Monday, March 26, 2012

Steven Spielberg: Munich

An act of American obliviousness sets in motion the events of Munich. At the 1972 Olympics, a group of American athletes stumble across some Palestinian men attempting to get past a gate. Used to the sight of small bands of men from different countries roaming the area, the Americans jovially call out to them and ask what event they're in. Blind to the tense, apprehensive faces of the men, the athletes show them in and depart on friendly terms. But before the Americans are even out of range, the group is already pulling out new clothes and weapons to storm the hotel room holding the Israeli Olympic team. They do, and everything else plays out on the actual newscasts recorded over the next 18 hours. It ends, of course, with Jim McKay's infamous declaration, "They're all gone."

But despite the film's title, Munich does not end with the conclusion of its heinous massacre; it's only just begun. In fact, Munich may not even be about the aftermath of the killings in the titular city. Released in proximity with the 9/11-conjuring fever dream War of the Worlds, Munich serves as the more thoughtful, severe follow-up to the notion of a terrorist attack and society's response to it. Spielberg's reenactments of news crews frantically assembling outside the hotel, scrambling for any new updates as their presence only worsens the situation, is as indicative of Spielberg's true aims as the final shot showing the New York skyline with the World Trade Center still standing in the middle of the frame. Munich may be about a specific event and the fallout from it, but the director clearly wants us to apply the lessons the movie teaches to more current issues of terrorism and counterterrorism.

If War of the Worlds captured the pandemonium of a shock attack, Munich details the ways that both sides react to an act of aggression. Spielberg lays the groundwork early by showing Israelis and Arabs watching the archival news footage plays on TVs. Wails of agony greet each new report, with Arabs mourning the news of authorities killing the Palestinian radicals and Israelis weeping over that horrible, final update. The grief and rage of those watching is palpable, and before anyone has time to speak any lines of outrage and agony, the director establishes a bedrock of righteous fury on both sides of the Israel/Palestine divide that ensures no peace will come of this atrocity.

Indeed, Spielberg soon depicts the plotting of vengeance by the Israeli government. As newscasters read the names of the dead athletes with grave sympathy, Spielberg intercuts shots of Israeli agents making a list of their own, rattling off names of those suspected of orchestrating the attacks. Prime Minister Golda Meir looks at the assembled photographs and tells her advisers "Forget peace for now." Blood must pay for blood.

Meir and her top advisers devise a plan to eliminate 11 targets supposedly linked to the attacks, matching the number of slain Israeli athletes. To lead this mission, they bring in Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), Meir's former bodyguard and a member of Mossad. His handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), calmly lays out the unbelievably dangerous task for the man and assigns his team, gently but firmly shoving the man—who appears to care about his expecting wife more than the massacre—into participation.

But the plan betrays warped logic from the start. On face value, the Israelis have the moral high ground in their outrage, but they soon discover that their plot to fight terrorism with terrorism is, surprise surprise, as illegal as regular ol' terrorism. Already strong-armed into the mission, Avner is then made to resign from Mossad and sever all official ties with Israel; they even strip him of his pension so that he no longer exists in any payroll. If Israel sees Operation Wrath of God as justice, why must they conduct it clandestinely?

Further delving into the sinister politics surrounding the mission, Avner quickly learns that his heritage played as big a role as anything in his selection. Though he cannot officially take credit for the mission, Avner's status as a "sabra," a natural-born Israeli citizen, is instrumental in his placement at the head of the team. The government may not be able to claim him, but it will want the Arabs to know that a true son of Israel is after them. But before Avner recognizes this, he first interacts with a Ukranian-born Israeli in charge of supplying the team with cash. (I would call him a quartermaster, but the man behaves more like an usurer.) Despite the man's status as a naturalized citizen, he talks down to the sabra, calling him a "Yekke" because of his family's German lineage. The government knows of his family's roots in Europe, of course; that is as much a reason they chose him as his being a sabra. Yet in this moment, Spielberg shows a dark reversal in ethnic distrust. Germans with even the faintest traces of "Jew blood" in their family trees were arrested under Hitler, and now Jews with traces of German in them are mistrusted by other Israelis. In the old man's gruff rudeness is a taste of the overriding nature of this mission: the justifiable anger and pain stemming from horrors committed upon Jews threatens only to turn Jews into what they hate.

Interestingly, however, the actual squad assembled for the planned assassinations lacks much of the bloodthirst of its organizing bodies. Avner looks forward to completing the mission solely so he can return to his wife. His detached professionalism is shared by Hans (Hanns Zischler), the document forger; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Belgian toy-maker turned demolitions expert; and Carl (Ciarán Hinds), an ex-soldier who cleans up the assassinations. Only Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African Jew who serves as the getaway driver, displays any burning desire for revenge, spouting such platitudes as "The only blood I care about is Jewish blood." (I wonder what it says that a man from another land where the native population is forcibly kept in ghettos by a West-backed minority is the one who most ardently supports the mission). Christopher Hitchens mocked the character in passing, but I think he missed that Spielberg does too. Late in the film, Steve complains, "I'm the only one who actually wants to shoot these guys!" In measured tones, Carl responds, "Maybe that's why we don't let you do it. Your enthusiasm."

Nevertheless, the team's professionalism slowly deteriorates over the course of the film as the stress of the mission and their investment in it fluctuates. Not that it was ever particularly great: Avner takes no pleasure even in the first killing, ambushing an old Palestinian in Rome and visibly trembling as he asks the same questions repeatedly to prolong the situation before he and Robert pump him with 11 bullets. Avner celebrates shortly thereafter, but there's a perfunctory nature to his toast that suggests he's breaking out wine just because he could use a strong drink.

Things only get worse from there. Robert's explosives never seem to work properly, being either too weak or too powerful. In one case, the damn things don't work at all. The desire to minimize collateral damage and the deaths of innocents leads to a harrowing scene where the team must coordinate the bombing of a target in Paris without killing the man's wife and child. A truck obscures the car holding Robert, preventing him from seeing the man's daughter return to the hotel and pick up the rigged phone meant to kill her father. They manage to stop Robert just in time, though once the girl leaves again, they set off the explosive without compunction. It's a brief show of moral superiority to terrorists who put civilians in harm's way, but this doesn't last. A raid on Beirut leaves many bystanders dead, and the ease with which the powers that be justify the deaths erodes their supposed righteousness as the team is repulsed by the outcome.

Spielberg never lets the audience forget that what these men are doing is secretive, even seedy. The roaming camera at times feels more like that of De Palma than Spielberg, moving outward from targets to spot all of the voyeurs watching over them as each assassinated is orchestrated. Furthermore, the director's love of bright backlighting has never been more thematically telling, casting the team in deep shadows that offers visual obscuration to match the deliberately vague sketching of the characters. A point of criticism among the film's detractors, the forgettability of the team allows Spielberg to more easily present these pro-Israeli fighters alongside the Palestinians with whom they come into contact. When Robert poses as a journalist to set up the aforementioned phone bomb in Paris, he jots down the idealistic screed of the man's rant, which doesn't sound that much different from some of the more bullish speeches of the other side. Robert is only incensed by the talk, but the distance left between him and the viewer permits the audience to rise above the relativistic outrage on both sides to see how similar they really are.

Later in the film, Avner even gets to have a conversation with a PLO member when the team poses as leftist radicals to avoid a firefight with the Palestinians hiding in the same apartment complex in Athens. Their chat is somewhat contentious, with Avner boldly arguing for the validity of a Jewish state and nearly blowing his cover, yet the two ultimately have a revealing exchange of beliefs. Avner, who amusingly calls himself "the voice in the back of [the man's] head," asks if all the bloodshed is worth the scarce patch of desert these fighters have only heard about from their forebears. The question is deeply ironic, given the risks Avner and his team take for the same bit of land, and Ali firmly points this out. He says the Palestinians will remain in their camps and continue to fight until the world stops ignoring them, even if it takes generations. "How long did it take the Jews to get their own country?" he asks Avner, whose response is snappy but deflated, mournfully aware of what this will mean for the prospect of peace in his lifetime. For a brief moment, the two sides frankly admit their implacable stances in terms that are human and sympathetic, not warlike and self-justifying.

It's a tiny, all-too-quickly forgotten breakthrough in an exchange that has been going on since the start of the team's actions. When pro-Palestinian forces begin to respond to the squad's killings with more terrorism of their own, Hans rightly deduces, "We're in dialogue now." Contrary to the views of those who consider Munich a lazy equation of Israeli and Palestinian actions, Spielberg routinely stresses the disproportion of each response to emphasis the overall meaninglessness of this terrorism/counterterrorism conflict. The initial selection of exactly 11 targets to correlate to the number of Israelis killed soon becomes a farcical stab at 1:1 "justice" that falls apart when the assassinated targets are replaced by others who will eventually need taking out as well. And even if they stick to the original 11, the bloodshed won't end there. Hans laments after a few months of work that the team has only managed to kill seven targets (one of whom wasn't on the original list) while their own actions have prompted bombs and hijackings that left hundreds dead. Spielberg isn't trying to cast both sides as equally bad, merely asking whether a sense of moral superiority is worth the endless killing.

That he cannot see any end to this conflict makes Munich one of Spielberg's darkest films, second perhaps only to the epic antihumanism of A.I. So twisted is the film that one of its most chilling, hopeless moments is also one of its most aesthetically tranquil. Following his seedy French informant, Louis (Mathieu Amalric), to his family estate in the French countryside, Avner falls into conversation with Louis' father (Michael Lonsdale).

Papa is a fascinating character, a man who's made millions off of selling information in various conflicts and has picked up a hatred for governments because of it. Crystallizing the film's point about the waste of nationalistic fury and righteous wars, Papa mentions fighting in the resistance to overthrow Vichy and the Nazis, only to be greeted by Gaullists and the double-whammy of the Soviet Union and America. He then criticizes his pompous, fashionably Marxist children for dressing like factory workers without doing labor of their own or supporting Algeria but not truly caring for anyone in that nation. These lines wouldn't be out of place in a Godard film, with is ironic given that the French auteur has more or less cast Spielberg as the bogeyman for everything wrong with American cultural output (and, by extension, America as a whole). With this scene, Spielberg expands outward beyond merely the Israel-Palestine turbulence, deepening the feeling of disgust with armed conflict

Though when it comes to pitch-black despair, nothing compares to the murder of a Dutch assassin to avenge her killing of Carl. Throughout the film, Avner and the others have occasionally broached the subject of being sent to kill people not directly tied to the Munich massacre. At first, Avner places his trust in the government that passed him these names, but his mounting doubts nag at him as the film wears on. The assassin, however, must die solely because she has wronged these individuals. When they track her down to a houseboat, the men kill her horribly, using zip guns to put two holes in her chest and throat as she strips to tempt them. This scene is straightforward in the script, with the action over in a flash and the grim coda not much longer than that. But Spielberg draws it out, not having the woman die quickly but instead stumbling around, wheezing through the hole in her jugular vein as black blood spurts out with each thin hiss. And when Hans puts one final round into her skull, he refuses to let Avner close her open housedress, leaving her naked and blood-soaked as they depart. This moment plunges the film into almost nihilistic horror, severing whatever thin ties still held these men to feelings of moral justification and precipitating the downfall of the team. It's bleak, harrowing stuff, miring the film in a complexity that ranks the film among the director's most important works.

The only hiccup I can think of lies in the vague presentation of Avner's connection to the mission. He is constantly having visions of the Munich attack (which he did not witness and which was not captured on television), though he never seems to be particularly enraged by the Palestinian attack. Thus, he must be occasionally reminded of it via those odd interspersions of the massacre reenactment footage. It almost serves as a metatextual dose of Jewish guilt, prodding Avner into caring about his nation's wounded pride and murdered sons even as he displays a clear disdain for the thought of vengefully killing the sons of other countries from the start. But Spielberg's is a cinema of scrutinizing the faces of his characters, not what they see. He has a gift for infusing an objective frame with the subjective emotions conjured by those images, less so for diving into a character's headspace the way that a Scorsese or De Palma can. Todd McCarthy made a valid point when he said the film needed to implicate the audience in the assassin squad's actions, though I think his criticism applies best to these scenes, not the masterful detachment of the more objective action.

Consider the climax of these taunting visions of Munich, in which images of the tarmac shootout are intercut with Avner making angry, distant love to his wife. The implication is obvious: thoughts of his mission and its fallout have corrupted the last bastion of love and solace Avner had. He's wanted to return to his wife and child for so long, but the horror came home with him. But the already clichéd use of mashed up sex and violence would have been more potent for actually including images of the team's actions, not Black September's. As it is, Avner is "haunted" by an event he did not witness, and the blame is inadvertently cast on the Palestinians for starting all this when, as the rest of the movie bears out, it's Israel's response that tears the man apart. The sex scene is surrounded by scenes of Avner in abject terror of Mossad coming for him, and the use of the Munich footage lacks the power of what bookends it.

But perhaps the final-act paranoia explains this artistic choice. Everything finally collapses near the end, with Avner left so ragged by his experiences that maybe he does at last dwell on Munich, wishing it undone if for no other reason that it might have spared him the torment, not the athletes. The righteous speechifying of both sides previously demonstrated how revenge and plotted murder gnarls one's national mindset, but Avner's complete breakdown examines the more intimate effects of such policies. Furthermore, Avner's initial detachment from the mission, his view of the assignment as just that, makes his spiral all the more tragic. This is not a man undone by his own bloodlust but that of others, forced onto him until he snaps under the strain of someone else's rage. In that context, the repeated use of the Munich footage actually works, again as a visualization of a nationalistic form of Jewish guilt that strips him of his own humanity in service of a meaningless revenge scheme.

This is made more personable by a scene with Avner and his mother, who naturally plays the role of the guilt-inducing Jewish matriarch. Aware that her son is traumatized by what he's done, she makes vague references to her experiences in the Holocaust and of losing her family. She does not even have to refer to the Shoah by name for Avner to suddenly avert his eyes in shame and inherited grief. This scene precedes the cut-up sex scene with Avner and his wife, yet it perhaps holds the key to what follows. If Avner uncomfortably shifts at the slightest reminder of the Holocaust, suddenly the use of the Munich massacre in his headspace is not so bad. Spielberg could have inserted frames from Schindler's List in-between the couple making love, and the effect would be the same. A distraught Avner almost tearfully asks his mother if she wants to know what he's done, and she instantly responds, "Whatever it took." Then, she continues, almost oblivious of her own son: "Whatever it takes. A place on Earth. We have a place on Earth at last." In her stubborn oblivion is the face of Israeli insanity, the centuries of Jewish persecution having warped an entire people into single-minded focus. There is sympathy in Spielberg's treatment of this madness, but he recognizes it as madness, nonetheless.

Where Saving Private Ryan found childish nobility in suicide missions, Munich argues for more peaceful solutions. There is an understanding in Munich of the futility of conflict, and not just in the modern context of wars without clear borders. Recall Louis' father speaking of trading one dangerous power for others. For every terrorist Avner and his team kill—if they are even terrorists—another enemy shall replace him, and on it goes in perpetuity so long as each new terrorist is given a fresh reason to hate Israel and in turn gives the other side new reasons to plot the next round of strikes. Nothing hammers this home like the aforementioned final shot, settling on the World Trade Center in a grim reminder that the efforts of Avner et al. to rid the world of terrorists did little to stop the tide of violent, attention-grabbing atrocities. In that shot is also a warning to Americans of the folly to which they are committing themselves by demanding vengeance for the fall of those towers. Six years after the film's release, it would seem as if we still haven't listened to its message.


  1. Christopher Hitchens' criticisms of the film always sounded odd to me. He was by no means the most elegant of film critics (if I recall, he once compared Inglourious Basterds to "having a bucket of piss dumped over my head"), but I wish he had expanded more on what he found to be so "laughable" about the film, particularly his criticisms of Craig's performance. I mean, sure, Craig has some over-the-top lines, but then again there are Zionists in the world who really do say hateful things like that. I know Hitchens was a big fan of J.G. Ballard, though, so I wonder what he thought of what Spielberg did with Empire of the Sun.

    Your point that it might have been more realistic of Avner to think about his own killings (rather than the Munich Massacre) during sex with his wife is a valid one. I guess one reason why he thinks about the Munich Massacre instead is because that's the only violence that he's been depicted as thinking about -- and I mean shown to be really thinking about -- during the course of the film. The opening scene of him watching the massacre's coverage on TV proves that he does seem a little devastated by the fact that his people, Jews, are being butchered in Germany all over again, and those constant reminders by both his own mother and Ephraim that he needs to avenge Munich, protect Israel, etc., condition him into killing others.

    I'd say the reason why he doesn't think about his own killings during sex with his wife is because he tells Steve and Hans, during that dinner scene by candlelight, that he's stopped feeling any remorse about them. His daily routine is to wake up, go out and kill, go home, go to bed and feel nothing at all. And when he returns to his wife and daughter, he feels roughly the same way, although by that point he's hating Israelis, too, because he suspects them of harassing his family. So while having sex with his wife, the images of the Munich Massacre pop up again, perhaps to remind him once more that, no -- Israelis are the good guys, they're the victims in all of this and need to be defended against goons like Black September. But, yeah, by that point his whole mindset is so fucked up he doesn't know what to believe anymore. He hasn't let his own killings haunt his conscience, but he's let an incident he never even witnessed haunt it, and now look where that's led him?

    So, the last scene of the movie, when he goes out to have his final chat with Ephraim, is really the first time in the movie when Avner is finally willing to come to terms with his own killings. And it's probably because it's the only opportunity Avner will ever get to discuss his killings with anybody other than the men he killed with, i.e. Steve, especially since his own mother says she doesn't want him to tell her what he did. A night of bad sex with the wife has confirmed that the conditioning device of the Munich Massacre isn't helping him anymore, so his conversation with Ephraim provides an attempt to think about the other killings (his own), which he's been trying to justify throughout the whole movie. Of course, Ephraim is no help, and no wonder -- he's one of those guys who put those Munich Massacre-conditioning images into Avner's head.

    Avner, it's true, didn't witness the massacre, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's unreasonable for him to imagine how it might have gone down. Spielberg, Kushner and Eric Roth, after all, didn't witness the massacre either, but they have undoubtedly pondered for decades about what might have happened during it, what its consequences were, and how those consequences affect them as Jews.

  2. Adam, thanks for your comment, and sorry for the late response. It came during a busy time and I neglected to go back and answer.

    I think your explanation is valid, and I think I sort-of justified it to myself in the review (funnily enough, I was originally going to single the sex-massacre scene out for my one real criticism, but then as I started writing a sort of built-in rebuttal, I found that I took more to my counter-response than the original point). Like I said, it visualizes the cultural guilt of Jews, who have suffered so horribly as a people that it seems individuals are almost required to feel bad about what's happened. It's a weight no one can bear; and after the Holocaust, it seems like even something as relatively minor as the Munich Massacre can just be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

    1. todd mccarthy is an idiot we did not know the characters in all the presidents men or the french connection or the day of the jackal well either and those films were all the better for it. Butt a more recent film like jfk suffers because to much time is spent with the tedious home life of jim garrison.

  3. Is Papa a fictional or a real-life based character ? I wish it was the latter, he fascinates me as well, played so wonderfully by the brilliant Michael Lonsdale - I loved him in The Day of the Jackal BTW

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