Four men are seen at a Paris railway station, heading towards a waiting train. They are special agents, recruited by the Israeli government, and intent on going to Amsterdam to “take care” of a serious problem involving a killing of their own. Abruptly, one of the agents, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the group’s designated bomb expert, has second thoughts about the assignment and decides to pull back from the trip. The team leader, Avner (Eric Bana), walks over to him to find out what’s wrong.
“So you’re really going to kill her?” asks Robert, referring to their latest target, a beautiful Dutch assassin who has just murdered their clean-up man, the straight-laced Carl (Ciaran Hinds). Avner nods in ascent. “All this blood comes back to us,” Robert confides.
“Eventually it will work,” replies Avner in the calm, reassuring manner reminiscent of Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler. “Even if it takes years, we’ll beat them.”
“We’re Jews, Avner. Jews don’t do wrong because our enemies do wrong.”
“We can’t afford to be that decent anymore,” he counters.
“I don’t know that we ever were that decent. Suffering thousands of years of hatred doesn’t make you decent. But we’re supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s Jewish. That’s what I knew, that’s what I was taught. And now I’m losing it, and I lose that, that’s… that’s everything. That’s my soul.”
He loses that, and much more, in Steven Spielberg’s thought-provoking suspense thriller Munich (2005), about the aftermath of the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes by the militant Black September outfit during the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Germany. It’s just one of many scenes in a film that portrays the modern Jewish conscience in an entirely new light, along with displaying a new level of maturity and freedom by one of Hollywood’s most secure filmmakers.
Gone are the warm-and-fuzzy feelings generated by Spielberg’s family friendly alien E.T., as are the deliriously madcap adventures of freewheeling archeologist Indiana Jones. In their place are a sobriety and seriousness of purpose that raise Spielberg’s latest celluloid masterwork to a level far and above the general run-of-the-mill movie fare we’ve come to expect from Tinsel Town.
That he’s able to tackle such a controversial subject as revenge killings in the politically charged climate of the then-current Iraq War is a testament to his ability (and will) in the complacent world of Hollywood cinema. With its provocative theme, the movie also raised more than a few eyebrows abroad, to include past witnesses to the terrible event as well as the widows of several of the deceased team members. Still, it’s a nonetheless disturbing look at what transpires when overzealous governments forgo logic and reason — no matter how noble the cause — to take up the iron rod of justice; the result being that suspicion is heaped on top of suspicion, paranoia piled on top of paranoia, until all we are left with is the uneasy sense that blind revenge is not the answer.
Scenes reenacting, and leading up to, the murders themselves are interspersed with those of the special-agent hit squad, hell-bent on exacting an eye-for-an-eye exchange with the Palestinians — or at least, that’s what their government hints at. As if imprisoned by some never-ending nightmare, lead agent Avner relives these same events over and over again, as he tries in vain to rest up after wrestling with his own personal conscience. In the penultimate scene, the selfless act of love (the giving of life) is juxtaposed with senseless acts of unspeakable violence (the taking away of life).
With that in mind, Avner is shown twice performing in bed: once near the beginning of the film, with his pregnant wife Daphna (Avelet Zurer), just after he accepts his initial assignment; and once more, near the end, before his final confrontation with Israeli government contact Ephraim (the excellent Geoffrey Rush), as he’s about to renounce it. By doing this, the message is made abundantly clear: there is a fine line — a very fine line, it turns out — between love and hate, good and evil, justice and injustice; it all depends on how one chooses to cross it — if one dares to do so.
The last shot in the film (and a most controversial one it is, too) is of the newly constructed World Trade Center, taken from the Brooklyn side of town — an ominous portent of things to come for us Americans in our own “Black September” incident that took place, ironically enough, in the same month (9/11) as the Munich massacres, albeit with almost 30 years of hindsight between them.
We’ve heard Robert’s bold assertion, in the opening section, that he and Avner, if not the whole of Israel, may have strayed too far from their roots in their “righteous” pursuit of their cause, to ever cross back over the line of decency. Ambiguity, then, shares a front seat with uncertainty; their task is no longer fueled by irrefutable moral rectitude as doubts begin to creep in almost from the start — even as the agents are being provided the names, dates and places of their next victims, but without ever confirming their accuracy or their connection to the original event.
This becomes the movie’s self-fulfilling prophecy: do we not turn into the very thing we ourselves despise if we partake of the same heinous crimes as those of our foes? Only a director of Spielberg’s clout, stature and vision — added to this, his new-found flexing of directorial muscle — could have posed such an intriguing question at this point in our time.
Another, even finer example of Spielberg’s newly-acquired freedom behind the lens occurs in the next scene, a superbly choreographed sequence wherein the three remaining agents, after having learned the whereabouts of the treacherous femme fatale, travel by bicycle to her Amsterdam boathouse to permanently dispose of her. Dressed in a silk bathrobe, the Dutch assassin (Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze) is poised casually on the bed, reading to herself, completely unaware of their presence. Suddenly, the blond Adonis, Steve (Daniel Craig), bursts in, yet she is only mildly taken aback by his audacity.
“Excuse me. Who are you?” she smiles. In the next instant, she spies Avner entering from the side. Her face momentarily contorts to reveal both recognition and horror of the man she originally tried to entice to bed.
“Do you know why we’re here?” Avner quizzes her, spouting the same line he used at his own nearly bungled first assassination attempt early on, in Rome, of one of the alleged masterminds behind the Arab raid on the Olympic Village.
“I want to get dressed, okay?” she asks demurely, but her request has no effect. Avner and Steve coldly go about their business, preparing their weapons for discharge, while the girl opens the dresser drawer behind her, desperately groping for her own firearm. Unable to reach it in time, she decides on another tactic.
“Maybe you want to hire me. You know how good I am.” When this too fails, she is forced into utilizing the only weapon she has left at her disposal: herself.
“No, don’t,” she shudders, lowering her robe to reveal an ample breast. “It’s such a fucking waste of talent.” It is here that the screenwriters, Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (The Insider, Forrest Gump), hit pay dirt: offhandedly suggesting the “F” word to mean more than just a strategically placed expletive, it’s the assassin’s last-ditch effort to her foes to forget all about eliminating her. Too late, for Steve and Avner fire their guns, hitting the assassin point-blank in the chest and throat. Emerging dazed from her bedroom, the girl makes for the kitchen area and unsuccessfully tries to pick up her cat, an involuntary act of seeking comfort from a favorite pet amid so much tension and chaos.
“Shell, shell,” orders Avner. The girl plants herself on a chaise lounge, while the two men resume the methodical process of reloading. Gasping for breath, the dark blood oozing from her wounded windpipe, the girl visibly struggles. Finally, the third agent, Hans (Hanns Zischler), comes in to deliver the deathblow to her forehead. Perhaps out of respect for the deceased, or some misplaced sense of modesty for a fellow covert operative, Avner attempts to cover up her bloodstained private parts.
“Leave it,” Hans tells him. He then proceeds to unveil her limp body for all the world to see, a twentieth-century Whore of Babylon, as it were. Later, Hans acknowledges his lack of compassion for the girl by admitting to both Avner and Steve that he can’t help thinking about the unclothed creature he left behind.
“But you weren’t yourself,” offers Steve by way of explanation. Hans is not convinced. When we next see him, however, he too is found dead, stabbed in the heart by another assassin. The hunter-agents have now become the hunted.
While incidental to the main plot, this innocuous little episode is crucial to a better understanding of the conflict Spielberg has set up within the minds of his main characters. The Dutch assassin interlude, although brief and unfettered, takes place at just beyond the halfway mark — indeed, past the agents’ point of no return. The assassin herself, a tall and gorgeous brunette, stands in sharp contrast to the squat and motherly Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), who appears briefly in the movie’s opening scenes. Golda represents our Old Testament notion of Israel (or, for the purposes of Spielberg’s film project, the Israel of 1972) — strong, resolute, determined — in the face of such horrible adversity, while the Dutch assassin is our modern-day equivalent.
When we first encounter the Dutch assassin, she is at a hotel bar, eying the darkly handsome Avner’s features. She’s dressed in a red dress, the stereotypical color of a street-walker. He obediently sits next to her, clearly interested in what she has to sell. She, for her part, doesn’t waste his time with pleasantries, but rather lets it slip that she’s about to go up to her hotel room, alone. She then rubs some of her intoxicating perfume onto his bare forearm. Who could resist such a ploy?
But Avner does resist, and furtively leaves the bar. In the lobby, he runs into Carl, the clean-up agent — the one he will eventually seek retribution for — who does not heed his advice to watch out for the “local honey trap.” Avner retires to his room, but cannot get to sleep, especially after hearing his baby daughter’s voice on the telephone. He again goes down to the bar. Finding it empty, he decides to go back and turn in. Just as he’s about to put his key in the door, he notices the assassin’s alluring perfume in the air and follows the scent to Carl’s room across the hall.
“You asshole. I saw her first,” he mutters to himself. But then, his special agent’s sense gets the better of him. As he slowly opens the door, he spots Carl’s naked body sprawled out on the bed. Lifting Carl’s head, he finds a bloody mess on the pillow. We now understand why special agent Hans left the Dutch assassin dressed in nothing but her birthday suit. Having escaped seduction and his own probable demise, Avner comes to the realization that others have been alerted to their game and are, at that moment, tracking them down.
When later he hears the news that the bomb expert Robert has also perished in a freak “accident,” he informs Ephraim that he cannot go on with the mission.
We, too, come to realize that Prime Minister Golda had earlier seduced the fresh-faced Avner (in quite a different manner, of course) into taking on this dangerous assignment, with overly excessive praise not only for his having been her bodyguard in a previous career with Mossad, but for how truly great a war hero, and loyal friend to Israel, his father had been; and so forth.
It’s plain to see that if one gets into “bed” with the nation, whether in the guise of an experienced elder stateswoman or a beautiful young assassin, one could still wind up a corpse, no matter what the outcome of Israel’s struggles with her enemies might be — a struggle the embittered state is still confronting a generation or more later.
In the same spirit as his Oscar-winning Schindler’s List (1991), and in the post-9/11 productions of Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005), Spielberg deserves full credit for having convinced mainstream Hollywood of the necessity in making such a powerful film statement as Munich, considering the cerebral way he has gone about presenting his case to an America seemingly oblivious to world opinion, in regard to her own righteous pursuit of terrorists in war-torn Iraq; the abuse of prisoners at Abu Gharaib; the secret CIA prison camps in Eastern Europe; the unresolved issue of detainees in Guantánamo Bay; or the lost opportunities in tracking down those actually responsible for the attacks on 9/11.
We are left wondering at the end if the U.S. has not already fallen victim to the same kind of consequences that befell the modern state of Israel in the wake of the tragedy of Munich. Perhaps she’s even lost her soul. But, as Steven Spielberg has so wisely suggested, if she loses that, that’s everything… Isn’t it? ¤
Produced and directed by Steven Spielberg; produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel, and Colin Wilson; screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth; based on the book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas; cinematography by Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Kinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Marie-Josee Croze, Geoffrey Rush, Ayelet Zurer, Michael Lonsdale, and Lynn Cohen. Color, 163 min. Amblin Entertainment, distributed by Universal Studios.
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes