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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
Spielberg’s Mendacious Munich
The film can’t distinguish justice from revenge.
10 January 2006

Stephen Spielberg has grandly labeled his latest film, Munich, “a prayer for peace.” Few holy petitioners charge $10 for admission ($7.50 for students and seniors), but never mind. This affectation—venality posing as piety—is a minor one. A far more grotesque fraudulence lies in the film itself, now on wide release throughout the country.

In Hollywood, top-of-the-marquee directors like Spielberg are considered auteurs—creative whirlwinds who, by force of personality, guide projects from the page to the screen. But even the protean Spielberg does not work solo; for Munich he hired two screenwriters.

The first, Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), evidently came up short. So the auteur brought in a second: Tony Kushner (Angels in America). With scores of skilled scenarists in the world of cinema to choose from, why did Spielberg select a playwright with no film credits? The reason is not hard to find. Munich reveals its agenda early on, and pursues it throughout all its 144-minute length.

The facts of the Munich massacre, as opposed to the Munich fantasy, are a matter of record. In 1972, the Olympics took place in Munich, Germany. The head of the International Olympics Committee, Avery Brundage, had a past sullied by the 1936 “Hitler” Olympics in Berlin, where he contrived to have some Jewish athletes left off the American team in deference to Nazi racism. He would play a singular role in the atrocity to come.

With the help of a few drunken American athletes who had no idea what was happening, Palestinian terrorists vaulted a fence, broke into an ill-guarded Israeli compound, murdered two members of an Israeli Olympic team, and took nine others hostage. They demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners and a safe passage out of Germany.

When Israel asked to bring its own SWAT team to the rescue, Germany refused. What followed was a nightmare of violence, with inept Germans attempting an assault, the Israeli prisoners killed by their captors, and most of the Palestinians shot to death or taken into custody by German police.

A large portion of the world stood by in horrified silence. But not all of it. There was much rejoicing among Palestinians and throughout the Islamic Middle East. Those who planned the execution of Jewish athletes were shown on television and treated like movie stars. And in the Olympic Village of Munich, Avery Brundage declared, with world-class insensitivity, “The Games must go on.” He did not mention the Israelis. And he got his wish. The Games resumed.

The Israeli government decided that something had to be done—by Israelis, because no one else would lift a finger to help. The architects of the villainy—the murderers of Jews simply because they were Jews, taking up where Hitler had left off—would have to be terminated with extreme prejudice.

It was not a matter of revenge; it was a matter of vengeance. The great 18th century lexicographer Samuel Johnson made the distinction: “Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice. Injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged.”

Accordingly, Israel dispatched a hit team to find and kill the responsible criminals. These are the bare bones of the film—which at every turn Munich contorts, fantasizes, and falsifies true events.

As is customary in Spielberg movies, Munich is well-filmed and shrewdly cast. As Avner, leader of the Israeli avengers, Australian Eric Bana manages the accent well and proves an appealing presence. His colleagues are an interesting group of performers, ranging from Irish to English to French, and varying onscreen from young impulsive soldiers to middle-aged, battle-worn veterans. Even the actress who plays Golda Meir, Lynn Cohen, is the image of the Prime Minister.

What the PM articulates, however, is quite another matter. “Every civilization,” intones the cinema Meir, “finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own principles.” In other words, killing those who would kill your children goes against the teachings of Judaism.

In the first place, Golda Meir said nothing of the kind; when Germany released some of the terrorists a few months later, she stated that she was “literally physically sickened by Germany’s capitulation.” (She would have been made more nauseated by Germany’s most recent capitulation to terrorism: the Arab killer of an American passenger on a hijacked plane, sentenced to life imprisonment, was allowed to leave the country in exchange for hostages.)

In the second place, the Torah is full of counsel about the strong protection of loved ones, and cautions that those who are kind to the cruel will be cruel to the kind.

The Meir scene gives only a hint of the agitprop to follow. Only during the Olympic terror, graphically displayed, are the Israelis shown to have families, and then but for a fleeting moment. Avner alone has a wife and a new baby, with whom he has conversations and loving encounters. Nor are Israelis shown to have intellects—other than military ones. The Palestinians are different. One of them is a poet who translates the Arabian Nights into Italian. Another has a pretty little daughter who plays classical piano. Another is a man with a sense of humor and a civilized politesse to strangers.

As the film proceeds downhill, a voluptuous assassin, working for the Palestinians, seduces and kills one of the Israeli team. His colleagues seek her out and execute her in Amsterdam. They shoot her with small caliber guns that leave the woman bleeding but not dead. She rushes to her cat and touches it before the coup de grace is delivered. Her body is left unclothed and bleeding. Moral: the Israelis are brutal and insensate. They don’t have relatives; they don’t even have pets.

Yet as the film develops, they do acquire consciences. One by one, they experience second thoughts about what they’re doing, about spending money to take lives. Is this why Israel was founded? they ask each other. Is this a righteous way to act? (In real life, not a single Mossad agent involved in the operation ever expressed regret for what he had done. But in the Spielberg-Kushner fantasy, people are only marionettes, jerking in whatever direction the strings are pulled.)

At the center of this corrupt film are two central encounters with Avner. One concerns a contrived meeting with a young Palestinian terrorist. When Avner tells him that the Palestinians have acted “like animals,” the Palestinian counters, “You have made us animals.” The fact that Jews were crowded into ghettos for centuries, and in a genocidal era packed into gas chambers, without behaving barbarically, goes unmentioned.

The second encounter concerns an implausible character known only as “Papa,” given a jambon-flavored performance by Michel Lonsdale. The benign old man is an information broker who fingers Palestinian targets for Avner at exorbitant prices. But he is also the voice of reason, dealing with individuals of every political persuasion—although never with governments.

During a sun-drenched repast at his French country estate, Papa articulates his philosophy. He was an underground fighter during World War II. Alas, the horrible Vichy were replaced by the equally horrible Gaullists. And the Nazis were replaced “by Stalin and the United States.”

Much has been said about Spielberg-Kushner’s moral equivalency between the Palestinian killers and the Israeli ones. But there is more at stake in Munich than this puerile comparison. For what the auteur and his scenarist are really saying is that Israel’s attack on its attackers leads to that exhausted bromide, “the cycle of violence,” and that U.S. policy in the Middle East is on the identical hopeless treadmill. The Kremlin, the Beltway, the Mossad, the KGB, the CIA—it’s all the same to these filmmakers.

Should anyone miss their message, the film ends with a shot of the Trade Towers, indicating that Islamic anger grew out of the actions of the Jewish State in the 1970s, and out of the subsequent policies of its principal supporter, the United States of America. (After the 9/11 massacre, Bin Laden’s public statements did not mention Israel at all. But never mind.)

The scene just before that revealing shot shows Avner in Brooklyn Heights, where he has decided to relocate along with wife and child. His hard-nosed Israeli boss, Ephraim, well done by Geoffrey Rush, pleads with him to return to Israel where he was born, where his mother and ailing father still live. Avner refuses. He is too sensitive, too conflicted to be a citizen of Israel now. Brooklyn is where he belongs.

All this comports with Kushner’s beliefs. He is not only on record with his anti-Israel statements: “I think the founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity. . . . I wish modern Israel hadn’t been born.” He is also an avowed socialist whose leftist beliefs led him to join forces with those who advocate divestiture from companies that do business with the Jewish State. Thus, ideologically, Kushner finds himself in bed with people like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a socialist who recently stated, “Some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ [i.e. Jews] . . . took the world’s wealth for themselves.” Chavez went on to identify Jesus as the first socialist.

As for Spielberg, whose protagonist opts for New York City over Jerusalem, Haifa, or Tel Aviv, he finds himself on the same side of the street with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who recently maligned the post-Holocaust West: “If you have burned the Jews, why don’t you give a piece of Europe, the United States, Canada, or Alaska to Israel? If you have committed this huge crime, why should the innocent nation of Palestine pay for this crime?” Brooklyn, according to his thesis, would be the ideal place.

There are all sorts of reasons to malign Munich for its mendacity, its misuse of history, its refusal to recognize that when Israel has acted strongly it has saved its people—as in the building of the wall that has protected countless Jews (and for that matter Palestinians). Or to recognize that whenever Israel has acted weakly, as in the days of the meaningless Oslo accords, Israelis paid for it with their lives.

Still, all these pale before the criticism of a UCLA professor named Judea Pearl. He is the father of the late Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was beheaded by Islamic terrorists in Pakistan for the crime of being a Jew.

Prof. Pearl writes that Munich “does not explicitly justify terrorism, but it leans in that direction by assigning a palatable yet unchallenged rationale to the Palestinian terrorists, and by having the Israeli hero suffer a crisis of conscience. . . . Missing from the script is the most important theme of all: justice.”

Justice, of course, is beyond the scope of Munich. So is reality. The New York Times, never a fan of the stricken Ariel Sharon, notes, “Life for ordinary Palestinians is becoming harder, with less security and optimism than a year ago. The Israelis pulled out of Gaza—a thrilling moment for many Palestinians—but the territory has become practically lawless, not a model for a future state.”

This is what Israel faces in the Middle East, while anti-Semitism grows in Europe along with its Muslim population, while Iran stockpiles weaponry, while Munich pushes its inhumane agenda.

Some prayer. Some peace.

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