Spielberg: Munich part 2

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At the end of Act I of Munich, Avner leaves his family behind in Israel (his nation, which, it is implied, is also his family) and ventures out into Europe to track down and kill those rotten terrorists who killed the athletes in Munich.

25:42 Spielberg begins Act II with a simple, straightforward scene of Avner going to a Swiss bank and getting some money (dollars, naturally) out of some safe-deposit boxes. There are two functions to this scene: one, it’s a nuts-and-bolts scene of "how does an international government assassin do his job?" and two, it sets into motion a minor "business" plot that was suggested by the receipts-demanding agent in Israel and which will continue to wind its way through the narrative.

26:54 Avner, having left behind his family, does exactly what a Spielberg protagonist would be expected to — he forms another family. We meet his team of ruthless assassins around a dinner table, as they chat amiably about how they are simple, ordinary men and not at all ruthless assassins. One is a toymaker, one is an antiques dealer, one is a little more shadowy and unknowable. (The fact that one of them would go on to become James Bond is a joke no one could have anticipated.) Avner is a father again, or perhaps that’s putting it too strongly; he has a band of brothers now, a rag-tag group of misfits who are going to hand out some payback for Munich.

Or are they? The names on Avner’s list are not, after all, the men who killed the athletes butthe men who, it is said, devised and financed the operation. When the question comes up, Avner deflects the notion that he’s an assassin — he’s a soldier, he says, fighting on a secret front that takes place on a different kind of battlefield.

29:00 Another brief "how to" section is set into motion, the question here being "How does a government assassin go about finding terrorist mastermind?" But the sequence begins with a mouth, a big juicy red female mouth, talking about Marx and the fallacy of thinking in terms of right and wrong. I’m guessing that the visual reference to Samuel Beckett’s Not I is accidental, but the disembodied mouth focuses the audience’s attention on the words, not the action of the scene. The scene is: Avner visits an old friend, who knows some people who knows some people, and the friend’s Marxist girlfriend is both stridently idealistic and completely amoral. In a single breath, she spouts Marxist rhetoric and then demands more cash to give up the names of the terrorists she knows. But the point of the mouth shot is to indicate that Avner has left his home, where everything makes sense, and is entering a world where nothing makes sense. Avner’s friend’s girlfriend is a seductive, greedy, pot-smoking Marxist sellout, the polar opposite of his tough, grounded, pregnant wife. Avner plays at seducing his friend’s girlfriend for effect, but later he will come much closer to falling prey to the seduction of an unmarried woman.

31:00 The "how-to" sequence continues as Avner’s friend takes him to see a guy who knows people. They talk business, dollars and cents — $60,000 per name. Again, an echo back to Schindler, where the precise dollar value of each Jew saved by Schindler — specifically, each name — was spelt out. As it turns out, Schindler got a bargain — the names of Arab terrorists in the 1970s cost a lot more than the names of Jewish refugees in WWII.

In any case, all this is a little too much for Avner’s friend to take, and when he balks, Avner warns him to take off and not tell anyone about what he’s seen, on threat of death. We just got done sneering at the amoral Marxist siren who was ready to sell out her friends for $100,000, but here we are, one scene later, and Avner is threatening to have an old friend killed for no money at all.

33:30 Our rag-tag bunch of assassins begin their first job together, in Rome. They draw straws to see who gets the job of accompanying Avner to the hit, and Robert, the toymaker, draws the short straw (or, rather, the short breadstick — food is never far away in Munich, it is a symbol of family and domesticity).

34:00 We meet Avner’s first target: a Palestinian writer who has translated The Arabian Nights into Italian. Spielberg takes a moment to let the man’s profession sink in — the protagonist of The Arabian Nights forestalls her execution by spinning tales to her executioner. The translator, it is suggested, may be emulating Sheherezade, translating her story to forestall his own execution. Or, maybe this is a personal interjection from Spielberg — he tells stories to stay alive. What keeps a man alive is a dark undercurrent running through Munich, and it’s bitterly ironic that storytelling is not enough to do the job.

We then see the writer, the target, as he goes on about his day, unaware that he’s being watched by a team of international assassins. He goes — where else? — to the grocery store, where he picks up some food for dinner. Food again — this terrorist, if he does not have a family, at least eats food, just like everyone else. (When he goes into the grocery store, a TV over the counter is showing a John Wayne western, I believe The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the theme of which is, a callback from Act I, the unreliability of the media, which will come up twice more in Act II alone.)

Avner and Robert corner the writer in his building’s foyer, but do not immediately kill him. Instead, they ask him his name — very important, they’re not paid to "kill a man" but to "cross a name off a list" — and then ask "Do you know why we’re here?" The man doesn’t answer, so Avner asks it again, begging the question, does he know why he’s there?

In any case, Avner and Robert succeed in killing him (they actually shoot him through his groceries, which, in Munich, is a direct hit through the heart), and the whole gang goes out to celebrate. Carl, the gloomiest of the bunch, tries to be a wet blanket on the festivities, but the others are convinced that they have done the right thing, they’ve succeeded in their goal and they’re making the world a better place. It’s also noted that this one assassination cost Israel $352,000 — but who’s counting? Everyone, apparently.

41:29 The scene now shifts to Paris. How do we know it’s Paris? The same way as ever — the action takes place within a few hundred yards of the Eiffel Tower. In Paris, a few hundred yards from the Eiffel Tower, Avner meets with Louis, who will become central to the narrative later. Louis belongs to — yes — a family, a very special kind of family, a family whose business is selling names to people. They are a related-by-blood intelligence network, completely amoral and without ideology. For those who say "family first," well, here is your answer — Louis’s family puts itself before nation or ideology — they stand for nothing but themselves. "Identity, that’s the point," says Louis to Avner. He is secure in his own, Avner he’s not so sure about. (They meet — where else? — at a produce market, Louis shopping for food for his father. Food, family, assassination, it’s all tied together in Munich.)

43:28 Avner comes from his meeting with Louis to find his team watching a report on TV about how the Germans have freed the Munich terrorists in response to a hijacking — they are now free, and famous, basking in their notoreity. Steve, the most bloodthirsty of the group, wants to track them down and kill them, but Avner reminds him that they’re not vigilantes, they’re government agents. They’re not instruments of revenge — but then why did Spielberg take the time to point out that Israel is tracking down 11 terrorists in response to the deaths of 11 athletes? He puts his protagonist — and us — in an increasingly anxious position. Why is Avner doing any of this? What good will it do? Where is justice?

45:14 Robert goes to interview the team’s next target, a French businessman who supports the cause of the Palestinians. Spielberg lets him state his cause, and then goes one better by giving him an angry, impetuous wife who butts into the conversation and won’t let him get a word in edgewise. (The wife echoes Avner’s own, a tough customer who doesn’t hide her feelings behind notions of politics or idealism.) While the husband and wife bicker, Robert sneaks into the next room to check out their phone, so that he might better design a bomb to kill the man. As he does so, the man’s daughter, a charming, beautiful, coltish pre-teen, skips into the room and practices the piano. Robert is charmed the girl, and we see him smile as he plots to kill the girl’s father, destroying the family.

47:35 A suspense sequence of Hitchcockian finesse and effect ensues, as the team go about trying to blow up the French businessman. Carl, the gloomy one, asks Avner if he knows what this man, this married man with a beautiful daughter and a hectoring wife, has done to justify his death. Avner reveals that he doesn’t actually know, he is a name on a list, supplied by Ephraim back in Israel. There’s a lovely bit of back-and-forth as the wife and daughter stop by the apartment for a moment during the bombing attempt, but, after seven minutes of nail-biting suspense, the team succeed in blowing up the man’s apartment (but not actually killing him). The suspense in Munich is unlike the suspense in, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In a traditional suspense sequence, we either wait on tenterhooks for the thing we want to happen to happen, or else we cringe in dread that the thing we fear is going to happen happens. In Munich the suspense cuts both ways, we want our protagonist to succeed in his task, but Spielberg insists on showing us the lives and feelings of the targets as well, so that we might feel the impact of every death — every death. Avner was given a list of names, but Spielberg shows us that every name is a life — and that good and evil are not abstractions, but rather they are present in everyone.

54:17 The team gather, again, after the attempt in Paris, for another meal. This one is not so celebratory (the guy didn’t die), and the food is not so relished — maybe because it’s cooked by Steve instead of Avner, who’s already been lauded for his brisket. Robert, whose bomb didn’t get the job done (he was too concerned about the safety of the other people in the building), even turns his food down — in the vocabulary of Munich, that’s almost like leaving the family.

55:00 Meanwhile, a series of bombs are found in Israeli embassies. One goes off, killing a diplomat. This is, Avner realizes, a response from Black September (the organization behind the Munich attack) for his actions in Rome and Paris. The brave knight has gone out into the world to slay the dragon, and the dragon has managed to kill another one of his people. "Where does it end?" is the question that hangs over Munich, and Spielberg is bold enough to suggest an answer to that question, but not until the very end of the movie.

(The fact that Avner learns about this, and the earlier report, through the television, raises the question of the accuracy of the report — can Avner believe everything — anything — he’s told?)

56:00 Avner dashes back to Israel, as though the embassy bombing made him do so, as though he feels a need to check in on his family. But it turns out there is a more prosaic reason: his wife has delivered his baby. But before Avner goes to see his wife and child, he waits in the hall with his mother — his biological mother — and we learn a little more about Avner’s life. His father, it seems, was Spielbergian in the extreme — never around, in jail (for what is unclear, but it’s suggested he was a political prisoner) — doing the nation’s business at the expense of his family. Avner’s father’s absence clearly haunts him, and it seems he is compelled to not repeat the same mistake, and yet his mother tells him that she’s proud of what he’s doing ("You don’t know what I’m doing," he answers, although he might as well say "I don’t know what I’m doing") and she insists that she only needs to look at him to know that what he’s doing is right. (She is, like Avner’s father, like Avner’s mother-surrogate Golda Meir, founding Israelis, old enough to know the sweat, blood and courage it took to start a nation, and the crossroads at which it now stands, and the price to be paid for its attempt at civilization. The scene is, in fact, a direct echo of the Act I Meir scene.)

57:00 Avner goes in to see his wife and child. He tells his wife that he’s having her moved to Brooklyn, where it will be safer. The "receipts" agent discounted Avner’s citizenship because he grew up outside of Israel, and now he’s forcing the same thing to his own child. In spite of his fatherly torment, he feels his first duty is to keep his burgeoning family safe — which means removing them from his other family, Israel. This doesn’t sit well with his wife, who asks "What are you doing?" Avner, who, of course, doesn’t know the answer to this question, dodges the forced relocation of his family with "You’re the only home I’ve ever had." His wife scoffs at this homily, recognizing it for what it is, a hollow excuse. "You’re so corny," she chides him, and then it’s time for Avner to go off to another country to kill another stranger.


3 Responses to “Spielberg: Munich part 2”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    As it turns out, Schindler got a bargain — the names of Arab terrorists in the 1970s cost a lot more than the names of Jewish refugees in WWII.

    I can imagine Avner playing Schindler at the end of the film — no, let’s make it topical, Bush:

    “I could have killed so many more! These pretzels, I could have sold these pretzels! My golf clubs! The Segway! How many would that have killed?”

    Of course, they are both (more or less indirectly) responsible for the echos at the end. But then, it never ends.

  2. stormwyvern says:

    Do we find out that the toymaker is a toymaker right away? I seem to recall that his true profession was a reveal that happened later on, but it could just be that my memory is rusty and the reveal is actually the fact that he’s never actually made a bomb before and is just flying blind. There’s obviously a lot of symbolism to be had from a toymaker who has been recruited to make bombs and I think it’s to the movie’s credit that I don’t remember Spielberg beating the audience over the head with the concept.

    I don’t remember the scene that well, but my guess is that Avner warning his friend that he will be killed if he tells anyone what he knows relates to how difficult it is for Avner to step from his former life into the cloak and dagger world he has been recruited into. Since he is not a trained spy or assassin, Avner has no resources to rely on aside from people he knows from his regular life. But Avner’s new job requires him to take certain precautions, which he at least believes includes threatening to kill a friend if he talks to anyone about what he’s seen. Avner has the responsibilities of a secret agent, but nowhere to turn but old friends.

    In light of how you described the second assassination attempt as a true no-win situation for the audience, it’s interesting that Spielberg decides to end it with am essential stalemate, maybe to show that this game doesn’t have any winners.

    Anyone want to play “Similarities between the 60s Batman and Munich“? I could only come up with “both feature bombs,” and I’d be very impressed if anyone comes up with another substatial aspect both movies share.