Munich is a historical epic boasting an identity crisis. It’s an angry, vengeful and violent statement, but it’s also empathetic and vastly despondent. Munich forces itself to relive bad memories of cultural despair and in doing so manages to approach tragedy from all angles. It’s an underrated and often misunderstood revelation for Steven Spielberg, whose foray into political features have been scarce to this point. This may be his most ‘Spielbergian’ film to date but criticism directed toward Spielberg’s ubiquitous commiseration and compassion seem completely unprincipled and dubious. If Munich’s greatest fault lies in appreciating and disparaging in the sins of both Israel and Palestine then Spielberg is guilty only of refusing to pick a side. By laying the foundation of human integrity, Steven Spielberg’s Munich has envisions a broader dialogue on the state of warfare not as a reasoned cultural response but a visceral human reaction.
Spielberg is noted for his typical, crowd-pleasing fare, but the man is no stranger to historical interpretation; there’s Schindler’s List which is quite often referred to as the director’s magnum opus, and Saving Private Ryan, probably the most imitated war drama of the last decade. In both films, Spielberg orchestrates empathy into an opera (and conditions them as a personal sonnet). Spielberg’s ability to generate pathos by celebrating the dignity of the human spirit in the most inhumane of conditions can be quite powerful, but Munich mutes Spielberg’s hallmark sentimentalism to convey a more productive sense of ambiguity, a crucible forged from our inability to empathize with the “other.” It’s dramatic storytelling by way of fiery debate. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List convened in spiritual ethos while Munich interrogates the notion altogether. Munich, about Jewish men who try to reclaim the pride of their national identity at the cost of human dignity, is a takedown of the very moral foundations of political and spiritual pride.
Spielberg smartly eschews emphasizing the spectacle of the film’s overarching tragedy (The Munich Massacre). He instead interrogates its aftermath, fictionally depicting the very real ‘Operation Wrath of God’ which, to crudely summarize it, was a counter-terrorist operation mandated by the Israeli government, undertaken by a group of Jewish proffers tasked with hunting down and murdering the Palestinians responsible for the 1972 Munich Massacre. Munich depicts the fallout of the “Munich massacre”, an event in and of itself resulted from years of accumulating frustration and hatred, spurred by decades of border conflicts and a vast cultural rift between the Israeli and the Palestinian people.
Munich is both taut and exhilarating, suspense in its moments of cloak-and-dagger are well dispensed, but Spielberg’s quality becomes more than mere craft; each assassination committed by the Jewish men further them their primary political objectives in ways that begin to deconstruct their own motives. The violence they inflict has become impersonal to the point of fiendish detachment. Murder in the name of justice becomes less a statement of political reclamation than personal fulfilment for the men. The seemingly never ending carnage enacted by both angry Israeli and Palestinian men, as we come to learn, prove to be a self-destructive means of national self-determinism. The tragedy Spielberg emphasizes on is that both groups will respond to tragedies and injustice with greater tragedies and injustices.
Avner: You kill Jews and the world feels bad for them… and thinks you animals.
Ali: Yes. But then the world will see how they’ve made us into animals. They’ll start to ask questions about the conditions in our cages.
[spoilers to follow].
One sequence, in particular, stands out. A Dutch female contract killer who months earlier had murdered one of the Jewish operatives, is met by his comrades. She entices them with her sexuality, neither man relents and shoot her with makeshift pistols (fashioned as bicycle handlebars). It’s a brutal scene, a perverse visual motif founded on the scene’s ugly sexual connotation; her seduction is further met with a cold, almost passionless objectivity and remorselessness. It ends with a similar epiphany to the one the Jewish operatives learn by the end of the film: revenge is always personal.
Spielberg is strongest in his moments of intimacy; one scene proves this by overstepping the director’s own limits and giving us a moment that’s as erotically pungent as it is emotionally profound: a fierce love scene between the protagonist, Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), and his wife, Daphna (Ayelet Zurer), play out in extreme close-ups and intoxicating slow-motion. They’re intercut between the moments of the actual 1972 Munich Massacre. It’s one of Steven Spielberg’s truly great interpretive moments. It almost feels inappropriate, an act of intimacy perverted by images of mass murder, but the result is nothing less than poetic. The back-and-forth between both images provide a symbiosis of emotion and theme that’s unmistakable: The perpetual cycle of creating life and destroying it. Spielberg will never sidestep his longing for human goodness, so who would have guessed that he could wear misanthropy so well?