Thursday, June 30, 2005

Spielberg, Munich: a Lesson for Us

"Viewing Israel's response to Munich through the eyes of the men who were sent to avenge that tragedy adds a human dimension to a horrific episode that we usually think about only in political or military terms," he [Spielberg] said. "By experiencing how the implacable resolve of these men to succeed in their mission slowly gave way to troubling doubts about what they were doing, I think we can learn something important about the tragic standoff we find ourselves in today."—“Next: Spielberg's Biggest Gamble” NY Times

11 Israeli athletes were murdered in a botched attempt to take them hostage by PLO terrorists during the Olympic games at Munich in 1972. I remember Jim McKay on the radio as I drove home from a late graduate class in film school in Boston, “They’re all gone.”

I felt a personal connection because on a trip to Europe the previous summer, backpacking with a friend from high school, we stopped in Munich of all places, and as young American Jewish students traveling through Europe, we were surprised at the friendship of the people we met in Munich. Capitol of Bavaria, Munich harbored the high echalon of Germany's Nazi War criminals during WWII, 30 years prior to our visit. My friend and I had a grand time in 1971, drinking famed Bavarian beer and enjoying the friendly surroundings.

We also went on a tour of the facilities that were to be used in the coming 1972 Summer Olympics. When the Israeli athletes were kidnapped and killed, I was listening on my car radio driving down Commonwealth Avenue to my apartment in Brighton, part of Boston. I heard Jim McKay's voice, "they're all gone," and I felt a devastation that came through again during the events of 9/11—terrorists taking away my memories and invading my life with some ultimate pollution, not just academic sorrow, but real outright sadness and tragedy—Now we have to live in this world…

We tell our children that “it’s only a movie” in the most frightening sequences. When I was at overnight summer camp, in 1960, and a counselor came into our cabin after midnight, screaming and trying to catch his breath, and he woke 10 of us campers up, it was all because he had just seen a movie about a serial killer who stabs a pretty girl in a shower. That was my initiation into the power of a movie—“Psycho”—shot in black and white and on a low budget by the great director, Alfred Hitchcock. In the late 1960’s Hitchcock made a movie “Topaz,” about a book that intrigued me very much. Leon Uris, author of Exodus, wrote the book, “Topaz,” about a French intelligence mole who got wind of inside information that the Russians were putting missile bases on Cuba, with warheads capable of hitting American cities with nuclear weapons.

That movie pretty much stunk. The issue was old—the Cuban missile crisis, which ridded the island under Castro of Russian ICBMs—was over in 1963. The movie came out in 1968, just when the Vietnam War truly heated up, the Tet offensive made US military intervention nominal, and Hitchcock was way past his prime.

Steven Spielberg is in the prime of his prime. He wants to tackle this momentous issue of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli response 33 years after the fact. An HBO movie was made in the 1980’s about this issue—Israeli retaliation against the terrorists who killed the Munich athletes.

The key point of the story, and of the description of Spielberg’s quandary, is that the Israeli hit men have second thoughts about their mission. There is even criticism that only Jews would be portrayed as having doubts about a mission like this:

It's become a stereotype, the guilt-ridden Mossad hit man. You never see guilt-ridden hit men in any other ethnicity. Somehow it's only the Jews. I don't see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden. It's the flip side of the rationally motivated Palestinian terrorist: you can't have a Jew going to exact vengeance and not feel guilt-ridden about it, and you can't have a Palestinian who's operating out of pure evil - it's got to be the result of some trauma."
In fact, that is the best reason to make this film. Vengeance is so obvious a great motive under the circumstance of the killing of innocents, and yet the question remains about whether killing is a right motive. “Do the right thing” we always say—under what circumstances and for whose benefit? The lesson for us is that there is no black and white, and we really need to ponder the grey areas. I look forward to Spielberg’s movie—it will offer us a lesson in these times as well.

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