Several years ago, while attending a bat mitzvah with my daughter, I noticed a large ornate altarpiece on the wall behind the pulpit. It proclaimed: “Never forgive, never forget.” The motto was shocking to my Christian sensibility, which teaches “Ye are to forgive seventy times seven.” Yet I understood the sentiment. Its reference to the Holocaust was a reminder that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. Moreover, for- giving something as grievous as the Holocaust would be an unforgivable insult to those who had been tortured and killed by the Nazis. Thus, never forgive, and never forget.
Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” seems to add a third branch to that dictum: “Never retal~~te.” The film tells the story of a young agent of Mossad (Israeli CIA) who is assigned to track down and kill the masterminds behind the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The men assigned to the task are ordinary in their day jobs: a toymaker, an antiques dealer, a cook. One of them reminds me of an old friend of mine, an Idaho potato farmer, who used to break into embassies for the CIA with the greatest aplomb.
The protagonist, Avner (Eric Bana) is a family man whose wife is expect- ing a baby. We know he is moral, despite what he does for a living, because he remains faithful to his wife when a woman comes on to him in a bar. But he doesn’t feel like a patriot. Killing is killing, no matter what the reason, and the job of an assassin gradually destroys him. He is motivated by memories of the athletes who were murdered, but it isn’t enough to comfort his growing guilt.
Does violence justify violence? Spielberg’s film vehemently says no. As the retaliation squad assassinates the men behind Black September, the group that invaded the Munich Olympic Village, attacks against Israel escalate. Those that the squad kills are replaced by leaders who are even more diabolical. Letter bombs, assassinations, and hijackings occur. The Frenchman who helps track down the terrorists calls himself “ideologically promiscuous; we can find anybody, as long as you don’t work for a government.” He encourages the members of the squad in their cause by saying, “You have been treated roughly; you are right to respond roughly.” But he adds cynically, “and you pay well.” Before long they are caught in the crossfire of conflicting hits, their informant willing to sell information about them as well as to them.
In justifying her decision to retaliate, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) says, “While the world played games, Jews are dead in Germany, and nobody cares . . . Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values . . . They will learn that killing Jews will be an expensive proposition.” Evidence over the past 30 years indicates that Meir was right, especially in her deci-
Spielberg gets away with visual effects that would be considered pornographic In other films.
sion to go after the leaders who plan attacks, not just those who implement the plans. Israel’s tough stance against terrorists has allowed it to exist in the middle of a hotbed of Arab hatred.
However, the message of this film is simple: violence begets more violence. Find another way. Yet Spielberg has no problem with inflicting horrifyingly graphic scenes of violence on his audience.
Spielberg made his mark with action-packed entertainment, and that’s where his true talent lies. With films like “Jaws” and the “Indiana Jones” trilogy he demonstrated that suspense can be created thrillingly through careful plotting, skillful music, and impeccable timing. But he yearns to be known as a “serious director,” through films such as “The Color Purple,” “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and now “Munich.” Because the topics are “important,” he gets away with visual effects that would be considered pornographic in other films. Brutality, nudity, and gaping, pumping wounds earn R ratings that would garner an NC-17 in an action thriller or detective movie.
Unfortunately, these scenes are later cited by other filmmakers, with less substantial topics, as precedents to justify their own graphic violence, with the result that films have become painful to watch. It simply isn’t necessary. I’m quite capable of imagining horror without having to see blood spurting from every artery. Make me care by making the story realistic, not the blood. The most suspenseful scene in the film involves a little girl, and it has no blood at all.
“Munich” is tense and compelling. Early scenes using actual footage of Jim McKay and Howard Cosell reporting on the hostage crisis are eerily familiar to those old enough to remember 1972, creating a personal connection with the
story. It asks some important questions about warfare waged “off the books,” and suggests controversial answers that only a Jewish filmmaker could get away with.
To be sure, it is a one-sided story, ignoring the important role of resistance in maintaining freedom; when Ben Franklin said “I have never seen a good war, or a bad peace,” he hadn’t seen “peace” in the Soviet Union. Still, in this new era when the threat of retaliation is no threat at all to a suicide bomber, Spielberg’s film challenges us to look for new deterrents to terrorism.