Munich, a pacifist treatise or simply a depiction of history?

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Mathieu Kassovitz and Eric Bana

The film opens with the angled view of a tall metal gate. It’s night-time and a group of men in athletic uniforms are trying to climb over the fence. It is then that they are interrupted by drunken American athletes who joke around with them and ask them if they speak English. After a moment of returning awkward looks, it becomes clear that these men do not speak English, and they assist the men over the gate. These men in athletic uniforms were actually a group of terrorists, preparing to orchestrate an attack which would later become known as the “Munich Murders” which took place in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

The plotline centers around the protagonist, Avner (played by Eric Bana), an Israeli Mossad agent who was a former body guard to Israeli Prime Minster Golda Meir. Avner is a quiet, soft-spoken, and candid man, who has a pregnant wife living with him in a small apartment in Tel-Aviv. Things suddenly get hairy when he finds a Mossad General parked out in front of his apartment. Avner gets recruited to be the leader of a special hit team whose assignment is to search out those responsible for planning “Black September.” He’s not to be provided with assistance from the Israeli government, outside of money which appears in a box in Geneva, Switzerland.

In the beginning Avner is obviously a devoted, energetic and loyal Israeli citizen, answering the call to duty as many young patriotic citizens before him have done. Upon arriving in Europe, Avner must search out sources who can feed the team information on the terrorists. He rekindles an old friendship with a German friend named Andreas (portrayed by Moritz Bleibtreu) who had since joined the Red Army Faction. One thing leads to another and they make their first contact, which leads to another contact, and eventually on to “le Group.” Le Group turns out to be instrumental in assisting Avner’s team with gaining information on their targets.

Eventually their enemies begin catching up with them and Avner’s team members begin dying one-by-one. Avner begins to complain that every time they take out a target, it is simply replaced by worse. Later in the film, his case officer Ephraim (played by Geoffrey Rush) attempts to soothe Avner’s nerves by using the analogy “why cut my fingernails, they’ll grow back,[1]” which turns out to be no comfort to Avner.

Towards the end of the film, it becomes ever-more apparent that Papa (the leader of le Group) may have sold him and his team out to the terrorists. Avner’s mission is over after his team is unable to take out their main target Ali Hassan-Salameh, only he and his team member Steve (played by Daniel Craig) are still alive by that time, the other three had been killed.

After Avner comes home to his wife, who now lives in New York, he clearly begins experiencing something very similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome. He lays awake at night in his bed, constantly suspicious that someone is out to kill him. He’s weary of every sound and car that passes by the building. Eventually he calls Papa in an effort to reassure himself that he isn’t being hunted. Papa replies that he is thinking about him with “concern.” Later, Avner sees suspicious cars passing by and shows up at the Israeli embassy, where he threatens the attaché and Ephraim.

This is clearly the image of a man, broken down by years of living under false identities, in foreign countries, exposed to the deaths of many people, and unable to hold himself together. The story, though true it may be, is an analogy for the way that Israel is said to ask for everything, and then some more from its citizens. Thought the film doesn’t directly speak to the issue as the book Vengeance[2] does, Avner’s father always talks about waiting for “that call,” which he implies could come at any moment.

The entire story, both in the film Munich and in the book Vengeance seems to speak to a topic which is often forgotten and ignored by mainstream society; the topic of self-sacrifice in the name of the government. Early on, Avner was a patriotic, enthusiastic agent. After the Mossad had essentially taken everything out of him, he was ready to quit, but the Mossad wanted even more from him. Eventually Avner becomes quite repulsed by the entire idea of serving the government, this is apparent in the book because the author writes about it specifically, and in the movie in a subtler way.

This repulsion is evident by Avner’s erratic behavior later in the film. The film speaks to a generation of young people, who get tangled up in a situation fighting for their government. The timing of the movie’s release in 2005 may also say something about Stephen Spielberg’s intentions, other than minting a great (though long), historical thriller. The year 2005 was a time when the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan had begun to claim many lives and public opinion was turning against the Bush Administration. Spielberg, in an introduction to the film expresses concern about whether or not the decision to go after terrorists is the right one, this seems to reinforce the idea that he may have been hinting at his disapproval for serving the government.

[1]Munich. dir. Stephen Spielberg. Perf. Eric Bana. Daniel Craig. Universal. 2005.

[2] See Johnas, George. (1984). Vengeance. Simon and Schuster. New York, NY. Munich the film is based on this book.

By Aaron Nolan ©