Here and There
Michael Koresky on Munich
is Munich made for? While we’re at
it, let’s lob all the questions we possibly
can at a film that by design is meant to
be held up to wide public scrutiny. What
is Munich “supposed” to say about
terrorism? About the Middle East? About
government-sanctioned murder? Where are
Spielberg’s politics “supposed” to lie?
What are his moral responsibilities as a
commercial filmmaker wading through the
muck of one of the past century’s most steadfastly
immutable conflicts? The questions hollered
at the film are, maddeningly to some, met
not with answers but with further questions.
Ultimately, Munich repeatedly constructs
its narrative as such: a series of ever-compounding
quandaries never finding resolution. If
Steven Spielberg’s Munich had all
the answers it would still be forced to
concede resolution. By sheer nature of its
form (thriller, mostly) and its politics
(the Israel-Palestine conflict, ostensibly),
Munich could get no further than
a stalemate. Munich is a failure,
and it’s satisfied to be so—as a thriller,
it dwindles down to sweaty nubs, reaches
ideological dead-ends; as a serious investigation
of middle-Eastern conflict, it throws its
hands up in frustration. Yet what better
expression could there possibly be right
now from the world’s most successful filmmaker?
Munich is an enthralling piece of
American cinema, dizzyingly ambitious in
its mechanics and ruthlessly unwilling to
satisfy. Spielberg’s need to end the film
on U.S. soil should clue everyone in to
the fact that this is, above all, a film
made for American viewership.
Yet in order for this high-wire act to qualify as a success, Munich needs to be all things to all viewers: a reliably anti-PC, PC, bipartisan, nonpartisan, pro-Palestinean, pro-Israeli, ultra-stylized, ultra-realist, commercial art-film. Spielberg, often condemned by kneejerk liberal critics as a purporter of conservative family values, reflected as a certain set of aesthetic ideologies, has teamed up with Tony Kushner, accused by dyed-in-the-wool Zionists as being a Palestinean apologist, and, as if in a twilight zone, each has fallen under attack by the other’s watch dogs. Naturally, Munich can’t stand up to the standards of political extremists on either side. Spielberg’s film does excel however, if it is actually watched and wrestled with, rather than contained within the personal biases of each viewer. In other words, rather than wonder about all the things Munich is not, let’s actually look at what Munich is.
Arguably, Spielberg’s greatest images are the most seemingly divergent from the film’s main narrative thrust. The first occurs in a repeated shot of the protagonist, Avner (Eric Bana), a Mossad agent hired to assassinate the masterminds behind the Palestinean terrorist massacres of eleven Israeli athletes for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, staring at a yellow and brown prefab kitchen through a Parisian department-store window. Glistening, new countertops and cabinets the dull Seventies color of maize, this paradise of Formica domesticity, behind glass, marks the fixed meeting point of Avner and his morally suspect French informant, Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who seems to know the identities and whereabouts of many of Avner’s key targets. Here, amidst the array of modern appliances, Avner finds momentary solace, both as a memory of the home he once had, a representation of the home he wishes for his people to have, and a fear that the home he took for granted may be transitory. The very idea of what constitutes a homeland is what screenwriter Tony Kushner (along with Eric Roth, who likely helped shape Kushner’s verbose philosophies into a genre framework) seems to be most after; once the rhetoric melts, all that’s left for Avner is the seemingly unattainable kitchen, under glass, just as for a dewy-eyed PLO member with whom he tensely converses in the hostel, it is the far more modest acre of olive trees to which he wishes to return.
Munich’s second strongest image, and one of the most indelible in Spielberg’s long, icon-laden career, occurs when Avner and his band of fellow brooding Mossad agents veer sharply from the path of vengeance laid out for them by the Israeli government. In a moment motivated not by political terrorism but personal vendetta, Avner and two fellow hit men, Steve (Daniel Craig) and Hans (Hanns Zichler), track down Jeanette (Marie-Josée Croze), the assassin responsible for seducing and killing their partner Carl (Ciaran Hinds). They enter her house. Spielberg, always able to present violence for mass consumption in a radically upsetting manner that brings you in breathing room with the stench of death, stages the murder as an act completely drained of pride or satisfaction. Hence, it stands in for every other killing in the film: two quick, casual shots, muffled with a silencer, hit Jeanette in her chest and throat. Yet she continues to dazedly shuffle across the floor, her robe flapping open against her nude figure, taking one moment to haphazardly clutch her cat, before collapsing in an armchair. Blood begins to gurgle out of her two wounds with a disconcertingly delayed reaction, pouring down her naked body. A quick, pummeling shot to the head, filmed from behind, her head jerking and slumping like a rag doll, and she’s gone. After one of them attempts to close the robe to cover her gore-drenched breasts, Hans declares, “Leave it open.” Like those bullets ripping holes through steel helmets in Saving Private Ryan, and the men, women, and children dragged to the foreground of the frame and shot in the head in Schindler’s List, it’s shocking: a perversity of flesh and humanity. For all of the mutilations, stabbings, shootings, and dismemberments on display in Munich, none resonates quite as much as the murder of Jeanette, showing as it does the utter intimacy of death that the hit men, with their remote-controlled explosives, try to avoid at every turn. And is it any coincidence that this killing occurs in the kitchen? The closeness of mortality, the disturbance, the blasphemy of the home intrusion; once this is broached, Avner may never return—the domicile has closed its doors as a safe haven.
“We have a place on earth at last,” says Avner’s hypnotically self-righteous mother (Gila Almagor) when her son has finally returned home from his uncompleted mission. It’s this intrinsic belief in an ultimate right, a purity of intent, a political certainty, that surrounds Avner’s journey throughout Munich and is articulated by most of the Israeli characters, many of them self-righteous Jewish Supermen. By sheer contrast, Avner is a man of uncertainty, and therefore intangible ethics, fully aware, as all good thriller protagonists are, of his own moral befuddlement. For some, the thought of a Mossad killing machine with a conscience is laughable. For others, the equation of Avner’s actions with that of terrorism is an unforgivable moral equivalency. For Spielberg, Roth, and Kushner, however, Avner is meant to contain the world’s confusion, a composite who must carry the political burdens of all on his broad shoulders. To Spielberg, even literal machines have consciences, and Avner, like A.I.’s robo-boy David, grows increasingly human (that is to say, hopelessly, irretrievably mortal) as the film trudges on to its dark conclusion. Seen initially clenching his fist in rage as he watches the Olympics tragedy unfold on television, Avner is a governmental weapon, a glorified agency thug with a perfect-specimen physique and chillingly angular features who will continue on his mission without asking questions. Yet as the increasingly tangled web of international self-interests becomes clearer, Avner incrementally allows his internalized fears and doubt to creep across his face. Avner the political tool resonates more than Avner the action hero, for though Spielberg’s adeptness and agility with action narrative in fully on display, the amount of Hitchcockian manipulation is the film’s major caveat. Though suspense is a nifty tactic for creating audience empathy, the genre trappings, populated by a search-and-destroy motley crew of assassins, sit slightly uncomfortably with the sober material. Regardless, there’s such a genuine desire to grapple with the dubiously methodical nature of political violence (the Mossad agents, with their delicately wired bombs, are so visually paralleled with terrorists that it grows easy to forget their motivations), that every moment seems vital.
It’s become a much accepted theoretical supposition that when Spielberg “goes serious” (a hilariously insufficient recurrent marker that seems to disallow that E.T., A.I., Minority Report, and War of the Worlds are serious dramatic works), he means to encompass all the world within each film, thus putting historical finality on the Big Subjects. Thus, Schindler’s List becomes not just a Holocaust film but the Holocaust film; likewise with Amistad and slavery, Saving Private Ryan and WWII, etc. Munich throws a wrench in the works of such oversimplification: the central moral inquisition deals not with the emotional devastation of terrorism but rather with the philosophies surrounding what we can dub terrorism in our world—yes, 2005. Yes, here. Munich , whose very title is a memory itself by the time the narrative takes off, is about what happens after. The fact that this director, whose career has become in essence a search for a collective memory, ends his film by looking forward is something of a revelation, especially when coupled with the most damning final line to come out of a so-called Hollywood product in many a moon: “No.” No to bread-breaking, no to Shabbas, no to peace. No, with the Twin Towers looming large in the background, lying in wait. For American viewers, the visual connection, open to contemplation, is vital. Whether Spielberg is drawing a direct cause and effect thru-line matters less than that Munich is not left as safely, distantly, Middle-Eastern, European, or foreign. We’re no longer in one of those cities over there, each shot as nondescriptly as the next; this isn’t Athens, Paris, Geneva, Beirut, Tel Aviv, or London, but New York City. Most daring of all is Munich’s desire to show the ultimate instability in our own backyard. But are we safe? Safe from doubt? Safe from guilt? Safe in our own homes and kitchens? No.