January 04, 2006,
Ever since World War II, the German city of Munich has been symbolic of a single, solitary political lesson: the folly of "appeasement." The 1938 Munich Pact represented the futility of compromising with evil. This was always a bit unfair to poor British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had better reasons to sign on to the pact than most people remember. But the moral of the story was a good one, going all the way back to Aesop, who told the fable of the scorpion and the frog, which ends with the frog being shocked that the scorpion would sting him even though the scorpion could do nothing else, for that was its nature.
Hitler was a scorpion, and thinking or hoping otherwise wouldn't change that fact. Much of the Cold War was predicated on this lesson, as the World War II generation agreed not to let down its guard ever again.
Steven Spielberg would like to rewrite the meaning of Munich. In his film about the response to the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Spielberg seems determined to invest the word with a new meaning: We must not treat scorpions like scorpions.
As craft, Spielberg's Munich is a fine piece of work. Its status as art is much more debatable. But, as political commentary, it's dangerously deceptive and, to a certain degree, childish.
The tone of moral equivalence begins, grotesquely, when Spielberg interposes the photos of the murdered Israeli athletes with the photos of the men responsible for the Munich attack. See, they're just soldiers of their respective causes. Never mind that the "Olympic ideal" is supposed to be about putting aside political grievances. Oh, and don't give another thought to the fact that the murdered Israelis were unarmed civilians, most of whom were shot with their arms tied behind their backs. In this allegorical film, facts are irrelevant abstractions while abstractions masquerade as facts.
Which brings me to my real gripe with the film. Plenty of reviewers have denounced the shabby moral equivalence in Munich. They've criticized Spielberg's myopic explanation for Israel's existence (after the Holocaust, Jews had to go somewhere and, hey, this scrap of desert by the sea was convenient). They've complained, rightly, that all of the Jews in the film are either reluctant murderers or eager ones. They've cataloged the distortions and omissions: Golda Meir is cast as reluctant to hunt down the terrorists which she wasn't while Spielberg leaves out the fact that Germany forced her hand by releasing the terrorists in its custody, virtually declaring that slaughtering Jews on its soil was once again not a crime, etc, etc.
But there's a more fundamental complaint to be made. People are not nations. Spielberg childishly cannot see this.
The protagonist of Munich, Avner (Eric Bana), is an endearing Mossad agent who loves his family dearly. He's willing to do anything for Israel, so long as he doesn't have time to think about it. When he actually starts to reflect on the violence he's committed, it tears him apart, the lesson being that the "cycle of violence" is perpetuated only by those who don't think about the consequences of their bloodlust. Avner becomes paranoid and tormented. He comes to his senses at the end and abandons Israel to live in Brooklyn, away from a nation that refuses to come to its senses.
This lesson is obvious from the moment we meet Avner, but Spielberg pounds it into us over and over again. In interviews Spielberg underscores the point that if Israel and the United States don't abandon violence, they will be corrupted by it and only invite more violence to boot. The only solution lay in "rational minds, a lot of sitting down and talking until you're blue in the gills," Spielberg told Time. He even closes the film with the World Trade Center in the background, to presage what the future holds for those who don't turn their backs on violence.
Except in the most cliched sense, this is all nonsense. Of course, individuals can get burnt out or twisted or otherwise deranged from violence. But where is the evidence that because this happens to individuals it must happen to societies? Is the Israel that Spielberg loves really so warped as the logic of his film suggests? Is the United States? No doubt many of the soldiers fighting Nazis in WWII were traumatized by the bloodshed. Did their experience make America sick and twisted? Was the solution to the "cycle of violence" in, say, Schindler's List to get all the Nazis around a table and talk until they were blue in the gills while the gas chambers continued to churn?
Yes, it is unfair to compare Palestinians to Nazis. But it is not unfair to compare the terrorists of Munich '72 or al Qaeda to Nazis. By attempting to replace Munich of '38 with Munich of '72, Spielberg would have us believe that not only was Chamberlain right, but Aesop was wrong.
(c) 2006 Tribune Media Services