Spielberg: Munich part 5

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Avner has gone from being an "ordinary" government agent, trying to be a soldier in the defense of his famiy (and his nation, which he thinks of as his family, as it thinks of him as a son), to being an angry killer bent on revenge. He now lives in a moral nightmare and it’s not going to get better. How will he survive his predicament?

2:04:00 Having killed the Dutch assassin, Avner does what Avner has always done after killing someone — he organizes a meal with his band of brothers, even though there are only three of them now. This meal is not celebratory however — Avner chops the vegetables as though a man driven, and a storm outside is so violent that it puts out the lights and forces the team to dine by candlelight. Steve mentions the overabundance of food and asks if Avner is expecting someone else to show up. My guess is either that Avner feels like he’s cooking for all his family members not present, or for the people now dead due to his actions, or maybe he’s trying to "create" in order to mitigate, somehow, the destruction he’s caused. He’s trying hard to be a cook so that he can forget that he’s a butcher.

They discuss their status: they’ve killed 6 of the 11 people responsible for Munich, and all of those people have been replaced, sometimes by people much worse than the originals. They’ve spent $1 million on these killings, prompting Hans to wryly note that Golda Meir’s motivation in beginning this vengeful spree was to demonstrate to others that "killing Jews is an expensive proposition," but that killing Palestinians isn’t exactly cheap, either. Again, Munich reaches back to Schindler, with its view of WWII as a kind of business proposition, and where the German officers prefer not to save Jews because it’s less paperwork that way.

When Hans points out that everyone they kill will be replaced, Avner, who’s kind of lost his mind at this point, says that’s okay, he’ll just go on killing them forever. He no longer feels any fear or remorse about killing (or so he says), it’s just a grim, unholy job to him now. It’s who he is now, a true non-person. He ended Act I by becoming a non-person in the eyes of the government, now he truly is a non-person.

Hans, oddly, expresses regret about the Dutch woman — not that they killed her, but that he left her naked. The Dutch woman, of course, brings all kinds of themes from Munich together — the sex-vs-terrorism theme, the attacking-naked-people-in-their-homes theme, the family/lack-of-family theme, the ideology/amorality theme, the temptation-into-amorality theme — it justifiably haunts Avner’s team, that they’ve abandoned every last shred of decency in their pursuit of their goal.

2:06:00 Later that night, Steve wakes up Avner to report that Hans is missing. Avner, who’s now paranoid enough without hearing this, is now sleeping with his hand on his gun and almost shoots Steve.

2:07:00 Avner and Steve find Hans dead on a park bench neara river. How he came to be out by the river, and who might have wanted to kill him, is unanswered.

2:08:00 Avner is convinced that he’s next. He has a little Conversation moment, where he turns his room inside out looking for a bomb. Meanwhile, somewhere in the countryside, Robert goes about his "day job," building toys and dismantling bombs. Spielberg crosscuts between the two scenes to heighten the tension and the irony — as Avner is certain there is a bomb in his room, Robert is making certain that there isn’t. Just as Avner decides there isn’t a bomb in his room, Robert’s house blows up.

Avner ends up sleeping in his closet, which was a fate foretold by Carl a couple of acts earlier — the operative so paranoid that he could no longer sleep in his bed. Talk about being homeless — Avner can no longer sleep in a bed, much less claim for himself a home. (It’s worth noting that Avner pines for a home, but for the span of the narrative must make do with a series of "safe houses." Now the safe house is no longer safe.)

(On a structural note, this is, most likely, the end of Act IV — the protagonist’s "low point." It makes the act the longest of Munich‘s five, but not long by the standards of most screenplays. Act I got Avner into this mess, and, as Act V begins, Avner will do everything he can to get himself out of it.)

2:12:00 Back in Paris, Avner meets Louis in front of that department store with the kitchen display — more than ever, "home" seems far, far away. He hallucinates a vision of Robert briefly, whom he last saw on a railway platform, pining for the days when Jews were righteous, not murderers. His vision of Robert is replaced by a very real Louis, who suggests, not too convincingly, that Robert’s death may have been purely accidental, but that many people want to kill Avner. This raises the question of Avner’s safety in Louis’s hands, but Louis assures Avner that he’s safe — he pays the most for his information, it’s bad business to sell him out to anyone. Which suggests that, if the price were right, that would no longer be the case.

Louis also tells Avner where the elusive Salameh can be found — kill Salameh, he says, and you’ll be able to stop, your family will be proud of you, you will have accomplished enough of your goal to get on with your life and be happy with your wife and child. It’s the "one last job" scene, familiar from so many heist pictures. There’s no real logic to Louis’s temptation, but Avner is looking for a way out and Louis is giving him the justification.

2:14:00 Avner and Steve, all that is left of the team, sneak over to Salameh’s place and try to shoot him from a distance. It doesn’t go well (really — James Bond and The Hulk vs one skinny terrorist — they should be ashamed of themselves), Avner shoots a guard in the head in a moment of panic, and they flee, their goal undone.

2:15:00 Thoroughly demoralized, Avner heads back to Israel. He feels like an untouchable failure, and is surprised to learn that he’s the only one who thinks of himself that way. Soldiers at the airport greet him as they would a rock star (and this is back when that term really meant something), Ephraim tells him his work has been a big success, he’s congratulated by a top general on the behalf of Meir (who can’t be seen with him, for obvious reasons), and his own mother is intensely proud of him.

His mother’s memory, of course, goes back to the Holocaust and the founding of Israel itself. She tells Avner that she went to a hilltop in her new nation and prayed to have a child like Avner, who would be a strong fighter in Israel’s defense. Given that kind of perspective, Avner should feel better about the work he’s done, but instead he only feelsworse — his ideological mother, Meir, won’t speak to him, and his biological mother is proud of him for all the wrong reasons.

Ephraim debriefs him and has only one request for the record: "Tell me what you learned." Avner looks shocked at this request, but it turns out Ephraim’s goal is more prosaic than Avner thinks — he wants Avner to give up Louis and his family, so that Ephraim can use them as well. Avner refuses — Louis and Papa, the stateless, amoral traffickers in information, are more family to him than Ephraim is.

2:21:00 Ephraim sees Avner off at the airport. He tries to offer him some baklava — that is, he tries to make a gesture of family — but Avner refuses.

2:22:00 Avner arrives in Brooklyn and is reunited his wife and daughter.

2:23:00 Avner is convinced that his troubles have followed him to the New World (as troubles sometimes do). He can’t sleep, and instead sits in the corner of his bedroom with his gun, ready for whatever might come through the door. Even in his new home, the one he created for himself, he cannot sleep in his own bed.

2:24:00 Out in the street, Avner becomes convinced that he’s being followed — by whom, he does not know.

2:25:00 Avner gets Papa on the phone. Papa, of course, only wishes to talk about food. Food and sex and family and home and assassinations, they keep coming around and around in different combinations, you can find variations and permutations in every scene. Avner wants to know if he’s being hunted, but Papa will only tell him that he, himself (that is, Papa), is not trying to kill him.

2:26:00 Avner becomes convinced that it is, in fact, the Israelis themselves who are harrassing him. He goes to the embassy and harangues the ambassador. It’s one thing to fear for your life from the KGB or the PLO, it’s something else again to fear from your own homeland.

2:27:00 Absolutely at his wits’ end, Avner lies in bed with his wife, unable to sleep. She talks him into sex, and he willingly complies, but then something very strange happens. As he makes love to his wife, he mind wanders back to the Munich massacre. We see the last of four views of the hostage drama (linking Munich to another great icon of 70s realism, Dog Day Afternoon), where the final moments of the crisis are played out. The way it unreels in Avner’s mind’s eye, the helicopter at the Munich airport might have taken off without incident, if the snipers in the shadows hadn’t started to shoot. That is to say, the more Avner thinks about it (during sex, no less), everything in Munich was going as planned until people like him stepped in. Whether this is true or not I have no idea, but for Avner the implication is clear — the snipers in Munich were not the answer to the problem, they only made everything worse.

It’s upsetting enough that Avner thinks about all this during sex, but again, what makes it even more upsetting is that Spielberg tells us that Avner thinks about all this during sex. What makes it most upsetting of all is that Spielberg is Spielberg, director of E.T. and Raiders, a director who generally shies away from sex scenes altogether, and whose notion of romance rarely advances beyond that of the adolescent’s.

This is Spielberg’s boldest, riskiest, most daring scene in his career, and he doesn’t pull his punch — far from it, he leans into the discomfort inherent in the scene. He goes to great lengths to make sure that we put Avner’s sex life, his tortured conscience, and the Munich disaster all together in our minds. He doesn’t have an answer, really, to Avner’s problem, but he suggests that, for what it’s worth, sex is the only real way to fight terrorism. Terrorism kills, but sex creates life (the old butcher-vs-cook argument). Avner making love to his wife is his defiant action — the only truly defiant act he performs in the narrative. Perhaps it is as simple as the old bromide "make love, not war," and perhaps Avner is thinking back to PLO Guy in Athens, who said that the Palestinian’s defense against Israel was to have more babies, or maybe he’s thinking about the mixed-race couple in Cyprus, who left their religions and nationalities behind in the name of love and got blown up by an assassin’s bomb for their efforts. The, er, climax of Munich shocks when first seen, but upon subsequent viewings one sees that the path to this moment has been carefully laid out from the very beginning.

(One question: is Avner merely having sex, or is he attempting to impregnate his wife? That is, is he "making love" or is he trying to create the next generation of Jews? We’ve seen that he’s an avid, virile lover who has sex with his wife while she’s pregnant, so we know that he doesn’t only have sex for procreation, but the issues that weigh on his mind, including his mother’s prayer, lo these many years ago, suggest that he is, in fact, trying to make a baby. Which, given the intensity of his technique, I have no doubt he’s capable of doing — I felt like he probably could get me pregnant if he wanted to, just by watching the scene.)

2:32:00 Avner doesn’t really have a solution to his problems, but something has changed in him since the previous scene. The action of the scene is simply that his wife tells him he has a phone call, but it’s significant what he’s doing when she comes to tell him — he is, literally, tending his garden. And I am reminded that the protagonist of Voltaire’s Candide, after being presented with the horrors of the world, came to the same conclusion — tending one’s garden is all one can really do. The fact that Avner has been striving to be a cook instead of butcher gives the moment some added resonance.

2:32:30 The guy on the phone turns out to have been Ephraim, and Avner gets together with him for a kind of final debriefing, in a park somewhere in what looks like Queens. Avner demands proof from Ephraim that the men he killed were guilty of the crimes Avner killed them for, and Ephraim, although he can tell Avner what the men did, he cannot provide proof. Avner insists that the situation — starting in Munich and ever since — could have been dealt with differently, that, as a nation of laws, Israel should have had the men arrested and tried instead of assassinated, that blood only leads to blood and that he has, in fact, made the world a more dangerous place, not just for Jews but for his own family. For the viewer, this argument starts to sound awfully familiar.

Ephraim, for his part, wants to know if Avner is ready to come back to work. His argument is that Avner has abandoned his family in their hour of need — that he is, in fact, a bad son. Avner doesn’t buy Ephraim’s logic and turns the tables on him, asking him to come to dinner at his home. In the vocabulary of Munich, an invitation to dinner is an invitation to join a family, and Ephraim turns Avner down, which is all Avner needs to know — Ephraim, to Avner, only plays at being a father — he’s not Avram’s father, the last in a long line of men who are not really Avner’s father — and Avner is, finally, homeless, alone and doomed. The brave night ventured out into the world to slay the dragon to protect his family, and at the end of the story the dragon is more alive than ever, the family is still in danger and the knight can never go home again, and, in fact, has no home to go to. Playing at being a non-person has turned him into a non-person. Or, as Vonnegut said, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must bevery careful about what we pretend to be."

In case Avner’s pleas for due process and the rule of law don’t sound familiar enough, as Ephraim turns his back on the doomed Avner, the camera turns to follow him and reveals the World Trade Center in the distant skyline. And so, in its final moments, a movie that asks "Where does it all end?" provides a heartbreaking answer: namely, that it doesn’t — it never ends.


23 Responses to “Spielberg: Munich part 5”
  1. curt_holman says:

    Munich: Act V

    This is an excellent explanation of the thematic stuff going on in the sex scene/massacre flashback that starts at 2:27. When I saw it, all I picked up on was the extent to which Avner was haunted by Munich (and presumably all the bloody business he perpetrated afterwards), and that he can’t escape it even during sexual intimacy. His intensity to me suggests that he’s trying to purge himself of the thoughts and memories and can’t.

    That was pretty much all that came across to me when I saw Munich the first time, which at the time struck me as a simplistic resolution for a film that’s otherwise so complex. After reading your analysis, I’m sure that all the other themes you’re pointing out are part of the mix, too. (Sex as the antithesis of terrorism seems very much the kind of theme Tony Kushner would explore.) Given the intensity of the scene — the sex and the violence — I wonder if the “hopeful” interpretation is a little too subtle.

    Do we see Avner’s kid at any point after he returns to Israel at the 2:15 mark? Is there any indication that he’s had more children in America? That would really definitely reinforce the procreation vs. terrorism theme.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Munich: Act V

      We see his daughter two or three times after he comes home to Brooklyn — once when he’s out in the street, carrying her and is menaced (or not) by a scary black car. We don’t see that he’s had more children after that.

      Given the themes of Munich, the only thing surprising to me about the climax of Munich is that he’s not also preparing a feast while making vigorous love to his wife.

      • stormwyvern says:

        Re: Munich: Act V

        I’m not sure even Avner is that talented.

        Aside from which, there’s the argument that the cooks cannot create without the butchers being there to do the dirty work that supplies them with their materials, so once again, we’d be left with the question of whether Avner is finding a way to combat what he’s been through or whether there’s just no escaping the butchers once you confront the fact that they’re out there.

      • curt_holman says:

        Re: Munich: Act V

        By the way, does this mark the end (for now) of your Special Focus on Spielberg? If so, congratulations on its completion!

        • Todd says:

          Re: Munich: Act V

          I’ve been thinking of trying to sum up everything in some kind of grand unifying theory of Spielberg, but right now I’m kind of ready to move on. It’s taken almost a year!

          • mimitabu says:

            Re: Munich: Act V

            it was a good year; i know i came away with a new and deeper appreciation for spielberg’s work (which is what i, at least, mainly want out of any english or film class). i also don’t think a unifying post is particularly necessary, considering the posts sort of stand together as such a summary. you could go further (in summarizing) by spelling out a little trace of themes or styles or growth, but i don’t really see the point when the information is already in the posts.

      • Re: Munich: Act V

        I don’t want to post this as a reply but I feel I have to.

  2. woodandiron says:

    I really love this movie and have immensely enjoyed your analysis.

    Don’t you feel like the last act of the movie is too long? And by too long I mean I feel like it has three scenes of Avner showing the audience that he’s become a paranoid person. Those three scenes essentially just keep repeating the same idea (the same idea that was put forth at the end of act IV). I feel like the movie would have been better served to excise a scene or two of that and keep the last act a little tighter.

    I’ve always thought that the movie kind of just wanders at the end so much so that the very poignant shot of the WTC doesn’t have nearly the resonance it should.

    At any rate, I really enjoyed reading these. Thank you.

  3. lupa says:

    One question: is Avner merely having sex, or is he attempting to impregnate his wife?

    Or is he trying somehow to go back in time, before his wife was pregnant, and before he could see two sides to the story?

    I actually don’t think he’s doomed – His wife’s hands can close his eyes, and it has now become truth that Daphna is the only home he’s ever known. He might be fatherless, but he isn’t homeless.

  4. greyaenigma says:

    You refer to “Avram” several times in this. Is this a just typo for Avner, or am I confused about something else? I thought maybe it was his last name, but I couldn’t find if his last name is mentioned.

    • Todd says:

      That’s my error. You know what happened? The themes of Avner’s monumental “parent of Israel” complex were weighing so heavily on me that Avner kept becoming “Avram” in my mind — the irony of Avner being a butcher, and a distant father, and feeling responsible for the whole nation all conspired to make him Avram to me.

      (For the benefit of non-Bible-reading folk, Avram was the patriarch of the Jews, and the guy who just about almost killed his own son on the orders of Old Testament god Yahweh, who, it turned out, was just yanking Avram’s chain.)

  5. Anonymous says:

    I was one of the many people who avoided Munich when it came out in theaters, and I only watched it in anticipation of your analysis here. In retrospect, I’m not sure why.

    Thank you for this close, astute look at the narrative structure and way in which its themes play out — it was a great lesson in screenwriting and made a persuasive case for an overlooked (by Speilberg standards) film.


    • Anonymous says:

      To clarify, I’m not sure why I’d skipped it to begin with. Probably something about the marketing.

      But what a terrific movie it turned out to be, and I’ve been telling everyone I know who hasn’t seen it (and that’s pretty much everyone) to do so.

      Also, Todd was careful not to get into current events, but it was particularly moving to watch this in the past few weeks.


  6. Anonymous says:

    When I saw the “climax” of the film, I thought it silly and overblown. (No pun intended.) I can see Spielberg’s point, when you explain it as you do, but the degree to which everything is dramaticized — the music! the lights! the flying sweat! — just takes it over the top for me.

    I thought one of the more moving aspects of the film was actually the opening credits, where the word “Munich” quietly appears out of the names of dozens of other cities that have suffered terrorist attacks. In that respect, the ending of the film, and the “it never ends” message, brings the whole thing full circle.

    — N.A.

    • Todd says:

      The flying sweat I still think is a little over-the-top, especially in its context — the machine guns fire in Avner’s mind, the victims die and the sweat flies — it comes a little too close to a “come shot,” which makes it all the more disturbing.

  7. leborcham says:

    Funny, this and A.I. are the only two of your Spielberg analyses that I’ve searched out and read completely right away. Maybe because they are his two riskiest—and most unexpectedly heartbreaking* — movies.

    * Schindler and Private Ryan being expectedly heartbreaking.