Munich is a historical epic with an identity crisis. It’s an angry, vengeful and violent statement, but it’s also hopeful one too. Munich forces itself to relive bad memories but in doing so manages to look forward, not optimistically but forward nevertheless. 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 least ‘Spielbergian’ film to date. But the man is no stranger to historical dramas, there’s Schindler’s List which is quite often (and aptly) considered to be his magnum opus, and Saving Private Ryan which is likely the most imitated war drama of the last decade, Munich is—at least very scarcely—considered as good as the two but, in this guy’s opinion, Munich packs more of a punch
Spielberg is noted for his typical, crowd-pleasing fare. His masterstroke is his empathy, an ability to generate pathos by celebrating the dignity of the human spirit in the most inhumane of conditions. His sentiments can be quite powerful, but here they’re muted to a significantly more powerful effect. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List were piercing throat-grasps, they were shocking and violent, but always ended on the sincere (not always authentic) note that humanity shall prevail. Munich doesn’t end on this note, nor is even one a moment in the film reserved to celebrate humanity. This is because no side in this conflict is innocent and Spielberg knows it. The film is about a man who in trying to reclaim the pride of his national identity finds himself sacrificing human dignity, both his and the people he is sent to murder. Munich is a parable on revenge whose conclusions leave more questions than answers. It replaces any would-be answer with only a solemn hope that can appropriately be described as a prayer for peace; unfortunately prayers are not always answered.
Spielberg smartly eschews emphasizing the spectacle of the film’s overlying tragedy. 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 volunteers 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 Israelites and the Palestinians.
Munich isn’t simply compelling drama, it’s a sociopolitical debate expressed through hard-hitting cinema. The film is taut and exciting, the moments of suspense are well dispersed, but there’s something more to them then mere technicality, each assassination committed by the men further their primary political objectives, the violence they use has become systematic to the point of robotic detachment—thus is the nature of warfare. The grisly deaths in the film more psychological than political.
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One sequence, in particular, is standout. 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 slaughter by the three operatives. 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 in a more operatic succinctness. 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. For the entire runtime of Munich the Jews constantly tell themselves that what they’re doing is based on principle—but the main characters never really act on principle, they’re reacting on the emotions of their nation and people. Avner perverts this intimate moment with his wife , just as the Palestinians were in ‘Munich massacre’, and the Israeli in ‘Wrath of God’.
Munich’s most plain-spoken critics will complain that the film never makes a compelling political argument for neither the Israelis or the Palestinians. Another criticism is that Spielberg draws too much subjectivity to the topic by veering his narrative into fiction rather than try to portay ‘Operation Wrath of God’ as it truly was. In response to both criticisms and to quote Ebert, “If a movie changes your vote or your mind, it does so by appealing to your emotions, not your reason.” Yes Munich is about Israel and Palestine, and no question their conflict is inherently political, but Spielberg never burdens his film by purposelessly dicussing the merits of which side is right or wrong. The cycle of tragedy and revenge on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have accumulated to a point where neither side can be truly labelled ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. In a bleak and eloquent fashion, that’s precisely the qunadary Munich adopts: the Jewish operatives in Munich murder the Palestinians because they are morally obligated to, but after the deaths they left in their wake why shouldn’t the Palestinians feel the same?