There is no better time to view and review Munich (2005) by Steven Spielberg – a two-hour-thriller that depicts Israeli retaliation of the Munich Massacre of 1972. As the world watches on while Israel and Hamas exchange rockets, peace is further away from Gaza than ever. An age-old tragedy is staging daily: blood spilt, children murdered, morality abandoned – all in the name of statehood. After all, it seems nothing much has changed since 1972.
The story begins by heart-pounding scenes of the Massacre, where eleven Israeli Olympians were hunted, kidnapped and murdered by Black September terrorists. Carefully treading the line between historical authenticity and fiction, Spielberg based this masterpiece on Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, a book by journalist George Jonas that documents Operation Wrath of God, the assassination programme approved by then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) in response to the tragedy in Munich. The Mossad squad led by Avner Avner (Eric Bana) raced across and beyond Europe to settle the score. One by one, the Israelis located, encircled, and murdered perpetrators of the Massacre.
The mysterious French family
While Operation Wrath of God truly took place, Spielberg decorated history with fictional spins. For instance, the secretive French family, who provided the hit list to Mossad and profited from doing so, was crafted out of thin air. Yet it was Papa (Michael Lonsdale) – the head of the household, and Louis (Mathieu Amalric) – Papa’s son and right hand man (often jealous of his father’s affection for Avner), who gifted this film with a geist of its own. Time and again, Avner was warned that the family ‘don’t work for government’ and repercussions would follow if Avner lied to his service provider regarding the use of the hit list (which he did). But the Bana’s character was blinded from the reasoning behind this policy until he was introduced to mysterious Papa.
Invited to their family home in France for dinner, Avner was welcomed with warmth instead of vice, despite his exposed identity. ‘You did what you did because you had to feed your family,’ said Papa, with a sense of understanding. The family dinner was set in the family’s alluringly beautiful garden, in golden summer sunlight, composing a heavenly picture compared to the hellish images of the butchering in Beirut that preceded this segment. There is a strong Judea-Christian overtone to Spielberg’s direction, which separates Papa’s kingdom from the battlefields on earth, and emphasises the importance of ‘family’ – the rights and responsibilities of family members. Papa drew sharp distinction between his family and guests, and demonstrated this by his sentimental remarks to Avner. “You could be my son,” Papa whispered, as Avner was ready to depart. “But you’re not. Remember that. We do business. But we aren’t family.”
Because blood runs thicker than water
Blood runs thicker than water. That is Munich’s message, but it is not created by Spielberg. As magnificent as the master of cinemas is, this is the ubiquitous theme behind all forms of identity politics in human history. Family, home, statehood – Israelis and Palestinians alike unite their supporters and rally their troops by the association of ‘blood’, that a nation is a family, and to enjoy the privilege of statehood is not dissimilar to having a home.
The success of Munich lays with the manner in with Spielberg captures this Israeli-Palestinian identity politics. The audience would witness the manifestations of national identities and the concept of nation-state as a family endlessly in 163 minutes. For instance, the most moving of which was Avner’s soul searching smoking break with a Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) member, whom he met in Athens where they shared the same safe house, thanks to Louis’s treachery arrangement. Avner protected his identity by claiming that he was German, and debated with the Palestinian as one. While Avner ridiculed Palestine for its unrealistic ambitions, his counterpart accused him as ‘Jew-sympathiser’ and out of touch with the realities faced by Palestinians. “You don’t know what it is to have a home,” Avner was told by the teary Palestinian, “We want to build nations. Home is everything.” The chilling scene was sealed with the two men staring directly into each other’s sights in the dark, with only smoke filling the gap and silence between them. The handsome and built Bana symbolised the militarily strong and financially abundant Israel, looking from a few steps below in a defensive posture. Whereas the relatively thin and dark-skinned PLO member situated himself higher up on the staircase, reflecting Palestine’s occupation of the moral high ground, with neither fear nor content. Yet only one could survive before events move on in Athens, which perhaps shines light into Spielberg’s scepticism of the two-state solution.
Munich: a timeless masterpiece
Munich will also prove to be a timeless film, primarily because of the longevity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also due to the movie’s carefully crafted dialogues. Again in Athens, the Palestinian argued the global community turned them into terrorists by indulging Israel, and only terror can refocus the world’s attention on the carnage in Gaza – an argument often deployed by Hamas. “But then the world will see how they’ve made us into animals. They’ll start to ask questions about the conditions in our cages,” said the Palestinian. On the other hand, as the Mossad moved to London, self-doubt was inflicted among members. Steve (Daniel Craig) bullishly declared, when questioned by Carl concerning the morality and legality of their actions, that “the only blood that matters to me (Steve) is Jewish blood.” This ultra-nationalist line sent chills down my spine. Though sadly, this is a view held by many Israelis then and now.
Another demonstration of Munich’s timelessness is brought alive by the delightful performance by Cohen. Her role as Golda Meir – the ‘Iron Lady’ of Israel – was a sketch that resembles reality as much in 1972, as in 2005 when Munich was in cinema, and now in 2014, in the midst of fragile ceasefire deals between Hamas and Israel. The alarming line that came out of the lips of Cohen, “To get peace for now, we have to show them we’re strong,” could have easily been the words of the current Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Munich massacre, lingering memories of which were reignited by the kidnapping of the three Israeli soldiers, caused Israel to retaliate, the means of which not necessary justified morally or legally. That was not a concern for the then PM, Meir the pragmatist. “Today I’m hearing with ears. Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values,” said Meir in Munich. But you would not have known had I not told you. This mesmerising line, too, could have been delivered by Mr. Netanyahu.
That human touch
Munich does not have the answers to international politics (not sure if anyone does), but it does begin to ask some important questions. Yes, blood does run thicker than water, family is different from friends, and to have a nation is to have a home. However, behind attempts to differentiate from each other, there laid a common human touch between individuals in the movie. Between Papa and Avner, both fathers, there was an understanding of each other’s responsibility to provide for their families. Between Carl and the little girl in Paris, whose father he was supposed to murder, and whose life he spared. Between Avner and the young man in Beirut, whose home he just raided and parents he just brutally shot. The connection goes beyond the big screen. It is one that connects human beings. It rises above the concept of nations and across national borders. It is the human touch that makes peace in a world where war is too often exploited as a viable option. Empires can fall, oceans can rise, but this connection will forever remain.
As we gasped through Spielberg’s sensational scenes and the brilliant cast that collectively carried the heavy thematic dialogues, let us ponder upon the possibility of peace, before we resumed into the thought of war in Gaza again.