There’s something about violence that I’ve always instinctively understood but that the world at large, evidently, fails to grasp: violence only leads to more violence. If you have a quarrel with somebody and you go kick his ass, chances are he’ll try to get back at you, then you’ll hit him again, and so on. It never stops. I guess the thinking is that if you hit someone hard enough, he won’t be able to strike back… Or maybe there’s no thinking at all, we’re angry and we want revenge, whatever the cost.
In 1972, a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September went into the Olympic village in Munich and took 11 Israeli athletes hostage. Long story short, everyone was killed. In the following years, Mossad, the Israeli secret services, set out to track down the architects of the Olympic massacre and to deliver their sentence: death. No arrest, no accusation, no conviction. Find them and get rid of them, no questions asked. Meanwhile, Israel also bombed this or that place and the Palestinians sent letter bombs to embassies, hijacked planes, etc. A lot of people died before Munich, a lot of people died in Munich and a lot of people died after Munich. Violence on top of violence on top of violence.
With “Munich”, Steven Spielberg doesn’t attempt to explain why these things happened. You could say that all he does is show us these tragic events, but I think it goes deeper than that. Through drama and filmmaking, we’re made to experience these events, to identify or at least empathise with the various people involved. It’s just a movie, maybe, but then again movies can do something that history books can not: allow you to lose yourself in the urgency of the moment.
Right from the opening sequence, the first in a series of flashbacks throughout the film depicting what occurred in Munich, we share the fear and the horror felt by the athletes as assailants barge into their rooms in the middle of the night with machine guns, turning their Olympic dream into a nightmare. Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the violence, making it as extreme and disgusting as it should be. Even after Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, I was still shocked at how brutal and real things got. There’s not even black&white; or the patriotic glow of WWII to soften the blows somewhat, this is mean and nasty like The Godfather or Scarface.
Avner (Eric Bana), the leader of the hit squad sent out to take care of the men responsible for Munich, is not a shady criminal like the characters Al Pacino played in the aforementioned gangster films, but he might as well be. He’s “officially unofficial”, his only link with his superiors being a metal box in a bank in Geneva that miraculously fills back with money every time he empties it. Money leads to information, which leads to the targets. All that’s left to do is take them out.
With an unlikely team that includes a toymaker (Mathieu Kassovitz) and an antique dealer (Hanns Zischler), Avner travels through Europe conducting the assassinations. Those sequences are brilliantly crafted, with stylistic touches that never overshadow their dramatic weight and suspense that grows equally from the mise en scène and from the characters. Interestingly, the targets are never shown to be evil. We -and Avner- are told they that they deserve whatever they’ve got coming, but they appear to us as, well, human beings. Hence, no matter what your politics are, the killing scenes are profoundly disturbing. The scene that has us wandering through the aftermath of a hotel bombing is particularly bleak.
The bulk of “Munich” is as good as it gets, but like every Spielberg picture this decade, it loses a little steam towards the finish. It’s not that the third act doesn’t work, it’s just that it’s a downer. I understand the guilt and the paranoia, how there’s no coming home after this, no peace at the end, no breaking bread, etc. But this is stretched a bit too long; Spielberg could have ended his film 15 minutes earlier and it would have been all the much better for it.
One thing that remains constant all the way through is the quality of the cast led by Eric Bana’s exterminating angel, all towering anguish and black-eyed turmoil. Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds also offer memorable turns, and special mention must be made of the all-star French delegation featuring, beside Kasso, Yvan Attal, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Mathieu Amalric, Michel Lonsdale and our own Marie-Josée Croze, in what might be the film’s weirdest scene (you have no idea!).
“Munich” is set in the 1970s, but it could hardly be more actual. I mean, remember how we had that war on terror and now there’s no terror anymore? Heh.