Spielberg: Munich part 1

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WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Excellent question! The protagonist of Munich changes his mind about what he wants a number of times during the narrative. He starts out wanting to "protect his family" (and we’ll see what a complicated notion that is) but before long he doesn’t know what he’s doing any more in this, Spielberg’s most emotionally complicated movie.

0:00 – 9:30 Like many of Spielberg’s best moments, the opening of Munich features a lot of pure, cinematic behavior. Saving Private Ryan begins with "How does an army unit take a beach?" Schindler’s List opens with "How does a canny businessman open an enamel factory in occupied Krakow?" and Munich opens with a 25-minute piece called "How does a man become an assassin?"

But first, it has a briefer how-to moment, "How does a group of terrorists get inside the Olympics compound in Munich in 1972?" The answer, ironically enough, begins with "With the aid of a bunch of drunk Americans."

We watch as the group changes costumes in the shadows, from athletes into terrorists (there will be a number of costume changes in the hours ahead), then huddles for a quick prayer before their attack. Spielberg presents the terrorists’ attack on the dorms almost as a caper — he shows the terrorists as people first, undertaking a dangerous mission, and we almost identify with them. Later on, he’ll show the same attack from the point of view of the hostages, and the terrorists will look completely different then — inhuman, monstrous, masked thugs attacking unarmed men — athletes, not soldiers, in their underwear, no less.

We then jump forward in time and switch perspective from the dorms to the world, where the hostage situation is being commented on around the world and watched carefully by Golda Meir. We flit back to the dorms occasionally, as we see the terrorists confronting their dilemma — they’ve committed themselves to the perpetration of a monstrous act, now who are they? What do they do now? This dilemma will play itself out over and over in Munich, but from the perspective of the protagonist, who’s supposed to be the "good guy."

(There’s an incredible shot from inside the dorm, where we see a terrorist venture out onto the balcony, and see the famous footage of the same event on the TV in the room — Spielberg, the visual genius, finds a way to take an international incident and make it incredibly personal, to, in one shot, literally put us in the room when it’s happening.)

(As long as I’ve stopped, there’s an odd note in this section of the movie where Spielberg keeps drawing attention to the fact that the Munich disaster was, by and large, reported to the world by sports reporters, Jim McKay and Howard Cosell among them. It’s a fascinating detail and a reminder of how alarming and incongruous the event was at the time. The story also takes pains to show that the media didn’t get the story right immediately in Munich, an example that will be reflected later in many characters’ mistrust of the media.)

9:30 As the hostages are reported dead at the airport (how this all fits together Spielberg will parcel out over the next three hours), our protagonist, government agent Avner, husband and father-to-be, watches, saddened and frightened on television. As the TV lists the names of the dead, Spielberg cuts to an office in Mossad headquarters, where an equally-long list of names of terrorists is recited. The solemn recital of names again recalls Schindler’s List, and again, Spielberg cannot resist to stand a concept on its head. In Schindler, "the list is life," but in Munich both lists are nothing but death. The equal list of names also suggests the Old Testament law of an eye for an eye, which suggests a motive of revenge, which our protagonist will do his best to rationalize into something more honorable. At this point, all Avner wants is to perform his little government job, "the most boring job in the world" in his opinion, and take care of his family. "We’re going to have a baby," he announces to his wife, who hardly needs to be reminded.

11:32 There is now a brief scene where Golda Meir meets with some military and intelligence folks, and proceeds to explain her reasons for undertaking the mission of assassination. She seems to believe that the job is distasteful but necessary, protecting civilization by practicing the things that undermine civilization. This concept is, of course, central to the "message" of Munich, which sits, increasingly uncomfortably, on the horns of its dilemma as its narrative develops.

13:28 Avner gets recruited by the Mossad and is sent to meet with Meir. On three different occasions, characters mention to Avner his father, indicating that he comes from a government family, and implying that, in itsway, the government is his family. (After various folk mention his father three times, Meir finally tells Avner that he more closely resembles his mother — tying Avner not just to the Israeli government, but to herself — she is his mother.) The scene is, the Queen has summoned the Brave Knight to go out into the world and slay the Dragon. Or is Avner more of the Handsome Prince? Since Meir ties herself to him as a mother, and keeps mentioning her own sister’s death, we see that Spielberg is working this notion of "family" deep into his protagonist’s psyche — who is his family? Whom shall he protect? Who shall he fight for? Is his wife and baby his family, or is Israel one large family?

(Spielberg is looking for a complicated emotional response in Munich, and gets it — he consistently puts the audience in the position of the protagonist, thinking now, "hey, my homeland, which is also kind of my family, is calling on me to protect it, what shall I do?" and then never really provides an answer to that question, preferring instead to work the drama of it for all it’s worth.)

Meir and the other folks leave the room, and we find there is one other guy there who we didn’t see before — this is Ephraim, and Meir has performed a sort of bait-and-switch on Avner — she’s patted him on the cheek as a loving mother, then handed him off, without introduction, to a stern and cold father. Ephraim will be Avner’s case officer on his assignment, and his brand of fatherhood — typical of Spielberg’s fathers — will be remote, opaque, unhelpful and severe.

17:35 How much of a man is Avner? Spielberg shows him having hot sex with his very-pregnant wife, that’s how much of a man he is. The shock is not that Avner has sex with his pregnant wife, but that Spielberg wants us to see it. For the moment, the scene shows Avner as a "real man," a loving husband and a hot lover as well as a father-to-be, but Spielberg is building toward something else, a more interesting, profound statement a long ways down the line.

After sex, Avner and his wife talk about his mission — if Avner is confused about who his family is, his wife is a little more sure. "Israel is your mother," she teases him, before adding "I’m not the hero’s nice wife." Clearly, Avner’s wife is his match, a tough cookie who’s ready to take on the task of motherhood, and isn’t about to let her husband lead her up the garden path, even if he is a trained assassin.

20:00 And now some exposition as Spielberg explains to us how, exactly, a man becomes a government assassin. The details — where does he go, who does he work with, how does he get paid, who does he report to, what is his place? Ephraim walks him through this, simultaneously giving him the keys to the kingdom and exiling him — his job makes him "officially unofficial," a non-person, a man without a country, whose job it is to defend that country to the death.

(Speilberg also allows in a rare "Jewish joke" in the form of an accountant who goes on at length about the need for receipts — he’s introduced as a joke, but then we see that the darker purpose to the character is to doubt — impugn, even — Avner’s identity as an Israeli. Apparently, he spent a lot of his childhood in Germany, which makes him a "yekke," not "really" an Israeli.

Ephraim goes on to explain the particulars: Avner has been chosen for this job not because he’s so great but because he’s so ordinary — no one will suspect him of being a government assassin

23:00 Avner is now on his way, on a plane out of Israel (he joked earlier about his job being to protect tourists on El Al), leaving his family and his nation — which is also his family — behind. He looks out the window and thinks back to the Munich disaster, and we go back with him, only this time, we see the initial attack from the hostages’ point of view. This is not a "caper" any more, this is bald-faced brutality, senseless and cruel — and sometimes met with equally brutal resistance. Avner ponders the situation as a kind of central tenet to his actions — "those heartless bastards slaughtered my people" — and looks forward into the darkness to contemplate who he is, now that he is no one.

25:42 His reverie over, his conflicted mind steeled for his uncertain mission, he removes his wedding ring.


6 Responses to “Spielberg: Munich part 1”
  1. stormwyvern says:

    I haven’t seen Munich since it was in theaters and I feel like I would probably have to watch it again to get everything since, as you say, this is a rather complex movie in a lot of ways.

    Self-contradictory ideas seem to be a major theme in this film, from the big one of Israel deciding to combat assassination with their own assassinations down to the more personal notes of Avner being chosen to do something extraordinary because he looks like an ordinary person who would never do such things and Avner having to leave his family – both Israel itself and his own nuclear family, to the point of needing to remove his wedding ring – in order to ostensibly protect both.

    A friend of mine keeps a sketchbook in which he does a small drawing of an image from the movies he sees. After Munich, I jokingly suggested that his drawing should be one of the film’s many explosions alongside one of its sex scenes, done in such a way as to imply that he had completely missed the point of the movie.

  2. lupa says:

    I’m so pleased you’re moving forward with Munich, since (aside from two dreadful scenes) I really think this is in the top 10 of Spielberg’s movies. What I find interesting is that you don’t mention one component I found so important in the scene with his wife: not only is Daphna a match for him, but Avner is apparently far more emotionally sensitive than she is. This is revealed more clearly later, and makes an interesting counterpoint to the tasks he’s asked to do.

    • pirateman says:

      I totally agree.

      The reason I liked Munich as much as I did were the tiny moments and touches. Spielberg is the man, many times over. He’d fuck 20 pregnant wives!!!

  3. Anonymous says:

    A couple of reactions:

    (1) I loved the POV switch with the terrorist on the balcony so much that I stopped the DVD and watched it over again about four times.

    (2) Golda Meir’s “mother” relationship with Avner, of course, reflects her “mother” relationship with Israel itself, since she was crucial to the creation of the state. Also, I think Avner used to be one of her bodyguards, which both inverts the mother/child relationship (the child protecting the parent) and reflects a classic Oedipal desire.

    (3) The sex scene with his pregnant wife is perhaps the best (granted, from a limited number) of any of Spielberg’s. And I say this as someone who liked the sex scenes in Schindler’s List.


  4. Anonymous says:

    A dialog between Avner and Meir is an early crossroads to see what paths Spielberg will lay out to follow – or not. Rather than “Mother / Nation” her character could have brought into “Munich” the aligning of Avner to the philosophies set in place by all the “Father Nation” politicians who led or participated in such terrorist-groups as Irgun, Sterne (a mere few decades before 72) and add herself more as American-midwife, infamously, the leader who claimed Palestinians don’t exist.

    Meir as a kind of nice mother figure finding things “distasteful”… Please.

    In this scene Avner could have been drawn into the basis for Munich in reality: A family/nation, Israel, self-symbolized as “chosen people” and rendered forth by violence, real “gang” terrorist tactics of founding-Fathers and justifying denials of Mothers-… and as remarked already in that time period, denying any others on the land even the chance to argue for their rights. By Munich, a generation in, Israel feels the return-of-the-repressed made of new political actors – extremists shifting to interrupting the time and events on a global scale, in media, learning to attack symbols at the expense of the humanity within.

    But yeah, two equal lists and all that, there always has to be a kind of symettry when discussing Israel…

    (using anonymous as I drop my livejournal name while I look for another to start up)

  5. Anonymous says:

    damn speilberg and the israeili killers

    Speilerg is a snuff movie director who likes and enjoys showing people die slowly in

    many of his movies. Now imagine what a scum bag he is for making these pigs

    suffocate this poor girl and also make them look heroes of the movie. This is like

    he is saying, snuff is acceptable!

    if taking care means to slaughter and execute the poor girl then i hope someone takes care of you very slowly you disgusting heartless crapface

    I can’t believe the sad face and the shock on the girl when she gets shot. It cut my heart in two. How´╗┐ could anyone be so cruel as to pierce a beautiful flower with metal in her breast!! I hope they burn in hell and rot forever!! As a man I would protect her and catpure her to somewhere where they teach her good values in life instead of hurting her.