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Munich of fact and fiction.

STEVEN SPIELBERG'S Munich (2005) confirms that the director is an expert filmmaker, especially deft at the sentimental pot boiler. This is a suspenseful tale about a small Israeli team dispatched to kill eleven Black September terrorists who have played key roles in the slaughter of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. The characters are off-beat and intriguing and the backdrops convincingly detailed, right down to the Hebrew Coca Cola sign in Israel and the Pepsi sign over the wan disco in Beirut. Beautifully crafted, this film has the feel of history.

But a filmmaker is not a historian, on three counts. One, any source holds only one among many perspectives--hence the axiom that "a history" is only the fiction that one chooses to believe. Two, any "fact" can resonate as a metaphor once it appears in a work of art. Those Coke and Pepsi signs become partner emblems of American influence--or of a global war that only the mother of all takeovers can resolve. Finally, those new metaphors make any period film not only about the time in which it is set, but about the time in which it is made. The profound film will also be about the time (and culture) in which it is viewed. For in Aristotle's distinction history deals merely with what happened once, while poetry (i.e. fiction) tunes into universal patterns. Medea, c'est moi.

Spielberg nicely blends explosions with moral philosophizing and weaves an atmosphere of cynicism and betrayal familiar to those who love the work of John le Carre. But Munich falls apart as history, both as a reflection upon the Middle East in 1972 and upon the situation there today. Anticipating this problem, he early declares that the film is only "inspired by real events," then identifies its source as George Jonas's book, Vengeance (1984). Jonas (in "The Spielberg Massacre," Maclean's, 9 January 2006) has defined Spielberg's divagation:

 Vengeance holds there is a difference between terrorism and
 counter-terrorism; Munich suggests there isn't. The book has no
 trouble telling an act of war from a war crime; the film finds it
 difficult. Spielberg's movie worries about the moral trap of resisting
 terror; my book worries about the moral trap of not resisting it.

The problem is not that Spielberg's "history" rewrote Jonas's "history" but that his film inadequately meets the present situation. Had Spielberg instead showed Ptomania avenging their team's slaughter at the Freedonia Olympics, his fiction could have preserved the artful explosions and wistful philosophy without spreading such dangerous naivete about today's Middle East. But this is about more than just fiction.

THE OPENING title expresses today's sensibilities much more than those of 1972. The name "Munich" emerges from a screenful of international cities, as if the ensuing drama could have happened in any one of them. But at the time, Munich was a solitary target/opportunity. The terrorists, of course, have since gone global. We are reminded of this in the film's closing frames when we see the (digitally recreated) twin towers of the World Trade Center dominating the Manhattan skyline, behind the avenging hero Avner (Eric Bana), a ghost-elect. And this cosmopolitan scene further reminds us of Avner's globetrotting before he finally took refuge in New York--we remember the bank accounts he has accessed in Geneva and the targets he has accessed in Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, and Athens.

The cynicism emphasizes the film's genre roots over reality. For all the Israeli particulars, Avner becomes just another spy who tries to come in from the cold. His key source--the mysterious Frenchman Louis (Mathieu Amalric)--at one point tells him, "You have no idea who you work for. Trust me." Avner adopts this murky cloak himself when it suits his purpose: "Everyone works for someone." The monetary intelligence ethic is brought home by the cranky Mossad accountant (Oded Teomi), who testily insists that his killing squad "bring me receipts"--a bit of stereotyping only a Jewish director could get away with. These cliches help to weave the film's shadowy and cynical spy world, but they also trivialize the political realities of the real story.

The screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth is an engaging construction. The sabra (native-born Israeli) hero, Avner, is a man whose whole life has taught him to subordinate his family to the state of Israel. His primary family is the Jewish national identity. While his father was doing time as a political prisoner, Avner's mother abandoned him to be raised on a kibbutz; later, he served as a bodyguard to that great Israeli mother figure Golda Meir. His journey in the film is one that takes him away from this national family. Foreshadowing his final disenchantment, he is finally able to tell his wife, "You're the only home I've ever had."

During the film, his missing father is replaced by two surrogates. One, the Mossad officer Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), runs Avner's operation but carefully eliminates all official connection to it. His invisible authority allows the state to evade responsibility for a decision that has been made at the highest levels. So Avner pretends to be a German freelancer working for rich Americans. At their last meeting--with so many dark deeds accomplished--Ephraim urges Avner to "come home" to Israel. But Ephraim-the-father declines Avner's invitation to dine with his family--and so denies any personal link. Ephraim has previously shown this same detachment in demanding that Avner reveal the source he has so carefully cultivated. And Avner finds that he truly comes of age when he refuses to give his Israeli surrogate father the name of his more international surrogate father--"Papa" (Michael Lonsdale).


Papa runs the "intersecting secrecies" of international espionage from his French country estate, but refuses to work with governments. "We stay away from governments--after Vichy scum were replaced by Gaullist scum," he explains, and goes on to say that the Nazi hegemony has simply been replaced by the hegemonies of the Soviets and the Americans. The equation is flippant--and maddeningly French. Despite his aversion to governments, Papa is willing to forgive Avner's trespass into Beirut--working with the Israeli army--because he respects Avner's feelings for his father, sympathizes with the suffering forefathers of his "tribe," and identifies with the young man's need to "feed [his] family." Though his own daughter (Marie-Jose Croze) estimates his profits in the millions, Papa comes across as a thoughtful patriarch who balances loyalty and betrayal, idealism and pragmatism. "You could have been my son," he warns Avner at the end of their first meeting, "but you're not. Remember that. We'll do business, but we're not family."


In contrast to these surrogate fathers, Avner has two nationalist mothers. His real mother (Gila Almagor) most passionately articulates the Jews' need for Israel. She doesn't want to know the details of his operations, but she is proud he has helped to secure the Jewish homeland. The equation of Mother and Israel is brought home powerfully in the depiction of Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen). As she ruefully pats her ex-bodyguard's cheek she remarks that she sees more of his mother in his face than his father. Meir makes Israel's political case. Jews are "ambushed and slaughtered again, and the world couldn't care less." The Jews "have to show them we're strong." And finally: "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values."

Avner's wife Sylvie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is the modern Israeli mother, with a less rooted passion for the Jewish state. At Avner's departure she eschews heroism but will "go along with this ... until I don't." Spielberg uses two scenes of Avner and Sylvie making love to indicate how the assassin's cruel mission has changed him. The first, before Avner sets off for Europe, celebrates the young couple's love and imminent parenthood in their homeland. But their reunion of lovemaking, toward the end of the film, is intercut with the stark and brutal scenes of the final slaughter of Israelis at the Munich airport. Avner is scarred by the terrorism his country has suffered, but the film makes clear that he is more scarred by the experience of his death squad activities and by the loss of his close comrades.


Avner's team has been steadily shrinking as the game has become more and more dangerous. With three of his comrades gone, he soon succumbs to paranoia, tearing up his apartment and even his mattress, hunting for the same types of booby traps and remote-controlled detonators that his own men have planted in so many quiet rooms. At the story's end, he suspects that the state of Israel might well be a threat to his wife and child. He has come to trust Papa more than Israel, though Papa may well have sold out his men. In dissolving Avner's faith, Spielberg abandons Israel.

We watch two of Avner's colleagues also lose faith in their mission. Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz)--a toy maker who has been converted from a bomb dismantler to a bomb builder--quits when he can't reconcile his work to his old ideals: "We're supposed to be righteous. That's a beautiful thing. That's Jewish." Another comrade, Carl (Ciaran Hinds), feels guilty for all the laws the team has broken; Israel doesn't even have capital punishment, and yet he has somehow become a secret executioner at the behest of the righteous people's state. The performances are powerful and the words poignant. But how is it that Spielberg charges the Israelis through their own consciences--but not their Arab adversaries? In upholding this clumsy leftist double standard, he holds the Jews to a higher standard of conduct (even if it kills them). Such idealism is cheap--for anyone beyond the terrorists' range.

CLEARLY Spielberg has aimed for that cherished ideal, balance. That's a liberal reflex, like apple strudel and motherhood. Balance becomes an implicit theme in this tale even as the team hones its skills in assassination. The Israeli team's first bomb is too weak to kill its victim immediately. The next one is too strong--wounding the target's hotel neighbours (Israeli honeymooners on one side and Avner on the other). In the third attack, some "prehistoric explosives" fail to detonate, so antique dealer Hans (Hanns Zischler) has to do the job with an old-fashioned grenade. The team's moral balance is also threatened when they kill two targets not on the original list--the terrorists' new KGB contact and a Dutch seductress who has eliminated one of their comrades.

Quite properly, Spielberg humanizes the Palestinians. The writer Wael Zwaiter (Makram Khoury) seems a nice enough fellow in his day-to-day life, and insists on paying his local grocer after using his phone. The first target, he appears very much the ordinary human being as he stands befuddled, facing his Israeli executioners, before being shot through the bags of groceries containing what would have been his lonely, modest dinner. The second victim comes across as a typical intellectual, living in Paris with his wife and adorable little girl (who narrowly escapes being blown up along with daddy). The third chats amiably with Avner from his hotel balcony, before offering him a sleeping pill so he won't be disturbed by the newlywed neighbours' noisy passion. We observe that these foes are human beings with some endearing characteristics. But, as Jonas observes, "Not demonizing human beings is dandy, but in their effort not to demonize humans, Spielberg and Kushner end up humanizing demons." Again--nowhere in this film does Spielberg trouble the collective conscience of the terrorists in the same way that he haunts the conscience of the Israelis.

Both the official orders and the moral grounding of the Israeli team determine that they should not kill any civilians. In one harrowing scene, they race to abort a bomb detonation when a target's daughter unexpectedly joins him. They agonize over whether it is acceptable to kill another target's armed bodyguards. And during a Beirut operation, Avner stops a soldier from shooting a target's young son. Yet Spielberg lets stand a PLO operative's claim that the organization condemns civilian deaths. Consider for a moment the ocean of innocent blood that has been spilled between the years 1972 and 2006--with Palestinian children used as human shields and recruited as suicide bombers. In so grossly simplifying reality, Spielberg's "balance" is hopelessly naive.


Spielberg falls victim to many of the simplifications that have made such a muddle of the Left's response to the Arab-Israeli conflict. He gropes for understanding and middle ground, but the very absence of middle ground is, it seems, forever the heart of the issue. Hamas still openly insists that a state of Palestine must replace Israel, not find a way to live with the Jewish state; the more moderate factions are in favour of the trappings of peaceful dialogue, while quietly assuring their supporters that this is a more pragmatic path to Israel's annihilation.

Whatever its flaws, Spielberg's new film reminds us that storytelling is a political act. The first target, the writer Zwaiter, comments on "the power of narrative, the relationship of narrative to survival." The Israeli and Palestinian sides spin events from their conflicting histories in the service of their respective communities' continued survival. But instead of showing any signs of troubled conscience, the terrorists gloat that Munich has won them global publicity. They have taken the lives of Israelis in order to create a useful story. And Spielberg's story offers up a "balanced" retelling that also serves the terrorists.

The same simplifications are apparent as the film's violence is ratcheted up. When the Israeli agents have successfully carried out a number of assassinations, the Palestinians respond with letter bombs, and Carl wryly observes: "We're in dialogue with them now." And as the death toll rises, the film's Israeli agents soon find themselves questioning the rationale behind their operation. Says one: "Killing Palestinians isn't exactly cheap ... what about their replacements?"

And here is the film's Big Lie--that terrorism increases because of counterterrorist action. When a suicide bomber blows up an Israeli wedding, a bus full of commuters, or a pizza parlour full of patrons, Israel is scolded for retaliating. Suicide bombers score once when they take the lives of innocent civilians and again when Israel is criticized for responding. And, as real-world history has demonstrated, when Israel does not retaliate, the terrorists read this as weakness and attack again.

IN THE END, Munich goes to great artistic lengths to depict Israel's self-defence as corrupting, criminal, and futile. But what exactly are that nation's options? However unwittingly, Munich subtly (and bizarrely) contains the suggestion that perhaps this tiny democratic state should simply surrender to the despotism that surrounds it. By undermining his Israeli characters' resolve to survive, the filmmaker's "balance" strengthens the real-world terrorists' hand. And so we see that no matter how skilfully this tale of intrigue, suspense, and spy-world cynicism has been woven, it doesn't do justice to the historical realities of 1972, or to the history that continues to unfold today.


MAURICE YACOWAR is professor of English and film studies at the University of Calgary. His latest book is The Sopranos on the Couch: Analyzing Television's Best Series (Third edition, 2005, Continuum).
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Author:Yacowar, Maurice
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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