Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” (2005)

It wasn’t until I got to college that I really began to “read” films.  Sure, I’d watch them, and usually enjoy them- but I didn’t know how to admire the subtle artistry, the nuanced layering of thematic subtext.  I couldn’t effectively articulate why I liked the movies I liked.  Naturally, my paradigm was radically shifted by a few media theory college courses.  Instead of simply taking films at their face value (like your average moviegoer), I realized that there was an entire unseen world between the frames.  You just had to have the presence of mind to recognize and engage with it.

2005 was a watershed year for me in that regard, especially when it came to the work of director Steven Spielberg.  I’d always liked his work, but I never saw him as anything more than a blockbuster popcorn filmmaker.  It hadn’t occurred to me that he was capable of the same kind of layered subtext that defined the types of films that gripped me at the time, films made by auteurs like PT Anderson or Michael Mann.  WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) was the first of Spielberg’s works to truly hit me in the gut in that way.  Even for a run-of-the-mill summer disaster flick, it dealt in potent 9/11 allegories that resonated inside of me.  I couldn’t shake it out of my head for months afterward.

In the winter of 2005, I was again home from college for the holidays, and went with some friends to see Spielberg’s other film that year: MUNICH.  For the ensuing three hours, my eyes were glued to the screen.  I was absolutely riveted by this film that was unspooling before me.  It’s hard to describe the visceral thrill of realizing that you’re watching an absolute masterpiece for the first time.  Here Spielberg was taking his decades of experience and expertise, and blending it all together into an effortlessly moving, dramatically potent film about controversial, relevant subject matter.  He was using the past to illustrate very relevant issues about our present.  As I sat, stunned, watching the credits roll, I knew that I had just seen what was one of my favorite films of all time, and just maybe the most important of my time (or at least, its decade).

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Much like 1993, 1997, or even 2002, the year 2005 marked the production of twin films for Spielberg and the flexing of both his spectacle and prestige muscles.  This meant an incredibly accelerated production schedule for both WAR OF THE WORLDS as well as MUNICH.  He started shooting the latter the day that the former was released in theaters, having it finished only 5-6 months later.  The fact he did this for both films is absolutely astonishing.  MUNICH was a return to the kind of social message film that netted him the Oscar for SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  However, MUNICH is an altogether different animal—unlike the aforementioned films, this wasn’t a heartbreaking take on objective subject matter.  Spielberg is traditionally a very risk-averse kind of filmmaker, in that he never does anything to intentionally alienate his audience, but by taking on a controversial story with multiple, conflicting perspectives, he is also taking on the biggest risk of his career.  He embraces these contradictions by presenting a film about a team of globetrotting assassins exacting vengeance as a soulful cinematic prayer for peace.

Similar to WAR OF THE WORLDS, MUNICH was released in the zeitgeist of our long War on Terror, but instead of appropriating the genre to make evocative 9/11 allegories, Spielberg uses the questions MUNICH raises to directly engage the ethical conundrum of terrorism.  It aims to dig deep into the psychological roots of ideological conflict, and figure out why an in-kind response only muddies the moral waters and makes the reactors no better than the perpetrators.  Despite being set in the 1970’s, MUNICH places its thematic focus squarely on the issues facing the world stage during the first decade of the Twentieth Century- a decade whose initial promise of technological wonders and human advancement was shattered on one clear September morning.  The film asks us to look long and hard at our tendency of choosing vengeance over reflection on what it was about ourselves that compelled the terrorists to act in the first place.

MUNICH also addresses the other key issue in the War On Terror: the inability to clearly distinguish between ally and enemy.  There are no uniforms, no national boundaries to rally around.  The War on Terror is fought blindly on city streets, in our own backyards, against an enemy we’ll never seen coming.  It’s why the Iraq War drew to a flaccid, stumbling close: even the most highly-trained and well-equipped military in the world is no match for an enemy that can strike without warning, blend right back into the crowd, and is ultimately eager to die for his cause.

During the 1972 Munich Olympics, a terrorist group known as Black September broke into the athletic residential compounds and took the Israeli team hostage, ultimately murdering them all in a horrifying airport massacre captured live by speechless news crews.  Israel was still a new country—barely 30 years old at the time—and they were absolutely devastated by the attack.  Like 9/11 for Americans, it was a national tragedy that shattered the Israelis’ sense of innocence and optimism about the future.  In the wake of the attacks, Prime Minister Golda Meir assembled a secret Mossad team to track down those responsible and execute them.  In doing so, Meir wanted to send a message to the world that Israel was a strong, righteous country, and they were not—to put it bluntly—to be fucked with.

So it falls to a young Mossad agent and new father named Avner (Eric Bana) to lead this team as they stalk their prey across Europe and the Mediterranean.  Avner hooks up with a shady French informant named Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who provides them information about their targets for a hefty fee, but his allegiance is questioned when it’s revealed that he might also be selling information about Avner and his team right back to their targets in Black September.  As the weight of their murderous deeds take their toll on the team’s souls, as well as their lives, Avner begins to question his loyalty to his own country.  Are they any better than the terrorists they’ve been ordered to kill, or are they instead making the world a worse place for their children by perpetuating vengeance?

Bana anchors the film as Avner, the conflicted yet righteous Mossad leader. He’s burdened by the state secrets he carries, wondering if it’s all at the expense of his soul.  Avner is a warm-hearted family man, which belies the cold-blooded nature in which he must dispatch his mission’s targets.  Bana turns in perhaps the best performance of his career, his soulful eyes clearly communicating his profound inner wrestling.

Spielberg casts a gallery of eclectic international actors to support Avner’s efforts.  A pre-James Bond Daniel Craig plays Steve, who—as a blonde South African—does not look like a conventional Jew.  He’s hotheaded and hopped up on a cocksure swagger, advocating for fighting dirty with the terrorists as the only way to beat them.  Ciaran Hinds plays Carl, one of the dapper, elder gentlemen of the team.  He’s the cleanup crew, erasing the murder scenes of any Mossad culpability.  The classy, well-dressed character comes naturally to Hinds, who enjoyed something of a career renaissance in the late 2000’s, working for other directing luminaries like PT Anderson and Michael Mann.  Matthieu Kassovitz plays Robert, the anxious toymaker who has to adapt his skills towards making bombs.  Robert is the most open with his misgivings about the operation, manifest in the fact that he constantly messes up with explosives because his training was actually in dismantling bombs, not making them.  Kassovitz’s presence in MUNICH continues Spielberg’s affinity for casting other directors in his work, like Francois Truffaut in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) or Richard Attenborough in JURASSIC PARK.  Kassovitz was (“was” being the key term here) a well-respected French filmmaker and the helmer of arthouse masterpiece LA HAINE (1995)—until he allegedly went nuts and began directing poorly-received drivel like GOTHIKA (2003) and BABYLON AD (2008).

Geoffrey Rush plays Ephraim, the case officer for the Mossad crew and Avner’s only point of contact with Israeli officials.  Rush is fatherly and jovial, but his dedication to Israel above all else quickly becomes an antagonizing aspect when Avner feels his loyalty wavering.  The assassins are helped by a French family of independent anarchists cum informants, headed by the GODFATHER-like Papa (Michael Lonsdale).  But it is Louis (Almaric), Papa’s tempestuous son that is Avner’s main source.  Almaric fits well into the archetype of an affluent French aristocrat with a disdain for authority.  He looks dignified in his reserved suits, but they only mask the simmering political rage boiling underneath.

Spielberg’s core roster of collaborators had been established for more than decade by this point—Kathleen Kennedy (producer), Rick Carter (production designer), Michael Kahn (editor), John Williams (music), and Janusz Kaminski (cinematographer).  Of all these people, Kaminski has had the most overt influence on Spielberg’s late-career style.  MUNICH retains their signature collaborative look—crushed blacks with blooming highlights— while imbuing the film with an aesthetic all its own.  Colors are generally desaturated and favor the colder spectrum, but each locale gets its own distinct color palette.  This palette is carried over into Rick Carter’s production design, which gives the film a soft period look: unmistakably seventies, but authentically reserved and low-key.  There’s no polyester disco suits to be found here.

The camerawork of MUNICH plays a huge role in determining the aesthetic.  Its presence is immediately apparent, injecting a great deal of energy and Hitchcock-ian suspense into the story (a fact all the more striking considering that Spielberg eschewed storyboards on set and made it all up as he went along).  Complementing the usual crane, handheld, and dolly camera movements is the distinctively copious use of period-appropriate zoom-ins.  Spielberg and Kaminski also use reflections and foreground prisms (like glass windows) as a compositional motif, echoing the murky moral dilemmas the story raises and the overall idea that nothing is quite what it seems.  Despite all these fluid camera movements and parallel action, we thankfully never lose our orientation due to Michael Kahn’s masterful editing.  It’s a perfectly paced film; even though it runs nearly three hours, the story zips breathlessly along.

Spielberg also incorporates a lot of news footage, blending it seamlessly alongside his recreation of true events (especially in one chilling shot where a TV in the foreground depicts a masked terrorist stepping out on the balcony, while in the background we see that same terrorist from behind as he steps out of the room).  Spielberg has always relied on convenient news broadcasts as an easy source of exposition, a habit that stretches all the way back to his debut in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974).  But in MUNICH, he weaves the news directly into the narrative.  History is literally in the making.

Despite one of his busiest years in memory (2005 also saw him working on George Lucas’ STAR WARS: EPISODE THREE and Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS), maestro John Williams turns in a masterful, inspired score for MUNICH.  He bases it off the Israeli national anthem—a soulful march that when played slowly with string instruments, becomes a mournful prayer for peace.  He also uses full-throated female vocals to convey the fundamental humanity on display, suggesting that the act of killing is the dividing line between civilization and nature.  During suspenseful sequences, he adopts a pulsing percussion motif that gets our blood pumping and our stomachs fluttering.  Spielberg fills out the 70’s setting with an eclectic mix of American R&B tracks (Bill Withers, All Green) and old-fashioned European torch songs (Edith Piaf—a recurring artist within Spielberg’s filmography).  This makes for an interesting juxtaposition, especially in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean locales where it speaks to the increasing Westernization of these ancient Eastern cultures (which itself is a primal contention point that religious extremists use to justify their aggression).

MUNICH showcases Spielberg at the absolute height of his game, and is one of the most powerful and clear examples of Directing (with a capital D) that I’ve ever witnessed.  His mastery of elaborate camerawork is used to full effect here, with nary a shot wasted or indulged in.  His visual conceits—light shafts, silhouettes, and low angle compositions—are made even more potent by his sober approach to the material.  The theme of fatherhood also poses strong questions throughout the story.  How can you raise a family when you don’t have a country to belong to?  What are we doing to ensure a better future for our children—and at what cost to our own souls?  Avner’s personal journey is vintage Spielberg in its exploration of a son grappling with his father and the idea of legacy; only in MUNICH, the father figure is his homeland of Israel (itself ironically lead by the maternal Golda Meir).  MUNICH might also be the closest that Spielberg has come to an outright James Bond film, seeing as he had always wanted to direct one himself.  It’s not just the globetrotting exploits in exotic European locales, or even the cloak and dagger theatrics.  It’s also the fact that it stars both James Bond (Daniel Craig) and his nemesis from Marc Forster’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), Mathieu Amalric.  And don’t forget that Michael Lonsdale was once a Bond villain himself in 1979’s MOONRAKER.

MUNICH excels the most in its quiet moments.  In the middle of all the bloodshed and spy games, Spielberg takes a time out for a frank conversation between Avner and a Palestinian rebel, a conversation that digs right into the heart of the conflict.  Avner can’t understand why Palestinians would sacrifice so much for their own state on a “worthless slice of land in the desert”.  The Palestinian responds by explaining such thinking is missing the point—the whole idea is that their people would finally have a place they can call “home”.  They would finally have a place on Earth; the irony here being that the same sentiment is espoused by Golda Meir earlier in the film, indeed by Israel itself.  This chilling, quiet scene calls for listening, empathy and understanding, and is where Spielberg’s approach resonates the strongest.

However, this self-conscious air of importance leads to some missteps on Spielberg’s part.  At the climax of the film, he chooses to juxtapose a recreation of the Munich massacre against Avner making love to his wife.  I understand the intent was to illustrate the polar extremes of love and hate, using the act of destruction to say something about the act of creation.  The scene is meant to show how the events of Munich and Israel’s murderous response have penetrated the most private corner of Avner’s psyche, a perfectly valid story conceit.  In execution, however, the final effect is more laughable than impressionable.  It’s just too weird, with mechanical thrusting and strangely sweaty slow motion shots accompanied by gunfire blasts and orgasmic screaming.  Granted, it’s arguably Spielberg’s one misstep in the entire film, but it’s an especially catastrophic one considering the scene is the apotheosis of Avner’s entire character arc.  Thankfully, it doesn’t derail the film, but it comes close.

MUNICH was a controversial film from the start, and it’s very rare that such a film ever lights the box office on fire (Mel Gibson’s PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) being an exception).  However, Spielberg’s name and reputation ensured a strong financial performance, with the marketing touting MUNICH as the successor to his other “important” films like SCHINDLER’S LIST or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  Reviews were mixed, but they were charged with strong emotions.  People either loved it, or hated it, and there were very good reasons for both reactions.  Overall, impressions of the film largely adhered to how one came down on the political spectrum.  As a work of art, however, MUNICH was better acknowledged.  It was nominated for several Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture, only to win none.  However, this was also the year that Paul Haggis won for CRASH, so to say the Academy’s judgment is suspect would be to make quite the understatement.  Removed from the immediate heat of America’s War on Terrorism, however, MUNICH’s message fares much better.  It asks the hardest, most fundamental dilemma of its era: what good is cutting off a snake’s head only to have two more sprout up in its place?  Where does it all end?

MUNICH is highly indicative of Spielberg’s evolving relationship with his Jewish heritage, whereby he strengthens his faith by asking hard questions about core values.  We’re taught to take religious teaching as unimpeachable truths, but I would argue that the truly faithful are the ones who grapple with core conceits and let their beliefs evolve and resolve themselves within the modern world.  Some saw Spielberg’s questioning of Israel’s motives as blasphemous slander, but Spielberg shows true righteousness in finding empathy for both sides of the conflict, thereby proving his dedication to Jewish ideals.

As far as his directing goes, I personally believe MUNICH is Spielberg’s finest moment, at times even besting his efforts on SCHINDLER’S LIST.  Spielberg had long felt that it was his patriotic duty to act as America’s filmmaker-in-residence, a cinematic chronicler of our nation’s shared experience.  While MUNICH sees Spielberg stepping out onto the world stage, the narrative’s implications for American interests helps to form his approach.  MUNICH’s ultimate connection to the American experience is made clear in his subtly-devastating final shot.  It finds Avner standing on the banks of the Hudson, looking out on the skyscrapers of Manhattan after his homeland of Israel (personified by Ephraim) has abandoned him.  As John Williams’ score swells to its denouement, the camera pans down the skyline to find the World Trade Centers, their monolithic silhouettes hanging in the distant mist like twin specters.  They stand stoic and new, symbols of a brighter future ahead—but of course, we know the end of that story.  And it’s in this one image that Spielberg hammers home the central truth behind the film and his reasons for making it: the roots of 9/11 reach back much farther than Al Qaeda.  This is only the latest salvo in a war that’s been raging ever since we invented civilization and displaced whole swaths of people in the process.  Spielberg has often been criticized for the way he ends his films, but MUNICH’s conclusion is elegant, understated, and heartbreaking.  You know you’ve got a master filmmaker on your hands when they can say more in a single frame than you could ever write inside of a 7 page essay.

MUNICH is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.

Credits: 

Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel, Steven Spielberg, Colin Wilson

Written by: Tony Kushner, Eric Roth

Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski

Production Designer: Rick Carter

Editor: Michael Kahn

Music: John Williams