Keith Uhlich on Munich
Let us start from the dual positions that sex can (potentially) bring us closer to God and that cinema, in and of itself, is a holy medium given to the transcendent. Let us then also admit that the photograph appended to this essay (or better: this extended explicatory caption) is little more than a facsimile removed from context and so rendered more or less ineffectual, save for the wisp of memory it might conjure, for those in the know, of an 83 frame, just under three-and-a-half second shot from Steven Spielberg’s Munich. For the rest of us, what do we see? A man in medium close-up, sweat-drenched, crying out in what might be pain. His exposed chest suggests a state of undress and, coupled with the copious beads of moisture dripping down from and flying off of his body, it doesn’t take too much of a leap before we assume the conjugal worst. The horror-show lighting sets the mood even further within despondent stone, but what’s most discomfiting is the subject’s isolation, which leads us to the question of who is doing what to whom and why? Put much more crudely: Who, exactly, is doing the penetrating, and to what ends (pun most certainly intended)?
If we were to see this shot as conceived—in full motion with aural accompaniment—it would play as such: the sweat-drenched man raises his head in a slow-motion arc from screen bottom to top. Reaching the apex, he lets out a primal scream, though one not heard on the soundtrack, which is instead taken up by a cacophonous mixture of muffled gunfire, weeping violins, and mezzo-soprano warbling. The strands of his hair are thrown back by the force of his action (quite literally a climax) and beads of sweat fly through the air, gracefully arcing out of frame to land where they may. This tells us a little more, though the shot, still removed from context, might now seem an excerpt from an exceptionally trashy bit of softcore pornography or, as one colleague had it, an instant out of time from a particularly emphatic Gatorade commercial.
More on this latter descriptor: the sense of the image as an advertisement is, I’d suggest, wholly intentional on Spielberg’s part, revealing as it does the subject’s—Mossad assassin Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana)— myopic martyr complex. Reflecting back on the Munich massacre that he did not witness, but was recruited to avenge, Avner transposes his guilt onto a visceral imagining of the event, placing himself rather selfishly among the dead. Yet it is never clear, during this sequence, whether he considers himself kin with the murdered athletes or the righteous terrorists—the nightmarish shifts in point of view suggest he has as much pulled the trigger as been rent by the bullet. Has Avner then become, as so deliciously stated earlier in the film by the French informant Louis (Mathieu Almaric), “ideologically promiscuous?”
Promiscuous in any case: where once was fresh-faced certainty there is now only utter, desolate confusion. His morals and, more suggestively, his sexuality unbalanced over the course of the film, Avner now seeks solace in legitimate conjugal embrace with his wife Daphna (Ayelet Zurer), an action she initiates as if sensing the need for a conduit. Yet sex often takes us beyond the legitimate, and as Avner has—time and again—denied himself physical intimacy during his years-long mission (engaging, instead, in a series of homosocially slanted actions and dialogues with his Mossad colleagues), he is ill-prepared for the release that this shot illustrates. Avner’s pain springs from, among other things, a misguided empathy and, courtesy co-screenwriter Tony Kushner, a queerly metaphoric denial of self. Per Kushner, there’s a theatrical remove to the shot’s conception that Spielberg—so often one to lead his audience away from the abyss, and not always disingenuously—then illustrates with Judeo-Christian (or De Palma-esque) apocalyptic brio. And yet, there is no transcendence here. Facing God, for Avner, is finally a narcissistic action, an extended Kabuki fright-mask gaze inside his own void, a four-barreled Sense-Surround horror that not even a lover’s benedictive touch can entirely assuage.