Ruminating on ‘Munich’

Ruminating on ‘Munich’

In the last 40 years, few American filmmakers have made a film about Israel. Ever since Paul Newman stood on a ship in the Mediterranean, seemingly single-handedly holding the British Empire at bay in the 1960 "Exodus" and Kirk Douglas led the charge — against all odds — to free a besieged Jerusalem in the 1966 "Cast A Giant Shadow," tackling a film about the Middle East has been daunting. Yes, there were the "Entebbe" films of the late 1970s, but they were easy to make — the good guys and the bad guys were clearly recognizable. In 1983, Costa-Gavras, the talented filmmaker who made "Z," paid the price when his 1983 film "Hanna K." was deemed too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause; he experienced problems raising capital for his next few films, until he made the 1989 Holocaust-related film "Music Box." Now Steven Spielberg comes forward and tackles a film about the Munich Olympics and its aftermath and the fallout is only beginning.

I confess that except for seeing some of the headlines in the press, I had put aside the articles and reviews about the film until after I screened the movie. I am bothered by reviewers ruining the viewing experience by divulging too much about a film before it can be seen. I prefer to enable filmmakers to do their magic by bringing me into their realm, into which I enter knowing nothing. I also have trouble with people who comment on films before even seeing them. Cinema is an experience that goes beyond words and requires our total immersion. In "Munich," Spielberg, the master storyteller, teamed up with Tony Kushner, one of the greatest Jewish writing talents of our day, to bring us a masterful story of Jews struggling with what it means to be a Jew today. Must any film relating to Israel that may raise questions remain the province of the prohibited? Last year, American-born Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox made "Walk on Water," about a Mossad agent who struggles with his role as assassin. It is a human story about a trained specialist’s search for a Nazi war criminal. Cannot Israelis struggle with a role than might be uncomfortable? Unfortunately, we have a long history of people who want to see us destroyed; and Jews, in particular Israelis, have been forced to assume painful tasks. Is there anything wrong with grappling with that? Let the filmmaker trigger the discussion.

"Munich" is a complex film that requires careful consideration. It is true that I was revolted when, early into the film, I saw pictures of the Israeli Olympic athletes juxtaposed with those of the terrorist Black Septemberists. How dare he in any way make a comparison between the two? Yet, as he proceeded to unfold a tapestry that only Spielberg can produce, I began to understand his intention. But putting the two side-by-side, we understood that there is no equating the two. The athletes were innocent victims; the hostage-takers were terrorists with little regard for life. The moviemaker allows Golda Meir to share her concerns as a Jew and leader of a Jewish state, when she decides to eliminate the perpetrators. She struggles with her decision. Why shouldn’t the Mossad agents also question their assignment? What about us?

Movies must be understood not only for dialogue but also for the visual elements. In "Munich," many scenes deserve a closer look and analysis. There is the young girl who picks up a booby-trapped telephone in her father’s office, but is spared her life. She is a "girl in a red dress," who represents the future and survives, recalling the same "girl in the red dress" who walked through the ghetto streets in "Schindler’s List." For me, the most powerful scene was at the end, and if you have yet to see the film, read no more! Avner, the proud Israeli son of a war hero, finds himself in New York where he has gone to seek refuge. We see a city, unsure of what we see. Are those the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in the background? Avner and his commanding officer Efraim meet, and Efraim begs the troubled warrior to return home. There are echoes of "ET." Exactly where is home? Eventually, I realize that I was seeing the United Nations building on the other side of the river. To the left are twin smokestacks. Is there a visual message being delivered by the filmmaker? What does the image of the U.N. bring to mind? What do smokestacks evoke for a Jew? Where does a Jew belong? Are we ever safe? Where is home?

Steven Spielberg is no "accidental" Jew; he is a caring and committed Jew with a deep love for Israel. When he finally chose to make this film, he did it knowing that the subject matter might bring unease. He has made a film that for the first time in 40 years connects us with the State of Israel. Why should the Holocaust be the only safe subject that American Jews ponder on film? Making "Munich" took great courage, and I commend the master, with his teammate Kushner, for taking this giant leap. Go see this film and give yourself the opportunity to allow it to trigger discussion and debate!