Here and There
A Shot/Reverse Shot on Munich
by Chris Wisniewski and Michael Koresky
Thanks in no small part to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, most moviegoers already knew where they stood on the question Spielberg by the time Munich hit theaters in December 2005. At that point, Spielberg’s mainstream canonization was complete, due to the near universal acclaim for his “serious” World War II pictures. So sacrosanct was his public image upon Munich’s release that Time ran a cover story before most critics had even seen the film, dubbing it “Spielberg’s secret masterpiece.” Meanwhile, Spielberg’s detractors—the Jean-Luc Godards and William Goldmans and Claude Lanzmanns of the world—seemed to have all the evidence they needed that the director was guilty of tremendous overreach. By the time of Munich’s release, though, it was also clear that neither point-of-view was entirely convincing. It’s all too simple to be dazzled by Spielberg’s filmmaking, to be so overwhelmed by his set pieces, like Schindler’s liquidation of the Krakow ghetto or Ryan’s Omaha beach sequence, that one fails to scrutinize the entire design. It’s just as easy, though, to deplore his arrogance and ambition, to pronounce that whatever ground Spielberg is working on is inappropriate, and to dismiss his obvious accomplishments. But Spielberg isn’t the sort of filmmaker one just has quibbles about. For those who object to Schindler’s List, the problem isn’t just the Auschwitz gas chamber sequence but the way it reflects the reduction of historical trauma to melodrama. What to do, then, with a film like Munich, one that is, moment-to-moment, haunting, complex, and problematic, one that resists easy labels like “masterpiece” or “failure” and instead rises and falls on individual decisions, some brilliant, some confounding?
The first thing that needs to be said about Munich is that its erudite, sophisticated, and thoughtful screenplay, written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, based on George Jonas’s book Vengeance, does an improbably remarkable job of toeing the line between political complexity and emotional clarity, that it never once seems either simplistic or didactic despite taking on arguably the most fraught political conflict of the past half century. The second thing that needs to be said about Munich is that it suffers from some near-fatal structural problems: a somewhat obvious episodic narrative that takes far too long to get to its inevitable conclusion; a use of flashback that culminates in a disastrous (literal) climax, severely compromising the film’s last half hour; and, most importantly, an unrelenting reliance on the thriller form to achieve its politically and intellectually loaded effect. It plays strictly by the rules of its genre in order to undermine our expectations and question our allegiances; this is a dangerous and not altogether successful gambit.
Munich’s protagonist, Avner (Eric Bana), a former Mossad agent, is a sort of Jewish Everyman-cum-Superman, a polite and soft-spoken father-to-be with talent in the kitchen, a body to die for, and a killer smile. Avner’s an image of an image in much the same way that Oskar Schindler is. Unlike many of Spielberg’s male protagonists, though, Avner does not suffer from a fatal flaw: less an exemplar of fractured masculinity (Avner flirts with a gorgeous woman—unbeknownst to him, an assassin—in a hotel bar, but he’s too decent to act on his impulses) than an appealingly generic movie hero, Avner reverses the typical Spielberg trajectory. Munich does not tell a story of redemption but one of a generic “good man”’s unraveling. We sympathize with Avner because we’re conditioned to, filmically, and our sympathies are upended, both in Spielberg’s uncompromising depiction of Avner’s role in a series of brutal and violent assassinations and in the way the film tracks the gradual growth of Avner’s fear and self-loathing. No less than any of his other films, Munich is a carefully constructed movie-movie, but there is a historically specific conflict at its center.
Munich approaches this conflict—terrorism in the Middle East—only obliquely, much as Schindler’s List approaches the Holocaust or Saving Private Ryan World War II or Amistad American slavery. Like those films, Munich tackles historical trauma through indirect means, privileging an exception to illuminate a larger issue. It tells the story of a five-man unit, led by Avner and commissioned by the Israeli government to covertly and unofficially assassinate the Palestinian masterminds behind the abduction and eventual murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The film examines a project of counter-terrorism and retaliation. At first, the assassinations come swiftly and satisfyingly. With time, the costs become dearer, the operations more tenuous, and the psychological devastation irrevocable. All the while, though, Munich remains resolutely focused on the response to terrorism and on the effects of violence, and not on terrorism itself or its root causes; terrorism is context, justification, flashback. With the exception of two arresting monologues, one by a PLO agent and another by Avner’s mother—both making a strenuous case about having a home, a nation, a piece of land, from two diametrically opposed positions—the film avoids speechifying.
Munich is less an overtly political film about the morality of terrorism than it is a thriller—albeit one that uses the genre to make a political point. The movie is relentless in deconstructing the pressures of the hunt and the consequences of the kill; terrorism becomes the literal return of the repressed. As Avner grows more suspicious of his associates, more fearful of his life, and more disillusioned with his mission, he begins to have flashbacks to the Munich massacre. Here again the political becomes personal, but the flashbacks feel like a strain, as though Spielberg, Kushner, and Roth are desperate to smuggle the context back in. This culminates in a stupefying scene that crosscuts the film’s only depiction of the actual Munich murders with sweaty, violent sex between Avner and his wife. One can perhaps make a broad-brush case for the sequence. It echoes an early scene of sweet lovemaking between Avner and his then pregnant wife, but turns a creative act—one that reaffirms the bonds of family and belonging—into something brutal and destructive. In Munich, people are constantly arguing that murder is necessary for creation—for the making of a nation, a people. So the scene is justifiable, but it also feels fundamentally misguided, a mingling of movie sex and historical trauma that is, to put it mildly, in bad taste.
As it draws to its precarious close, Munich seems to spin out of control. If the movie’s refusal to take a stand on the political and ethical questions it raises is admirable, it also lends it a certain incoherence. What are we meant to feel about Avner’s flashbacks to the Munich massacre? Or his growing paranoia? What do we make of his commanding officer’s insistence that he should continue his work as an assassin? Or of the same commanding officer’s refusal to “break bread” with Avner and his family? And what, finally, should we feel about the final shot of the film, which connects the violence Munich depicts to the terrorist attacks of September 11? Frankly, I don’t know what we’re supposed to feel. Munich, like many a Spielberg movie, may be guilty of overreach, but it may be unique in the extent of its ambiguity: for once, a filmmaker too often accused of emotional manipulation doesn’t seem to be telling us how to feel at all. And the effect is all too disturbing. —CW
So, who is Munich made for? While we’re at it, let’s lob all the questions we possibly can at a film that by design is meant to be held up to wide public scrutiny. What is Munich supposed to say about terrorism? About the Middle East? About government-sanctioned murder? Where are Steven Spielberg’s politics supposed to lie? What are his moral responsibilities as a commercial filmmaker wading through the muck of one of the past century’s most steadfastly immutable conflicts? The questions hollered at the film are, maddeningly to some, met not with answers but with further questions. Ultimately, Munich repeatedly constructs its narrative as such: a series of ever-compounding quandaries never finding resolution. If Spielberg’s Munich had all the answers it would still be forced to concede resolution. By sheer nature of its form (thriller, mostly) and its politics (the Israel-Palestine conflict, ostensibly), Munich could get no further than a stalemate. Munich is a failure, and it’s satisfied to be so—as a thriller, it dwindles down to sweaty nubs, reaches ideological dead-ends; as a serious investigation of Middle-Eastern conflict, it throws its hands up in frustration. Yet it’s hard to imagine a more daring expression in 2005 from the world’s most successful filmmaker? Munich is dizzyingly ambitious in its mechanics and ruthlessly unwilling to satisfy. Spielberg’s need to end the film on U.S. soil should have clued everyone in to the fact that this is, above all, a film made for American viewership.
Yet in order for this high-wire act to have been deemed a success, Munich needed to be all things to all viewers: a reliably anti-PC, PC, bipartisan, nonpartisan, pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli, ultra-stylized, ultra-realist, commercial art-film. For this film, Spielberg, often condemned in a knee-jerk fashion as a thoughtless pusher of conservative family values, teamed up with Tony Kushner, accused by dyed-in-the-wool Zionists as being a Palestinian apologist, and, as if in a twilight zone, each fell under attack by the other’s watch dogs. Naturally, Munich couldn’t please either side. Spielberg’s film excels however, if it is actually watched and wrestled with, rather than contained within the personal biases of each viewer. In other words, rather than wonder about all the things Munich is not, let’s actually look at what Munich is.
Arguably, Spielberg’s greatest images are the most seemingly divergent from the film’s main narrative thrust. The first occurs in a repeated shot of the protagonist, Avner (Eric Bana), a Mossad agent hired to assassinate the Palestinian masterminds behind the murders of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, staring at a yellow and brown prefab kitchen through a Parisian department-store window. With its glistening, new countertops and cabinets the dull seventies color of maize, this paradise of Formica domesticity, behind glass, marks the fixed meeting point of Avner and his morally suspect French informant, Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who seems to know the identities and whereabouts of many of Avner’s key targets. Here, amidst the array of modern appliances, Avner finds momentary solace, both as a memory of the home he once had, a representation of the home he wishes for his people to have, and a fear that the home he took for granted may be transitory. The very idea of what constitutes a homeland is what Kushner (along with Eric Roth, who likely helped shape Kushner’s intricate philosophical discursiveness into a genre framework) seems to be most after; once the rhetoric melts, all that’s left for Avner is the seemingly unattainable kitchen, under glass, just as for a dewy-eyed PLO member with whom he tensely converses in a hostel it is the far more modest acre of olive trees to which he wishes to return.
Munich’s second strongest image, and one of the most indelible in Spielberg’s long career, occurs when Avner and his band of fellow brooding Mossad agents veer sharply from the path of vengeance laid out for them by the Israeli government. In a moment motivated not by political agenda but personal vendetta, Avner and two of his fellow hit men, Steve (Daniel Craig) and Hans (Hanns Zichler), track down Jeanette (Marie-Josée Croze), an assassin responsible for earlier seducing and killing their partner Carl (Ciaran Hinds). They enter her house. Spielberg, always able to present violence for mass consumption in a radically upsetting manner, stages the murder as an act completely drained of pride or satisfaction. In this way, it stands in for every other killing in the film: two quick, casual shots, muffled with a silencer, hit Jeanette in her chest and throat. She continues to dazedly shuffle across the floor, her robe flapping open against her nude figure, taking one moment to haphazardly clutch her cat, before collapsing in an armchair. Blood begins to gurgle out of her two wounds with a disconcertingly delayed reaction, pouring down her breasts. A quick, pummeling shot to the head, filmed from behind, her head jerking and slumping like a rag doll, and she’s gone. After one of them attempts to close the robe to cover her body, Hans declares, “Leave it open.” Like those bullets ripping holes through steel helmets in Saving Private Ryan, and the men, women, and children dragged to the foreground of the frame and shot in the head in Schindler’s List, it’s shocking—a perversity of flesh and humanity—but this time with the added acknowledgment of the assassin’s own titillation. For all of the mutilations, stabbings, shootings, and dismemberments on display in Munich, none resonates quite as much as the murder of Jeanette, showing as it does the utter intimacy of death that the hit men, with their remote-controlled explosives, try to avoid at every turn. And is it any coincidence that this killing occurs in the kitchen? The closeness of mortality, the disturbance, the blasphemy of the home intrusion; once this is broached, Avner may never return—the domicile has closed its doors as a safe haven.
“We have a place on earth at last,” says Avner’s hypnotically self-righteous mother (Gila Almagor) when her son has finally returned home from his uncompleted mission. It’s others’ intrinsic belief in an ultimate right, a purity of intent, a political certainty, that surrounds Avner’s journey throughout Munich and is articulated by most of the Israeli characters, many of them self-righteous Jewish Supermen. By sheer contrast, Avner is a man of uncertainty, and therefore intangible ethics, fully aware, as all good thriller protagonists are, of his own moral befuddlement. For some, the thought of a Mossad killing machine with a conscience is laughable. For others, the equation of Avner’s actions with that of terrorism is an unforgivable moral equivalency. For Spielberg, Roth, and Kushner, however, Avner is meant to contain the world’s confusion, a composite who must carry the political burdens of all on his broad shoulders. To Spielberg, even literal machines have consciences, and Avner, like A.I.’s robo-boy David, grows increasingly human (that is to say, hopelessly, irretrievably mortal) as the film trudges on to its dark conclusion. Seen initially clenching his fist in rage as he watches the Olympics tragedy unfold on television, Avner is a governmental weapon, a glorified agency thug with a perfect-specimen physique who will continue on his mission without asking questions. Yet as the increasingly tangled web of international self-interests becomes clearer, Avner incrementally allows his internalized fears and doubt to creep across his face. Avner the political tool resonates more than Avner the action hero, for though Spielberg’s adeptness and agility with action narrative is fully on display, the amount of Hitchcockian manipulation is the film’s major caveat. Suspense is a nifty tactic for creating audience empathy, but the genre trappings, including a search-and-destroy motley crew of assassins, sit uncomfortably with the sober material. Regardless, there’s such a genuine desire to grapple with the dubiously methodical nature of political violence (the Mossad agents, with their delicately wired bombs, are so visually paralleled with terrorists that it grows easy to forget their motivations) that every moment seems vital.
It’s become a much accepted theory that when Spielberg “goes serious” (an insufficient recurrent marker that disallows that E.T., A.I., Minority Report, and War of the Worlds are serious works), he means to encompass all the world within each film, thus putting historical finality on the Big Subjects. Thus, Schindler’s List becomes not just a Holocaust film but the Holocaust film; likewise with Amistad and slavery, Saving Private Ryan and WWII, etc. Munich throws a wrench in the works of such oversimplification: the central moral inquisition deals not with the emotional devastation of terrorism but rather with the philosophies surrounding what we can dub terrorism in our world. Munich, whose very title is a memory itself by the time the narrative takes off, is about what happens after.
The fact that this director, whose career has become in essence a search for a collective memory, ends his film by looking forward is something of a revelation, especially when coupled with a most damning final line for a Hollywood product: “No.” No to bread-breaking, no to Shabbat, no to peace. No, with the Twin Towers looming large in the background, lying in wait. For American viewers, the visual connection, open to contemplation, is vital. Whether Spielberg is drawing a direct cause-and-effect through-line matters less than that Munich is not left as safely, distantly, Middle-Eastern, European, or foreign. We’re no longer in one of those cities over there, each shot as nondescriptly as the next; this isn’t Athens, Paris, Geneva, Beirut, Tel Aviv, or London, but New York City. Most daring of all is Munich’s desire to show the ultimate instability in our own backyard. But are we safe? Safe from doubt? Safe from guilt? Safe in our own homes and kitchens? No. —MK