with quiet sequences in which the actors reason over what it means to kill someone. Spielberg uses the real events of Munich to tell his half-fictional, half-true story of Mossad's hunt for the Palestinian killers.
Authentic passages are interspersed throughout "Munich" like films within a film. In one such passage, the terrorist leader, who uses the pseudonym "Issa" (Arabic for Jesus), walks out of the house at Connollystrasse 31, where the terrorists are holding their hostages, and -- casually, deliberately and speaking excellent German -- announces his demands to the representatives of the state and the Olympic Committee: 236 fellow revolutionaries are to be released from prison in exchange for the hostages, including the notorious German terrorists who had been arrested a short time earlier, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof.
Above all, Issa has a political message. Using terrorism as his tool, he seeks to draw the world's attention to the Palestinians, his cause and his people. Issa, whose real name is Mohammed Massalha, says that the eight Palestinian hostage-takers are members of a group calling itself "Black September."
Until then, the world knew little about "Black September," an offshoot of the Fatah movement founded by Yasser Arafat, who at the time was gradually becoming a known entity on the global stage. Arafat behaved as if he had nothing to do with this act of terror.
The incident finally comes to an end in a gruesome finale at the airport in Fürstenfeldbruck, near Munich. The Germans, playing for time, allow one ultimatum after the other to pass. Finally, they lead the terrorists to believe that they're willing to make the following deal: A Lufthansa aircraft will take the terrorists and the hostages to Egypt, where the hostages will be traded for the revolutionaries and fellow terrorists the Palestinians want released. But anything that can possibly go wrong does. The carefully devised plan fails because the German special forces unit independently decides to cancel a plan in which police officers, disguised as Lufthansa crew members, are to overpower the terrorists once they are on board. Instead, the members of the police unit vote on whether to embark on what could very well turn into a suicide mission. Most are against the plan, and the police officers leave the aircraft.
The German sharpshooters surrounding the tower have no radio contact with one another. Suddenly there is a loud commotion, a terrorist throws a hand grenade into one of the helicopters, and another terrorist shoots the hostages in the other helicopter. Everything is over by 1:32 a.m.
The birth of modern terrorism
The Germans, who had actually planned to show the world their democratic face at these Olympic Games, were accused of incompetence and helplessness, especially by the Israelis. Although the games continued after a day of mourning, the 1972 Munich Olympics would go down in history as a preview of a new, monstrous dimension of terror.
For the Israelis, but also for others, Munich fits into a sort of German triad: Munich, the city of Hitler; Munich, the city that symbolized the West's policy of appeasement, when it kowtowed to the German leader in 1938 in an effort to avert war; and now there was Munich, city of shame, where Jews were taken hostage and murdered, simply because they were Jews.
This is multilayered and ambiguous material, even for a pro like Spielberg, who probably knew early on that he could be giving up his reputation as a universally admired wunderkind. Very few viewers would be likely to come away from this movie without experiencing some sort of emotional reaction.
"Munich" is a thrilling, highly ambitious political statement, because it declines to demonize and because even the terrorists it portrays show human traits -- and because it raises the fundamental question of whether and how democracies should retaliate against terrorists without jeopardizing their own fundamental civil views and ideals.
The leitmotif reveals itself in two key scenes. In one scene, right at the beginning, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir gives the (authentic) order to launch the revenge strike against the Palestinians by uttering this (non-authentic) sentence: "Every civilization repeatedly reaches a point at which it must enter into compromises with its own moral concepts."
In the second central scene, at the end of the film, the disillusioned Israeli secret agent, who killed the Munich murderers, is having another discussion with his boss in New York -- and the camera pans across the Manhattan skyline and to the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Spielberg is telling us that 1972 and 2001 are connected. The message that viewers can take along from the film is that revenge begets revenge and violence begets violence. The greatest enemies in the Middle East aren't the Palestinians or the Israelis, says Spielberg. Instead, the real enemy is "absolute irreconcilability."
There is no question that one can connect the dots from Munich to New York. What began back in 1972 still holds the world in suspense today. The age of international terrorism -- complete with aircraft hijackings, hostage-taking and attacks on innocent civilians -- began in the early 1970s, when the Vietnam War came to an end and the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, moved into a stage of détente. It began in the Middle East, and the region remains the epicenter of violence to this day.
- Part 1: The Morality of Revenge
- Part 2
© DER SPIEGEL 4/2006
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