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Sympathy for the devil
Munich (2005) begins with the murder of eleven Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Israeli government responds by assembling a group to track and kill eleven Palestinian terrorists who are considered responsible for the attack. Avner Kaufman, a sensitive Mossad agent played by Eric Bana, leads this group of five, which includes a driver, bombmaker, document forger, and cleaner.
This could be the setup for an uncomplicated movie depicting a globetrotting, Ocean’s Eleven-esque crew eliminating terrorists with panache, but the director, Steven Spielberg, does not take that route. The Israelis did not seek justice for the murder of the Olympic athletes, but rather revenge, and the price for that is stated by Robert, the bombmaker, after successfully killing several terrorists:
We’re Jews, Avner. Jews don’t do wrong because our enemies do wrong… We’re supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s Jewish. That’s what I knew. That’s what I was taught. And now I’m losing it, Avner. I lose that, I lose everything. That’s my soul.
Spielberg reveals the appalling nature of the reprisal killings, which he argues are antithetical to Jewish identity, by depicting the targeted Palestinian terrorists as people and not just caricatures, not just targets to be knocked down.
The group’s first target is Wael Zwaiter. He is a poet living in Rome, translating One Thousand and One Nights into Italian. He gives a talk to a small, appreciative group at a cafe and tells self-deprecating jokes about how little money his book will make. He wears suspenders, a paisley tie, and a toothy grin. We see him stop for groceries at a little Italian bodega where he’s on a first-name basis with the lady behind the counter. He gets shot repeatedly by Avner and Robert, the bombmaker, when he enters the foyer of his apartment building. Bullets and his falling body shatter a bottle of milk that he had just bought, mixing with the wine he was also carrying. Perhaps the corruption of the milk signifies the corruption of Avner’s soul.
Mahmoud Hamshari is the second target. Pretending to be a reporter, Robert enters Hamshari’s home office in Paris and sizes his phone for a bomb. What we know about Hamshari is that he is a doting father. His daughter, wearing a Matilda-style school uniform, returns home unexpectedly and is almost blown up by Avner’s group. Hamshari gives her a peck on the cheek, says something endearing in French--possibly the last thing he ever says to her--and she runs off.
Hussein Al Bashir is the third target. Robert plants a bomb in the bed of his hotel room, and Avner waits in the room next door to signal when Al Bashir is in position. Before this happens, Al Bashir comes out to the balcony and hilariously commiserates with Avner on their shared fate of having in the next room an exhibitionist, newlywed couple who will be having very loud sex throughout the night. He even charitably offers Avner a sleeping pill.
Next, three Palestinian terrorists are killed in a raid by Israeli commandos with Avner’s group tagging along. There’s an exciting bit of cross-dressing and lots of shooting. These scenes serve as a contrast to the other killings because these terrorists are portrayed as little more than combatants, and there is no intimacy in these killings.
Zaid Muchassi is the final Palestinian terrorist the group successfully kills. Avner’s group is double booked in an Athens safehouse with PLO members. Just like in Barbarians (2021), they are wary of each other at first, but after a Mexican standoff is defused and the two rival groups have a cute fight over the radio that ends with an Al Green love song as common ground, I am ready to ship them. Avner and Ali, a leader of the group, smoke cigarettes in the stairwell and debate the Israeli/Palestinian conflict long into the night like the most obnoxious college students. Ali is both optimistic about the fate of Palestine and fatalistically prepared to stand first in the line of generations of Palestinians who will sacrifice their lives for the cause. (“We have a lot of children. They’ll have children. So we can wait forever.”) We don’t know much about Zaid Muchassi, but Ali is his emotional proxy. Avner’s group shoots him because he was with Muchassi at the time of his assassination.
The only one who doesn’t get this humanizing treatment is Ali Hassan Salameh, the organizer of the Munich Massacre. He is portrayed only as a terrorist. He is wealthy, well-dressed, and surrounded by henchmen. He is also the one who gets away, at least in the timeframe of the movie. We are told that he is eventually killed later on. He is presented as the mastermind behind the Munich Massacres, and, as such, Spielberg refrains from highlighting any humanity he may possess.
Ultimately, what Avner and his group experience is meant to apply to Israel itself. Seeking revenge for the murder of Israeli athletes is unjust; the murder of the terrorists (the poet, the father, the fellow traveler, and the freedom fighter) is little different from the murder of the Olympic athletes. With the killings, Israel lost its righteousness, an important aspect of Jewish identity. And for what? As Avner states, the terrorists were quickly replaced by other men, and Israel was made no safer.
Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth; Directed by Steven Spielberg
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
I’m assuming that, like me, the chronically online among you have seen yesterday’s release of Sight and Sound’s famous (and always contentious) list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. Lists are dumb, but they’re a fun exercise in consideration. Making a list of your favorite films or favorite films from a specific director can help you understand what works and doesn’t work for you when watching.
Most notable was the new number-one pick: Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). You won’t find a better reason to seek this movie out! You can read S&S’s write-up here.
If Dae hasn’t convinced you to revisit Munich, Spielberg’s last (ever?) R-rated film, entirely for adults, and the BFI hasn’t convinced you to check out Jeanne Dielman, maybe some of these Movie Night posts featuring other films from the top 100 will strike your fancy.
It’s interesting to me that Spielberg is nowhere on the list. It seems like we’ve become accustomed to the high quality of his output and take him somewhat for granted these days. I suspect, sadly, that Spielberg’s reputation won’t quicken with critics and directors until he’s gone and he receives a thorough re-examination. Watch Dae’s recommendation, Munich, and you might wonder why there isn’t more Spielberg love these days.
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