Saturday, May 27, 2006

Steven Spielberg's Munich - A Review

Some things can never be understood outside of their historical context. The film story of Steven Spielberg’s film, Munich, begins with the Black September attack on the Israeli Olympic Team in 1972. The context of the story begins much earlier.

I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.

That’s what one Christian had to say about the Jews in the 16th Century. This fellow’s name was Martin Luther.

Three hundred years later, in 1892, L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, writes of the pogroms going on in Russia against the Jews:

...the rather heavy-handed blow that the Muscovite Empire has aimed at the children of Judah has played into the hands of Judaism, for it has engendered compassion for the Jews...

Not long before this official blame-the-victim view from the Throne of Peter was expressed, the French were putting some of their enlightenment notions of liberté and égalité into practice (the same nation would later bring you the Dreyfus Affair), and freeing Jews from the ghettos where they had been forced to live in the Italy of the Papal States. But no sooner had Pius IX been restored to power in Rome after losing control of these enormous territories, when he pushed them back in. For his ardent defence of the faith, this man (also the author of the infallibility doctrine) was beatified by John Paul II in 2000, which means he’s on the road to sainthood.

If you don’t understand the foundations of Jewish desire to get out from under a worldview in which men like Pius IX are still rewarded, you probably have not read enough history of Western Civilization.

And if you don’t understand the roots of the Zionist conviction that Jewishness can survive only in a nation-state (Jewishness, not Judaism), then you’re likely to miss the existential agony portrayed in Munich, and it will come across as just another shoot-em-up. And you’ll miss the heart of one of the more far-reaching treatments of one of the more intractable tragedies of our time.

* * *

Munich is the story of five men recruited by the government of Golda Meir in an eye-for-an-eye decision to avenge the deaths of the eleven members of the Israeli Olympic Team in Munich in 1972. More narrowly, it is about the ever increasing threat of disintegration of the personality and character of Avner Kaufmann, the leader of the counterterrorist assassination team and central figure in the dramatization of the hunt for Black September terrorists.

Avner was born to heroic parents, a father imprisoned for his political activities (and therefore absent from Avner’s life), and a mother portrayed as a woman of stunning personal strength and dedication to the state of Israel, with expectations perhaps even harder to live up to. Avner’s wife reveals her view of the consequences when she tells him, “Your mother took you to the kibbutz and abandoned you. Now you think Israel is your mother.”

Based on the 1984 novel, Vengeance, by George Jonas, Munich will draw at least four types of possibly overlapping audiences: adventure film buffs, especially those looking for high tension (and no small bit of violence), those curious to see what Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame has pulled off this time (he finished off the screenplay started by Eric Roth ); and those who follow the endless struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Hopefully, the audience for whom the film is seriously intended will also find their way to the screen, those interested in the question of what it means to be a Jew.

Despite the fact that you know going in that the assassination team was successful, Munich still works as a thriller. And as psychological drama. How much John Williams’ score has to do with it , how much good acting and directing, how much is cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s and editor Michael Kahn’s doing, is for more serious film buffs to go into. Tony Kushner and Eric Roth’s screenplay is, in my view, as good as it gets. The dialogues are totally convincing, even the ones between Avner and his wife and his mother which are virtually entirely about stage-setting and exposition. But where the movie leaves the merely excellent and enters the exceptional is in the accumulation of profound questions which haunt you for days afterwards.

What is a Jew? Where is the line between Jew and Israeli? Where does Israel’s responsibility to itself and the world’s Jews stop and its responsibility to the world of nations begin? Do Palestinians have any less a love of home than Israelis? How do ordinary men become cold-blooded killers? Is Israel’s Realpolitik its survival mechanism or its nemesis?

Three women frame Avner’s reason for being. His wife represents his home, his “soft” extreme, and the cost of his personal sacrifice. She is outweighed two to one, however, by his two mothers. When the Golda Meir character is introduced, one of the first things she says is, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Shortly afterward, we see her laying hands on Avner, as on a lamb about to be sacrificed for the state. When Avner’s work is apparently completed, he confronts his birth mother, who hits home the message of his mother the state. “When I arrived (in Israel),” she tells her son, “I walked up to the top of a hill in Jerusalem and I prayed for a child... And I could feel every one of them (the family that all died in the Holocaust) praying with me. You are what we prayed for. What you did you did for us... (You gave us) a place to be a Jew among Jews, subject to no one. I thank God for hearing my prayer.” “You want to know (what I did)?” he asks her. “No,” she tells him. “Whatever it took; whatever it takes, we have a place on Earth at last.”

Avner is thus abandoned three times. One time is by Israel in the person of Golda Meir, who, after setting him up for the sacrifice, leaves the room without saying goodbye. She (and Moshe Dayan and the others involved in the creation of the assassination team) makes him work outside of Mossad, the Israeli CIA, because of the need for plausible deniability, and her abandonment has to be total. By his own mother, he is abandoned as a child to a kibbutz, and again when she wants no details of his struggle to hold on to his sanity. Why, we want to ask, could Israel not find a ready-made assassin instead of turning a child of heros into one? One suspects it has as much to do with the need to enoble the deed as with finding someone it can trust.

There have been angry detractors who claim the film is anti-Israeli for this suggestion it consumes its own children. How you stand on this question will show where you stand on the conviction Israel must survive at all costs. And those who would fault Spielberg for being soft on terrorism must ask why he chose to end the film in New York with the Twin Towers etched in in the background, surely a challenge to any soft response on terrorism.

Three of the other four members of the team, ordinary men all on some level, have the stuff it takes to carry out the assassinations. One, a toy maker and conscripted bomb maker named Robert, falls down at the end. In a scene just before a particularly odious killing, Robert confronts Avner:

R: All this blood... Eventually it comes back to us.
A: Eventually we will beat them.
R: We’re Jews, Avner. Jews don’t do wrong because our enemies do wrong.
A: We can’t afford to be decent anymore.
R: 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.

Christianity’s driving force, it has been said, is love; Islam’s is peace, Judaism’s is justice and righteousness. The first two religious bodies have worked their way into a large number of societies where failure to live up to their ideals has been of little consequence for the states in which they reside. Israel is a different story. If, as Robert implies, Israel has lost what made it Jewish, what is left of its claim to be be a place to be a Jew among Jews?

May 27, 2006

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