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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Reliving the Munich massacre

By Norman Lebrecht / December 13, 2005

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Munich has two meanings in history. The first is Neville Chamberlain's sacrifice of Czech freedom in 1938 in exchange for a slip of paper. The second is the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian gunmen during the 1972 Olympics, an event which had been staged in Munich specifically to overcome the city's unsavoury past as the birthplace of Hitler's movement and the scene of his greatest diplomatic triumph.

Both Munich moments are steeped in shame. The British and the French signed away Czech lives in a cynical ruse to buy time for rearmament. The Germans in September 1972 made a hash of rescuing the Israeli hostages and the International Olympic Committee ordered the Games to resume after a perfunctory memorial service, almost before the blood of dead athletes had been sandblasted off the floors. Three captured Black September terrorists were released soon after by a nervous German government

Steven Spielberg's dangerous new film explores a cross-section of moral ambiguities around this Munich crisis and, while it does not try to cover all of the issues or solve the Middle East dispute, it has already provoked more hostile reaction than anything the Dreamworks director has ever filmed before.

Munich tells the story of the secret Israeli pursuit of perpetrators of the Olympic massacre. Based on a book, Vengeance, by Canadian journalist George Jonas, the film follows a motley, unorthodox hit squad set up on the orders of prime minister Golda Meir to eliminate the organisers of the atrocity and the surviving attackers, eleven in all. The symmetry was apparently intentional, a life for a life, and the existence of the squad, while officially denied, has been independently confirmed by Israeli generals in a 1993 BBC documentary. This much is a set-piece Hollywood pursuit scenario, cut to the chase.

But Spielberg who, in Schindler's List, delivered a powerful vindication for the existence of the State of Israel, adopts a more balanced approach in Munich. He has been attacked by Israeli diplomats for inaccuracy and by American Jewish groups for fostering a romantic equivalence between the rights of Israelis to live in peace and of Palestinians to regain all of their land. Both charges are, to some degree, substantiated on screen.

Munich, which received its first private UK viewing last night (it will not be shown in cinemas until the end of January), is a docudrama that begins as black-and-white TV reality and veers off on filmic fantasy. The reality is mostly unreal. Israelis do not talk to each other in the stilted clichŽs they use in this film and Golda Meir, to those of us who met her, was nothing like the visual-replica martinet acted out by Lynn Cohen. Golda was impassioned, illogical, self-assured and alternately self-tormenting. The film does not begin to convey her complexity.

As for Spielberg's tilt towards pro-Palestinian sympathies, there are moments of profound unease when he cuts from hostage families in Israel watching live reports from Munich to attackers' families in the West Bank rejoicing at the same scenes. Two sides of the same coin, he seems to be suggesting, but the misery of victims' mothers cannot be measured against the exultation of their tormentors' families - as if these were no more than supporters of rival football sides. There is no illumination to be gained from such cutting-room tricks, only a suspicion of manipulation.

Where Spielberg achieves remarkable even-handedness is in chance encounters that occur between Israelis and Palestinians in places where, for one reason or other, they cannot kill. The slogans they spout like Uzi rounds miss all of their intended targets, but a dialogue on a fire-escape between pursuer and pursued sows doubts in the minds of both men and a shared awareness that a life is not always for the taking.

The Israelis split into moralists and pragmatists, both prone to tedious speech-making. The moralists commit murder in the name of justice, the pragmatists just want to get it over and go home. Sometimes they get it seriously wrong, blowing up half a hotel instead of a man in a bed. Over several years, doubts set in. The pursuers start to ask themselves whether the targets are really the men responsible for Munich, or just ordinary members of the Palestinian leadership. Each assassination is followed, with sickening inevitability, by a counter act of terror from the PLO ö an ambassador blown up in London, a line of El Al passengers sprayed with bullets. Over time, the killing seems futile.

This is Spielberg's dramatic message, and one that precisely mirrors the course of history. The 1973 killing in the Norwegian town of Lillehammer of an innocent Moroccan waiter, mistaken for Black September leader Ali Hassan Salameh, landed six Mossad agents in jail and involved the Norwegian government so intensely in the Middle East mire that they began the tortuous dialogue which led, 20 years later, to the Oslo Agreement ö the first step towards a prospective peace. Spielberg bypasses Lillehammer in his film, but its shadow is unignorable.

His other implied topic is the targeted assassinations that the Israelis continue to commit against Hamas and Al-aqsa activists in the occupied territories. There is no denying Spielberg's eagerness to make a point. Calling his film 'a prayer for peace', he told Time magazine that 'the biggest enemy is not the Palestinians or the Israelis. The biggest enemy in the region is intransigence.'

His cast of 200 is credibly led by an Israeli actor, Eric Bana, partnered by the new James Bond, Daniel Craig, and with contributions from just about every nationality in the region. The evocation of Germany in its Baader-Meinhof jitters is particularly apt and, if too many of the locations appear to have been shot on the same Budapest boulevard, not many streets still display the unlovely fittings of the mid-70s.

Yet for all the attempted veracity, the film rings no truer than Saving Private Ryan which, in retrospect, was not so much an act of corps heroism celebrated by Spielberg in blockbuster style but a rank piece of propaganda, partly untruthful, planted on patriotic Hollywood by Washington warmongers. Munich may not be propaganda in the same spinning sense but it cannot simulate the horror of those terrible 21 hours in September 1972.

I, for one, will never get over the shock of seeing my friend Nissim Kiviti, the only Israeli sportscaster at the Games, being interviewed on a BBC screen not about the results of a race but about the murder of his team. Such things were unknown to sportsmen. At Munich, sport lost its innocence. The Africans boycotted the next Games, the Americans in 1980, the Russians in 1984. Munich marked the end of sporting neutrality.

But Spielberg intimates correctly that it also marked the beginning of something else - of a recognition by some Palestinians and Israelis that killing leads only to more killing, that every action has consequences, and that the sometimes the best policy is to have a quiet chat with the other fellow on an isolated fire escape.

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