It’s been a week since I saw Munich and I am still in mourning.
I have tried not to give away too much here, but it is not possible to only outline a film like this. It made my list of top films for 2005.
Munich is the story of the systematic revenge killings for the 1972 assassinations of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, Germany. The Israeli government commissioned the secret killings of eleven of the Palestinians who planned the assassinations. The Israeli’s rationalized them by the necessity that civilizations sometimes need “to negotiate the compromise of their values” - as the film has Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) declares in a quiet tone, steeled with resolve.
Munich opens with the blow by blow account of what began that early morning at the Olympic Village; it is terrible and violent.
The Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence service, recruits one of its own, Avner (Eric Bana); his handler is Ephraim (Goeffrey Rush) who sets up the bank accounts among other things. Avner must sign a paper that he is not employed by the Mossad so that if the plan goes awry, nothing can be traced back to the Israeli government. He is sworn to silence. Avner is recently married and he and his wife are expecting their first child; he is conflicted between his task as an assassin and his family. He visits his mother (Gila Almagor) to say good-bye; they speak of his father who deserted his wife and child for the sake of government work. The Mossad accountant demands receipts; he provides the only humor in the film, but at the same time his lack of concern for how the money will be used does little to balance the darkness to come.
Avner heads a team of four Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the bomb expert, but we find that his real expertise was in disarming bombs and making toys; Carl (Ciaran Hinds), a quiet, almost repressed individual who makes sure no evidence is left after ever incident; Steve (Daniel Craig and the new James Bond), drives the get-away car and is a marksman, and Hans (Hanns Zischler), who forges their documents. With the help of a Frenchman named Louis (Mathieu Amalric), Avner discovers where the targets are staying. Louis also sets up safe houses for a price, all the while insisting that he does not work for governments. Louis’ father, “Papa” (Michael Lonsdale), an ex-World WarII French resistance fighter, is the actual head of Louis’ network, but his motivations, for all his protestations, seem murky. Papa is also the head of a large extended family that lives with him in the French country-side; the children laugh and play; they welcome Avner without judgment; they feel safe, as if the real world does not even exist.
One by one, the team assassinates the targets, first by rifle, then by bombs. Louis provides unstable explosives (or the toy-maker turned bomb-maker has made a mistake) and there is collateral damage – more people are killed than intended. Avner sneaks home when his child is born and tells his wife to move to Brooklyn. He senses that he and his family will become targets of Palestinian revenge - or worse.
The turning point of the film comes when Louis sets up a safe house one night for both Avner’s team and a Palestinian team. Although Avner does not know who the group is protecting or targeting, they sleep side by side in an uneasy rest. Avner and the head of the Palestinian group talk; “You don’t know what it’s like not to have a home,” he tells Avner. But Avner is realizing that he may have lost his "home" as well. Meanwhile, they later confront one another in a gun-grenade street battle; and a little more of Avner’s humanity disappears.
And every once in a while there are flashbacks to the Olympic Village events, to keep the fire going.
The team was told never to go to Arab countries to track anyone; yet they do; then they track down the woman who killed one of their team, and kill her. The revenge killings become personal. One by one, Avner’s team is killed or commits suicide, until only he and Steve are left.
Killing begets killing; no one knows who to trust. The violence escalates to unbelievable intensity, and I, for one, began to cry. It was impossible not to; the waste, the futility, the never-ending cycle of violence begetting violence; these beautiful young men and women destroyed, physically and spiritually, before theyhave a chance to live.
"Revenge" has been given credibility; it has been baptized, if you will, and made a "value" - something worth dying for, as if it were transcendent like justice, love, honesty, integrity. Even the most powerful nations on the earth, that should know better, know how to take revenge and they do. Defense and revenge are not the same thing.
Avner eventually stops after seven or so of the targets are killed; he and Steve return to Israel. Steve is interrogated and reveals Louis’ name but Avner will not give him up. Even though Louis’ loyalty is questionable, Avner won’t budge; his loyalty is not. Someone has to take a stand. Avner then joins his wife in Brooklyn; he believes the CIA is watching him, as it most surely interfered in one of their attempts in London. When he confronts the Israeli ambassador, Ephraim is sent to talk to him. He wants Avner back; they argue; Avner refuses. Just before they part, Avner says, “Wait; it says somewhere that we are to break bread together. Come to my home; let us break bread together.” Ephraim looks at him and says, “No”; he turns and walks away.
If the meeting with the Palestinian at the safe house was the turning point of the film, the ending was the final statement of the ideology the film was trying to explore: Ephraim, the representative of the Mossad and presumably the Israeli government, refused to break bread together, refused to make peace. Even though the film stopped, it is not over.
This film is no Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan; there are no heroes here, there is no moral center that anchors the “right” against the “wrong”. This is a complex film about complex human and political issues. I think the film wanted to give the audience a visceral experience of the on-going Israeli-Palestinian war (struggle? Seems much to mild a word) carried out through terrorist tactics. No one has clean hands. No one.
The acting is spot-on. Eric Bana was the one actor who stood out in Troy; here he proves that he can inhabit any role.
There are motifs in the film; Spielberg’s “lonely child” theme is present, and here it is generational and crosses cultures. The toy/bomb-maker expresses it best, I think, in the toys he makes, almost compulsively. He is the first to “break”. With an almost total male cast, this film is an island of lost boys.
As I left the theater I had a conversation with three audience members; one was a teacher of Buddhism who was not a pacifist, who believed that some things are worth defending. I believe in defense, too, but I also believe that negotiation is the only way to peace, that is, to resolve conflict. Israel is a recognized state in the world today, but what of the people that were displaced in the process of its becoming a sovereign country? After almost sixty years, they are still without a homeland.
Is it really in the world’s interest (the process of globalization unguided by human rights anddignity) that wars and terrorism continue? Several films in 2006 would have us think so(Lord of War, Syriana, The Constant Gardener, Paradise Now). These films challenge us and if we enter into them with our moral imaginations, perhaps we can find a way to contribute to peace-making based on justice. Without justice, there can be no peace.
Some may question the facts ofthe film. First of all, this is not a documentary(and we ought question documentaries aswell because they are made according to someone's particular point of view) so we can assume some fiction. The question is not: is the film factual, but is it true?
Munich will make you think; perhaps you will get out of the film what you bring to it; but perhaps, it will help all of us walk in the shoes of someone else for a while, and see things differently, that is, to see possibilities for peace and do something.
Munich is not a feel-good movie, but it is a film that is filled with deeply felt life and pain – and too much death.