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.
Von Erich Follath und Gerhard Spörl

Editor's Note: Steven Spielberg's "Munich," opens in Germany and Israel on Thursday. We will post SPIEGEL's interview with the Academy Award-winning director, along with a 1972 article from the SPIEGEL archive on Thursday.

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's challenge

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. Yasser Arafat chose violence as his method of asserting the Palestinians' claim to their own state, and for him the birth of terrorism was a success. Two years later Arafat, his kuffiya on his head and his pistol in his holster, stood before the United Nations and gave a fiery speech about the injustices suffered by the Palestinians -- to thunderous applause.

The kidnapping and hostage-taking subsided as Palestinian terror shifted back to its point of origin: the Middle East and the fight against Israel. After all, Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, had a political goal: an independent Palestinian state.

Osama bin Laden was also an enemy of Israel from the very beginning, calling for liberation of the holy city of Jerusalem and portraying himself as an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause. But he soon got over his affection for the Palestinians and their cause and has since devoted his attention to the superpowers, first the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and then the United States, on its own soil.

Bin Laden and his ilk have no clear political goal, except perhaps to drive the West out of the Middle East and establish a new caliphate. But this type of Islamism is nothing but a new totalitarianism promoting a backward-looking utopia, a crusade aimed at establishing a theocracy.

Israel's fight for survival

Israel is a small country that has been fighting for survival ever since it was established. It will never allow itself to become vulnerable or weak again, and its own security is its highest priority. The Israelis' uncompromising fight against terrorists has served and continues to serve this supreme purpose. In 1972, then Prime Minister Golda Meir told the widows, parents and children of the 11 murdered athletes about her plans for the murderers: "I've decided to pursue each and every one of them. Not one of the people involved in any way will be walking around on this earth for much longer. We will hunt them down until we have killed every last one of them."

The order to kill the assassins was given in the cabinet, writes Israeli author Aaron Klein in his new book Striking Back. Cabinet ministers played the roles of judges, the head of the Mossad, acting as a prosecutor, filed the charges and the prime minister (and, later, her successors) pronounced the judgment. Between 1972 and 1992, Israeli intelligence agents in Rome, Paris, Nicosia and Beirut killed more than a dozen Palestinians suspected of having been somehow involved in the Munich incident.

In some cases, the widow of a murdered man would receive an anonymous phone call informing her that a terrorist had met the death he deserved. Officially, however, Israel had nothing to do with the campaign. Democracies can only afford to take their revenge in secret.

Israel continues to assert its right to retribution, responding to deadly attacks in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv with targeted attacks in the Gaza Strip, attacks meant to strike and kill political or military leaders. This "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" policy is alive and well in the Middle East today, but it isn't everything.

It's been countered by the 1979 US-sponsored Camp David Peace Treaty between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. More importantly, it's been countered by the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles, under which the PLO and Israel formerly recognized one another. Finally, there has been the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and from a few settlements in the West Bank, a unilateral step taken by the Israeli government under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Revenge, prevention or deterrence?

Democracies can be militant, and they can proceed against terrorists without formal declarations of war. In doing so, they inevitably draw the ire of their allies, as has been the case with Israel and the United States. They can persist for some time, but not for very long. And their leaders prefer to call their policies prevention and deterrence, not revenge.

Part of the concept of prevention is the belief that new attacks can be avoided by killing terrorists. This is even a plausible hypothesis, but the problem is that it's virtually impossible to prove. Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida may have suffered deadly blows over the years, and even serious setbacks whenever a leading figure was captured or killed, but they have always responded with more acts of terror. Of course, this begs the question as to whether violence doesn't just lead to an escalation of violence. America may have liberated Iraq from Saddam's rule, but it has also created many new terrorists.

Despite all efforts at deterrence, democracies almost always make offers to convince terrorists not to engage in terrorism, or at least to weaken them. Prime Minister Sharon may have treated Arafat as the root of all evil, but he was willing to accommodate Arafat's successor, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Although the hope that Abbas can prevail over such completely irreconcilable groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad may have disappeared, the fragile hope of peace now rests on Abbas's shoulders.

Even the United States is beginning to show a willingness to negotiate with the Sunni resistance movement in Iraq in an effort to bring it into the democratic process. If this effort were to succeed, it would weaken the resistance movement, a combination of nationalism and terrorism. It appears to be the only way to stem a growing tide of civil war in Iraq. But is that still possible?

In the end, democracies must always hope that the attraction of their own model is stronger than the struggle against it -- and that there are some within the ranks of the terrorists who become weary of violence and killing.

Revenge and democracy don't fit together. Democracies thrive from within by domesticating violence. They grow and flourish in times of peace, and they suffer economically in times of militarization. A case in point is the Israelis who supported Sharon's withdrawal from the occupied territories, partly in the hope that their lives would eventually become easier and better as a result.

America's challenge

For democracies, war is an absolute state of emergency, and it's only justified when the democracies themselves are being attacked, when their very existence is at stake. Democracies become disoriented when they begin lowering civil standards and civil rights -- as is the case in the United States today.

Unlike Israel, the United States is a superpower, vastly superior to other countries militarily, incredibly successful economically, and a cultural magnet without equal. America seemed invincible, especially on its own soil. It is precisely for this reason that the shock over the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 persisted for so long. And it's also for this reason that the Americans allowed their government to use questionable means in its fight against terrorism.

These means include the return of war as a political tool in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they include giving carte blanche to the country's 15 intelligence agencies, whose powers had been systematically limited for good reason ever since Watergate. Since Sept. 11, the CIA is once again allowed to kill, the FBI can enter private homes without a court warrant, the value of civil rights has been diminished, and Guantanamo has been allowed to exist.

The American democracy, preeminent when it comes to guaranteeing individual constitutional rights, has the nerve to operate pockets of territory where the rule of law no longer applies.

Surprisingly, large portions of what was said and thought within the US government in the days after Sept. 11 are known today. In his book Bush at War, Bob Woodward describes how Bush, then Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney, relaxed in their casual clothing, met at bucolic Camp David to review their option. Afghanistan was a no-brainer, but why not take out Saddam Hussein while we're at it? Isn't the Iraqi dictator the spider in the web, and isn't he far more important than Osama bin Laden? What's Syria's role, and how will we deal with Iran?

Then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice agreed wholeheartedly. There were, as usual, cheerleaders and there were those with reservations. But the times had changed. The country, edgy and uncharacteristically unified, decided to flip the switch.

Since then the giant US has behaved more like tiny Israel. President Bush has used prevention as his justification for the two wars and the hunt for al-Qaida, taking the war to wherever the terrorists presumably lived, were given shelter and were nurtured, so that America would never have to accept another 9/11 again. Osama bin Laden lost his base in Afghanistan and was forced to regroup. But Iraq, an al-Qaida foe under Saddam Hussein, turned into a new center for international terrorism.

The dialectic of the war against terrorism undoubtedly came to light in Iraq. Like a hydra, whenever some of its heads are cut off, it grows even more heads to replace them. In this environment, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi soon developed into al-Qaida's new hero.

As has been made painfully clear in Iraq, democracies cannot force a democratic system onto other countries through war and violence. "Soft power," or the persuasive power of a superior social model, is still the best means of introducing democracy. By comparison, "hard power" -- projecting power militarily -- is only useful to a limited extent.

For a time, President Bush could expect some empathy for his position. But it's gradually fizzling, mostly due to the fiasco in Iraq. Irrespective of whether the situation there is improving, support for a gradual withdrawal is growing in the United States. And the pockets of territory where the rule of law no longer applies, and which arose after Sept. 11, 2001, are gradually being taken over again by the courts, by the US Congress and by the public.

America is in the process of flipping back the switch.

Spielberg as "guardian of public morals"?

Steven Spielberg is an American patriot and a friend of Israel. "Munich" deals skeptically with the right of revenge, and the film is a semi-distanced commentary on contemporary terrorism. It raises questions to which there are no easy answers. At times, the film comes across almost as the brooding product of a European director.

But Spielberg is Hollywood, and although Hollywood may want to encourage its paying viewers to engage in some contemplation, it certainly has no intention of troubling them with unambiguous political messages.

By making a political film, Spielberg has put himself in the line of fire. He has made enemies, not just among columnists from New York to Jerusalem, but also among the families of the 11 victims of Munich, to whom Spielberg also plans to raise a monument, and among the Mossad avengers whom he elevates to the status of tragic heroes in the film.

Ankie Spitzer, 59, the widow of André Spitzer, a fencing trainer murdered in Munich, speaks on behalf of the victims.

She insisted on visiting the scene of the murders. She wanted to see the images that were in André's head when he died. Although she has long since remarried, and now has three children with her second husband, Spitzer has not forgotten anything or forgiven anyone. Today Spitzer (she kept her murdered husband's last name) works as the Israel correspondent for a Dutch television station.

When she found out that "Munich" was being filmed, Spitzer called Spielberg's office to offer the director her advice, but she was quickly sent packing by the director's gatekeepers. Spielberg later found out about it, apologized and arranged a private screening for Spitzer and other family members of the victims. The widow of André Spitzer gives the film a mixed review: "As long as it's telling the story of Munich, the film is realistic and sensitive. But the story that follows is mostly made-up -- Spielberg apparently sees himself as a sort of guardian of public morals for the nation."

What Spitzer means by "the story that follows" is Spielberg's fictionalization of the facts, which he uses to transform the cold-blooded agents into brooding men and give faces and emotions to the terrorists.

Mike Harari, 78, the former head of the commando units  Mossad had assembled for its crusade of revenge, speaks on behalf of the avengers. Mossad's campaign, appropriately enough, was dubbed "Wrath of God."

Mossad later sent Harari to Panama, where he developed an elite unit for then dictator Manuel Noriega, still on the White House's good side at the time. But in December 1989, when Washington's view of Noriega changed and the US was about to launch its invasion, Harari disappeared. Information he provided presumably helped ensure that Noriega, the country's drug- and weapons-dealing dictator, ended up in an American prison.

Harari's reputation is shot at Mossad these days. The retiree lives like a recluse in his house near Tel Aviv, and for years Harari refused to give interviews. But when Spielberg's film began to make waves, he was suddenly back in the news, telling the press that "no one from Spielberg's team contacted me -- what a shame."

Harari's and Spitzer's objections to the film are understandable, as is Spielberg's somewhat blithe treatment of both the facts and advisors. A few years earlier, two documentary filmmakers conducted extensive interviews of the victims, the avengers and the assassins. Arthur Cohn and Kevin MacDonald were awarded the Oscar in 2000 for their moving documentary, "One Day in September."

The historical truth is mixed. Harari's commando unit killed a number of secondary figures, as well as two key players behind the Munich attack: Atif Bseisu was a member of the innermost circle of Abu Iyad, the head of Black September, while Ali Hassan Salameh was the commander of Arafat's bodyguards. Iyad himself died at the hands of one of his own bodyguards in 1991.

Three of the eight assassins survived the shootout in Fürstenfeldbruck. And what about justice? After they had spent exactly 53 days in German prisons, the German government swapped the men for 13 passengers and 7 crew members of a hijacked Lufthansa aircraft. The rumor that the West German government in Bonn had entered into a deal of sorts with the Palestinians in connection with this incident -- Bonn's release of the Palestinian terrorists in exchange for a promise of no further hijackings of German planes -- has never quite gone away, and it's also supported by a few important star witnesses.

Hans-Jochen Vogel, the doyen of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), says that whenever former Chancellor Willy Brandt was asked why he gave in to the terrorists so quickly in the Lufthansa hijacking incident, he would say nothing and merely shrug his shoulders. In Cohn's documentary Ulrich Wegener, who, after Munich, established the elite GSG-9 unit -- which was to make up for everything that went wrong in Munich when it successfully liberated a terrorist-held Lufthansa jet in Mogadishu in 1977 -- says that he believes there was an agreement with the Palestinians.

At least one of the three Munich murderers, Jamal al-Gashey, survived somewhere in Africa. The Mossad commandos never managed to catch him or Abu Daud, the mastermind behind the Olympic attack. He became a pacifist and presumably lives in Syria today.

Appalling attacks like Munich 1972 and New York 2001 inescapably trigger thoughts of violent revenge. But the "Wrath of God," carried out by human hands, remains by necessity incomplete.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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