Death in "Munich"

by Jonathan Wallace

"Munich" is, along with Empire of The Sun and Minority Report. one of the better movies Steven Spielberg has ever made. It is suspenseful, thought-provoking, and moves at a good clip. It mirrors the ambiguity, violence and general awfulness of the adult world in a way he was unwilling to do in Schindler's List, AI or other ostensibly grown-up movies. It is relatively free of the grand-standing, sentimentality and emotional manipulation that spoil so much of Spielberg's work.

After watching Munich, I found myself thinking about the dual ethical schemes on which movies are made. Every film has an ostensible ethics--the supposed lesson of its story--and an actual ethics of which the filmmaker himself may be happily unconscious. The ostensible ethics is whatever is the overt message of a movie--love one another, be nice to your children, revenge yourself on your enemies. The actual ethics of most movies is the simple desire to make money. The same liberal intellectual will produce a labor union movie when audiences are open to heart-warming anticapitalist stories, and a brutal vigilante movie when people are frightened of crime.

Spielberg has already made enough money to last a few lifetimes, and we can surmise he is not highly motivated by profit in selecting projects these days. So the actual ethics of Munich are different and more interesting than those of the run of the mill of Hollywood movies.

The ostensible ethics of Munich is clear: that the cycle of revenge killings makes us all paranoid, jumpy and mentally ill and that there must be a negotiated solution. Fine, I agree. Spielberg would probably say that Munich is one film in which the ostensible and actual ethics completely converge. I don't agree.

An ethical analysis of Munich starts with the question of whether it is a "true" story. It is based on a 1984 book which purported to interview the real "Avner", anonymous head of the secret Israeli assassination team. Since then, this book has been at least somewhat discredited, and a new book on the aftermath to Munich alleges that there was no one secret team and that Avner did not exist. Since everyone, including Israelis, seems to agree that the Israelis killed the Palestinians they deemed responsible for Munich, the movie, in postulating a single team, is no more fictional than most history-based movies (which always have to simplify, eliminate a confusing number of real players, and tie up loose ends, and often create fictional omniscient narrator-characters privy to everything happening around them). Munich is a respectable exercise even if it postulates a single team of assassins in lieu of many.

However, the first question I had upon viewing the movie was why Spielberg didn't portray the Israeli murder of an innocent Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, who happened to have the same name as one of the wanted terrorists. The 1984 book apparently attributed this killing to a different team, so Spielberg had some basis for excluding it. However, if he knew he was dealing with a disputed, already fictionalized source, he could easily have included the Lillehammer affair, or at least some reference to it. As an artistic choice, it would have clarified the ethics of the movie: revenge killings, in addition to the other problems, are rarely surgically precise and often drag in innocent people. Almost every week, you read in the paper that Israel has fired a missile at a murderous terrorist somewhere in Gaza--and killed a couple of children who happened to be playing nearby. By eliding the issue of "collateral damage", Spielberg oversimplifies the Munich universe.

Spielberg's intimations that there may be collateral damage are much weaker. In a bloody raid into Beirut, a Shin Bet team, accompanied by a couple of members of Avner's team, machine guns one target--and the woman in bed with him. But an easy rationalization I have heard people make is, "marry a killer (or sleep with one) and you assume the risk". In other scenes, the team also kills a fourteen year old boy--who is firing an assault weapon at them-- and a humanized terrorist, Ali, with whom they had an interesting conversation just the night before.

This last scene comes fairly close to being as bad as Spielberg's trademarked manipulations in other movies. The team rents a safe-house in Greece from someone who has rented it to a Palestinian terrorist group the same night. This is never explained; they apparently assume it was an innocent error and continue doing business with the landlord. This scene, which does not work very well as a plot point, appears to be staged for the sole purpose of allowing Avner and Ali to have a debate about Israel, homeland and exile. (Ali thinks Avner is a member of a leftist European terrorist organization.) When Avner must kill him a day later, it is a predictable yet effective moment. Spielberg deserves, and has received, some props for a humane portrayal of the Palestinians in Munich.

There is one killing in the movie which appears to have invaded from a completely different and much sicker movie. A beautiful female operative sets a "honey trap" for Avner, which he evades, but she nets an older member of the team, who is murdered in her hotel room. (We are not informed whether she killed the man herself or simply lured him to his death.) The team tracks her down to a houseboat in Holland, where they find her reading a book in her nightgown. Her first reaction when a stranger appears on her boat is not fear or anger, but a look of pure sexual hunger. A moment later, when she realizes that it is the Israeli team here to kill her, she begins calmly bargaining for her life: You already know how good I am, you should hire me. She exposes her beautiful breasts and asks: Why waste all this talent? (We see her ineffectively groping for a gun in a drawer while she talks, but she never finds it.) The team shoot her twice in the chest, with strange one-shot guns they have assembled from bicycle pumps (Spielberg loves his gadgets). She walks calmly across the room, her nightgown still hanging open, pets her cat, sits down in a chair and starts to die. A third member of the team then uses his own bicycle-pump-gun to shoot her in the head. Avner tries to close her nightgown, and another member of the team angrily makes him leave it open.

This scene in translation: the woman is an object, a beautiful tool, and knows it. Her only defense when confronted is, since I am a tool, why not use me instead of throwing me away? She shows her breasts and says, Why waste this commodity? (Breasts, after all, are not "talent"). She doesn't panic, scream, run away, or wet herself; they don't have to run her down, haul her back screaming, or club her. She calmly accepts what is about to happen as if she deserves it, says goodbye to her cat, and makes a beautiful corpse. It is an unpleasantly erotic scene, verging on snuff porn.

The movie murder scene I always use as the gold standard in these kinds of analyses is the one in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain. Two protagonists, a man and woman, murder an East German spy who has discovered them. They fight him, stab him, stick his head in the oven, and wrestle him all over the house until they have killed him. When it is done, they are both bruised and exhausted. There is much that is deeply ill, which eroticizes murder, in Hitchcock movies. But the scene in Torn Curtain presents murder as hard, nasty work.

The first killing carried out by the team in Munich is of a Palestinian professor who has translated the "1001 Nights" into Italian. On his way home from a reading when confronted, he stands still, holding his hand out and trying to push the gun away, and talking gently in Arabic, presumably pleading for his life. It is not a bad scene--we identify with the victim and feel compassion for him. But like the female killer-spy-tool in the other scene, the subtext is that the target knows he is guilty, and accepts his death. He utters a plea for mercy, in place of anger, fear or defiance.

Avner's team asks him and most of the other victims they kill face to face two questions: Are you so and so? Do you know why we're here? The second question is a philosophically excellent one that all hitmen would ask in a perfect world. It urges, but does not force, the target to take responsibility for his crime and accept what is about to happen. I would like to think I would answer, "I have no fucking idea", and start throwing chairs.

The killings which are shown in most detail in the movie are those of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, in a series of flashbacks across the entire film, culminating in a long and unbearable moment at the end when panicked terrorists, under attack, machine gun and grenade all of the surviving athletes.

The accusation some Israelis have made, that Spielberg is postulating a "moral equivalency" between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli revenge killings, is false. The real ethics of this movie is that the terrorists are worse, that they know they are worse, and that they calmly take responsibility and accept death when confronted. It is commendable that Spielberg, so tied in to the pro-Israel Jewish community worldwide via Schindler and his subsequent Holocaust related work, made Munich at all. It goes some distance towards opening up a debate, like movies made in the late Soviet Union which were able to raise a few questions about Soviet ethics. But Munich begs at least two major questions that must be confronted in any thorough debate of the issue: the ethics of Israel's foundation, and the possibility that the rationale that "they started it" (even if true) eventually washes out as an excuse, once you have bulldozed enough houses and killed enough children with missiles.