Spielberg: Munich part 4

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In Act IV of Munich, protagonist Avner strays far from his assignment. He has become a homeless non-person in order to serve his nation and family, and here finds out what happens when given that kind of responsibility, and that kind of freedom.

1:26:00 We find ourselves in Athens. Louis has given Avner the name of a terrorist not on his list, and Avner is going after the guy. Why is this important? Well, we’ve been told that the list is important, that it’s Avner’s job to kill these guys and no other guys, and now here he is going after another guy. There is a technicality, which is that the guy they’re going after in Athens is the replacement for a guy they killed earlier, so they’re actually going after the same guy twice, in a way. (We see this cropping up these days again, when we keep capturing the "number 3 Al Qaeda guy" over and over again. Well, of course we are — he keeps on getting replaced.) It sounds small, but it’s the thin edge of a wedge — as Avner starts moving "off the list," he starts making this job more personal and less soldierly, which is the opposite of his stated goal. A soldier is honorable but an assassin is not, but a murderer is worst of all.

Avner and his team arrive at a "safe house," which has been arranged by Louis. Robert explains this job’s bomb, which, in spite of his poor record with bombs, sounds like the dodgiest yet — thirty-year-old hand grenades inside the target’s TV set.

1:28:00 Night falls, and Avner’s safe house is suddenly intruded upon — by a group of terrorists. Both groups are surprised by the others’ presence. Thinking fast, Avner and his team pretend to be European terrorists, and we learn that the interlopers are Palestinian terrorists, also sent to the safe house by Louis. Perhaps this is a setup by Louis, who has a grudge against Avner, and perhaps it’s just Louis being Louis — ideologically promiscuous, or ideologically neutral.

1:30:00 The two groups, the real terrorists and the fake terrorists, form an uneasy friendship in the Athens night. There’s a Spielbergian gag as Steve duals with one of the Palestinians about what music they’re all going to listen to on the radio — Palestinian Guy wants "Eastern" music, Steve wants "Western" pop. Somehow, a truce is reached as American R&B is found on the dial.

1:31:00 In the middle of the night, Avner and the head PLO Guy chat in a stairwell. PLO Guy is a fierce ideologue, and dedicated to the founding of a Palestinian homeland. Avner, on shaky ground lest he be discovered as an Israeli, tells PLO Guy that his quest for homeland is hopeless, and besides, who wants that lousy piece of land anyway? But of course, PLO Guy sees Palestine as his home — he is defending his home from an invading horde. Avner tells him that he and his kind will all be killed, and PLO Guy counters that they’ll have a lot of children. Aha! Another brick laid in the walk to Munich‘s, er, explosive climax, which we’ll get to tomorrow.

1:34:00 The group head over to the apartment house where the hit is to take place. The target is having a meeting with some Russians, and some KGB sorts hang out outside waiting. Robert’s bomb refuses to go off at the appointed time, which causes Hans, "the bookish one," to grab a last grenade and head into the building himself. No waiting around for Hans, his answer to his moral agony is to grab the bomb and head in the door — to take action, not to sit in the car and hope a guy dies, but to go in and kill him.

This sparks a conflagration of course, which means that Avner and the others are forced to kill the KGB guys waiting in the street (who are not on the list). Worse, PLO Guy from the previous night shows up, apparently in cahoots with the intended target. Avner, in addition to killing some total strangers, must now kill the guy he pretended to befriend the night before, placing him on even more uncertain moral ground. Avner can’t quite do it, but Carl has no problem — he guns down PLO Guy in an instant.

1:40:00 In the morning, the group gather by the roadside to discuss what went wrong, and Robert reveals his terrible secret — he’s not a bombmaker at all, only a toymaker. He was trained to be a bomb dismantler, and went into Avner’s unit without a clear idea of what he was getting into.

1:41:00 Avner goes to meet Louis again in Paris. As they talk in a cafe, there is a report of another terrorist attack on television — Avner seems to be getting more people killed every day. Avner and Louis discuss a guy named Salameh, who apparently is a very valuable target, and is readily available for killing — but is not on the list. (And is also funded by the CIA, which makes things more complicated.)

1:43:00 The team gather to discuss strategy, and end up discussing ideology. To go after Salameh is to rise above their station, to "go off the res" in espionage terms. It is also a more effective way of pursuing Israel’s goals, which presents Avner with the opportunity to do his father’s bidding by disobeying his orders.

1:45:00 We now move to London, which Spielberg helpfully illustrates by having it rain heavily. A question arises: if this Salameh character has bodyguards, should they be killed as well? They are, after all, not on the list, and are employed by goodness knows who — they are, essentially, innocent men. Avner decides to kill the bodyguards if they have to, but the hit is interrupted by some Americans, seemingly from the CIA, who are intent on keeping Salameh alive. And now Avner’s problems become ridiculously complicated: what is he doing now, going after a CIA-protected terrorist — is the CIA now his enemy too, as well as the PLO and the KGB?

1:50:00 Avner retires to his hotel bar to recriminate about another botched job, and is very quickly almost seduced by a comely, lonely young woman. (AVNER: "What kind of job do you have?" WOMAN: "The kind that drives you to drink." AVNER: "We must have the same job." Which is important to note for later on.) Avner, in the tradition of traveling married men the world over, almost succumbs to the woman’s charms, but instead goes upstairs to his room and makes a call to his wife and child in Brooklyn, but not before tipping Carl off to the lonely woman’s presence.

1:54:35 Avner dreams of Munich again, and we see a bit more of the story, this time gathering some details about the helicopter at the airport, which was to have carried the terrorists and the athletes off to safety. Avner’s dreams of Munich are meant to center him,to remind him of why he’s doing this at all, but this dream does the opposite: it terrifies him and makes him feel more uncentered than ever, so much so that he gets dressed and goes back down to the hotel bar, looking either for Carl or for the lonely woman, we’re not sure. In any case, neither is there, but Avner, upon returning to his room, smells the woman’s distinctive perfume coming from Carl’s door, and discovers Carl inside, dead — the lonely woman, it seems, is also an assassin, playing the oldest trick in the book on Carl. Avner was tempted but refused, and thus is alive, but Carl gave into temptation and paid the price.

1:59:00 Avner meets with Louis and Papa back in Paris — they give Avner the name and address of the woman who killed Carl. They do so out of self-preservation: they don’t want Avner to think that they set him up themselves. The woman, we are told, is, like Louis and Papa, ideologically neutral. Papa and Louis also helpfully inform Avner that he has now exposed himself enough that he is being hunted by others, and that he is unabashedly selling information about him to those people.

2:00:00 Robert, having had enough, quits. Avner, Steve and Hans are on their way to Holland to kill the female assassin and Robert wants nothing to do with it — "We’re supposed to be righteous," he pines, but Avner’s sense of family and nation are all confused now: he considered Carl a member of his family, even though he didn’t even know much about him, and he is intent on killing this woman even though she’s not on the list or, for that matter, a terrorist.

2:01:00 Which he then proceeds to do, in perhaps the most alarming and disturbing scene in all of Spielberg. Avner and Steve walk into the woman’s houseboat in Holland and shoot her, naked, in the chest and throat. (Avner, again, insists on asking "Do you know why we’re here?" almost as though he’s hoping she’ll tell him, so that he’ll better understand it himself.) The woman, shot twice, staggers through her houseboat, pausing to try to pick up her cat. This moment always strikes me as odd and heartbreaking, and at first I thought it was just about behavior — the woman, even in the moment of her death, falls back on habit, as though simply trying to get through a difficult moment, instead of fighting for her life. Now I realize that the woman goes to embrace her cat because, what else, that is her family — she’s saying goodbye to the only family a female assassin in her 30s could be expected to have. Avner tries to cover her up as she sits sputtering black blood from her throat, but Hans comes along and unclothes her again — that is, after all, the way she left Carl. Hans’s cruel gesture underscores the nature of the hit — revenge, nothing more, not tied to Munich, or to anything political. Avner, who got into this business to "protect his family," has now murdered someone in cold blood — someone very much like himself. And now where can he go? How much further down the rabbit hole can he fall?


5 Responses to “Spielberg: Munich part 4”
  1. stormwyvern says:

    With my memory of the film as rusty as it is, it surprises to remember just how long it is before Robert’s secret is revealed, especially in light of the fact that he never shows himself to be a terribly good bombmaker. I had thought the revelation occurred after the hotel bomb fiasco and I do seem to remember some talk about how the bigger than needed explosion could have killed not just random innocent people, but Avner in particular.

    Here’s a question: do you think it’s possible to have a successful movie where it’s never entirely clear what the protagonist does want? Avner certainly has particular goals and tasks he wants to complete, but it seems like as the film progresses, what Avner wants becomes less and less clear, even to him. I know you can (and frequently do) have narratives where what the protagonist wants at the start is different from what he or she wants at the end, but what about one where it’s not clear at all, possibly even to the protagonist?

  2. pirateman says:

    Yikes. That is an incredibly powerful scene… But the most haunting scene still goes to the stabbing scene in Saving Private Ryan, in my opinion.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Act IV?

    Forgive the ignorance of a newbie. I have always heard of the 3 act structure. You have even mentioned it several times on this blog. So “Act IV” is confusing me. Can you give me a run-down of what you consider the structure of a screenplay — acts, etc? Thank you.