More Than Just Film
Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) is not an easy film to love.
Based on Israel’s retaliation to the massacre at the 1972 Olympics, there is no doubting the relevance and potency of its message in the years following the September 11th attacks, but the abiding memory of my first viewing was of an ugly and gloomy film, drained of humanity and vivid colours, which left me feeling drained and gloomy some way shy of its 164 minute running-time.
It was with more than a little trepidation when – six years later – I returned to it as part of my post-graduate thesis on revenge cinema. The second viewing raced by and when I reached the end of the third I was convinced that Munich is comfortably Spielberg’s best work for nigh-on two decades and in many ways his bravest film. Brave for addressing a critical phase in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, for refusing to demonise the Palestinians and for posing its audience uncomfortable questions regarding America’s continued support of Israel and how this contributed to the attacks on 9/11.
Following a gripping recreation of the hostage siege and failed rescue attempt in which eleven Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorist organisation Black September, Munich establishes its key theme of the family versus the state as we are introduced to its protagonist, Avner Kaufman (played by Eric Bana). He is at home with his pregnant wife watching coverage of the murdered athletes’ funerals, and yet this domestic unity will soon be another victim of the conflict.
What haunts me most about Munich, having recently become a parent, is the choice Avner must make between his family and career. Having never personally dabbled in anything that could be called a career, I’ve been able to take time off work and be present for those priceless tiny moments as they race from newborns to toddlers in a wonderful and terrifying blur. Avner though works as an agent for the Mossad (the Israeli intelligence service) and is presented with the opportunity to lead a clandestine mission to assassinate eleven high-ranking members of Black September and the Palestine Liberation Organization based in Europe. He would have to leave his family, give up his previous identity and learn to act and kill like a terrorist, running his five man team as an independent terror cell, secretly funded by the Mossad.
Avner accepts the mission and it is this separation from his family that provides the film with its emotional core. Compounding this loss is the knowledge that he is not only repeating his parents’ mistake of neglecting his own family for the service of Israel, but also damaging other family units in this service. The majority of the mission’s targets are middle-aged family men which his team kill using bombs placed in a variety of domestic household items (including a bed, a telephone and a television). Although his team goes to great lengths not to kill other family members, Avner displays an acute awareness that their actions are foregrounding the family and its domestic setting as a site of terror, and that one day this will come back to haunt him.
Even though Munich boasts several thrilling Spielbergian set-pieces, this self-awareness of the damage being done dominates much of the screen time. The majority of Avner’s team become racked with guilt as the mission claims their faith in their religion, the state of Israel and themselves. Each target they successfully kill is replaced with a more dangerous and extreme character, and draws an increasingly violent response from Black September – a letter bomb, a hi-jacked airliner, a massacre at an airport – establishing a dialogue of violence claiming countless innocent lives and banishing any hope of peace for generations.
As with the majority of Spielberg’s films, Munich can be boiled down to a family melodrama but uniquely amongst this body of work, and in a reflection of the entrenched nature of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, there is no resolution and no happy ending. Avner can find nothing heroic, cleansing or redemptive in either his violent actions or by denouncing these actions as murder and severing ties all with Israel. Like a revenger in a Western, Avner concludes the narrative unable to settle in the society he has sacrificed so much for. He joins his wife and daughter living in exile in New York knowing that he is putting them at risk from the many enemies he has made during his mission, including his former employers.
He is visited by Ephraim, his contact from the Mossad, who finds Avner a shadow of the man who started the mission, plagued by the fear that his team merely made the world a more dangerous place. Ephraim tells him that he killed for the sake of peace, to which Avner replies ‘there is no peace at the end of this’. The two men stroll into a deserted and seemingly neglected children’s playground, a location which signifies the damage done to Avner’s family through his absence and his transformation from family man into revenger. Ephraim tries one last time to get Avner to return to Israel, emotionally blackmailing him by telling him he has abandoned his sick father and lonely mother. Avner refuses and Munich concludes with the two men exiting the playground in opposite directions, signifying a permanent separation between Avner and his homeland.
Despite his best intentions, by accepting the mission Avner ensured that he will never again find peace within his state, his family or himself. It is a conclusion that encapsulates the bleak tone which can make the first viewing of Munich feel so gruelling and yet Spielberg must be commended for holding back on the sickly-sweet sentimentalism which taints the final reel of so much of his work.
It is in the final shot of Munich that the wider damage caused by Israel’s policy of targeted killing is contextualised and its connection to 9/11 made explicit. As the crane shot climbs above Avner and the playground it comes to rest on the Hudson River and the sky scrapers of Manhattan. Some way off in the distance and the haze of the city, echoing Avner’s comment of ‘there’s no peace at the end of this’ and unmistakable for their very presence, is a computer generated representation of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. The physical distance between the camera and the twin towers can be read as representing how the events of 9/11 are almost thirty years in the future, but their presence at the centre of the final shot of the film suggests that a chain of events is underway that will result in their destruction.
Due to the contentious subject matter, and fearing the filming could itself be targeted by terrorists, Munich‘s production was kept a secret and the finished film was released with only a fraction of the hype which usually accompany a Steven Spielberg release. As a result, Munich has become Steven Spielberg’s neglected and unloved masterpiece.