A serene massacre
THE 1972 Olympic Games were billed as the serene Olympics, a chance to set social differences aside and experience the spirit of international camaraderie and friendship. That co-operation did not extend to a group of Palestinian militants who invaded the Olympic village, killed two members of the Israeli team and took another nine as hostages in return for the release of 200-plus Palestinians jailed in Israel. However, a botched rescue attempt turned into a bloodbath in which all nine were killed.
Steven Spielberg’s astonishing new film tackles the aftermath of the atrocity, telling the imagined story of the commando team recruited by the highest level of Golda Meir’s government, cut loose from any official connection with the Mossad, who must assassinate the ringleaders of the massacre.
Based on Vengeance, a fictional version of the Munich events by George Jonas, the film only claims to be “inspired by real events”. Still, it opens with a docudrama account, interspersed with authentic TV news footage of the Black September terrorist kidnapping, ending with their murders hours later at the Munich airport.
Munich must have been a tricky proposition for Hollywood’s consummate showman. Not only is the material shrouded in mystery, it is unlikely that the truth about the killings and reprisals will ever be known. It is also highly sensitive and, as such, not entirely conducive to reworking the events with the energy of a thriller. But beneath, Munich is a serious inquiry into the Israel-Palestine conflict, packed with cunning metaphorical flourishes and indelible characters.
The hero is Mossad man Avner (Bana), leader of the team of operatives – tough South African Steve (Craig), Belgian toymaker Robert (Kassovitz), German antiques dealer Hans (Zischler) and Carl (Hinds) – put together by secret serviceman Ephraim (Rush). Avner leaves his pregnant wife (Zorer), is officially detached from his true identity and joins the other four in Europe, where they target those on their hit list.
They may be experts of one form or another, but are an unlikely bunch of killers. None, bar the especially zealous Steve, is entirely happy about killing, despite their loyalty to the cause. As the film progresses, their psychological states shift, they exist in a scary alternate world, steadily losing touch with their moral compasses, and finally being corrupted by the process.
Although it’s undoubtedly from a Jewish, even Israeli, point of view, Spielberg – the world’s best Jewish filmmaker – tries to be even-handed. It has no heroes or villains, it sees the long aftermath of the birth of Israel as a hopeless cycle of violence and it has no silver lining of the kind that left audiences tearfully smiling when they left Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg blends action and humanity. You feel sympathy for these men. They are not cold-blooded killers, but patriots doing what they believe is necessary to preserve their nation. It is the least commercial, most somberly heartfelt movie ever made by the cinema’s most commercially successful filmmaker.
Spielberg is careful to portray the group’s Palestinian victims as human beings, people with families and ideals and a sense of their unique cultural heritage. These are men with wives and children, men who believe what they are doing is just as necessary as their Israeli counterparts.
Bana is solid as Avner, the conflicted Israeli soldier for whom God and country are paramount. He is the most notable victim of Spielberg’s flagrant attack of conscience and climactic shenanigans, which he carries it off with aplomb.
Munich should not be taken as fact. A disclaimer at the opening says, “Inspired by true events”. This is not a documentary, but a feature that leaves you questioning the validity of the actions — from both sides.