Munich by Celestino Deleyto

Family Values

Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005) 

Celestino Deleyto  

Why does Avner (Eric Bana) go back to the hotel bar after speaking to his wife Daphna (Ayelet Zorer) on the telephone? A few minutes earlier, after a long hard day’s special-team work, the ex-Mossad agent protagonist of Spielberg’s film is seen enjoying a quiet drink at the bar of the London hotel where he is staying when an attractive woman at the bar openly invites him to have sex with her. Although obviously interested, he finally declines out of loyalty to his wife, who has recently been packed off to Brooklyn with their new-born baby. As if to reaffirm his faithfulness, he hurries to his bedroom and chats to Daphna on the phone. But then, unexpectedly, he returns to the bar. What has he gone back for? Has he changed his mind and is now ready to accompany the mysterious woman to her bedroom, in spite of his love for Daphna? Has the sound of his wife’s distant voice reminded him of his protracted abstinence and made him reconsider the offer?

         The film conveniently chooses not to answer these questions: the woman has left and we soon find out that, after being rejected by Avner, she has quickly picked up his team mate Carl (Ciarán Hinds), has had sex with him and murdered him. She was a professional assassin, hired by unspecified enemies of the Israeli team to kill them. The rest of the team track her down to her boat house in an Amsterdam canal and take their revenge. The location is not without importance: Munich, in spite of its lofty theme, does not miss any chance to offer its U.S. audience what amounts to a very thorough sightseeing tour of tourist Europe: Rome, Paris, Nicosia, Athens, London, Amsterdam, even Tarifa, all get their moment.  Now, the hero and his friends show that they are not to be trifled with. Not only do they kill the fiend ruthlessly (the film usefully shows us that, if they hadn’t, she would have shot them, so we are glad) but, after the deed, Hans (Hanns Zischler) shows his hatred  by uncovering her dead body and leaving it in full view of whoever comes in next (and the spectator), in a cruel gesture that reminds us of Ethan’s (John Wayne) hatred of Indians in The Searchers (1956) – except that John Ford’s film  is at least ambivalent about its protagonist’s racism. In a film about terrorists and special agents, the only character the film does not seem to be in two minds about is this Dutch woman (actually played by Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze) with no particular political allegiance. It is as if, after the Spielberg’s supreme effort to be fair to all sides, he can safely vent his aggressiveness on a character with no political agenda, simply because she is a woman, one who has threatened the successful outcome of the mission but, above all, the stability of the family. One is tempted to speculate that she has been made to pay for Spielberg’s hero’s near-infidelity.

    Except that the point of the episode, of course, is never Avner’s infidelity but the furthering of the thriller plot. The character, in fact, is clearly just a cog of the narrative mechanism, but since she has cast a shadow over the family she may as well be immediately wiped out so as not to remind the spectator of the sexual danger she has momentarily posed, even if this danger is more a function of the narrative than part of the conscious thematic or ideological structure of the film. We are asked to overlook the fact that the hero had second thoughts but, just in case, the woman is summarily executed and exposed in her repulsive femininity.

    The episode, however, is important, whether meant to be or not, because Munich  is not only about the ethical dimensions of revenge, not only about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also, very centrally, like all of Spielberg’s films, about the institution of the family. In fact, it could be argued that the film narrativises the dramatic conflict between two families: the one formed by Avner, his wife and their daughter, and the Israeli nation, portrayed as the most important family for the Jews, with Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) as nurturing mother-figure and the hero’s real mother (Gila Almagor) as main proponent of Israel as every Jew’s real home. If the hero’s final decision is anything to go by, Munich settles for the nuclear family: disenchanted by the violence and corruption of political strategy, Avner bails out, even though he has been one of the main agents of that violence and corruption in the movie. The way in which this process of epiphany takes place is also curious: at the end of a fragmentary flashback which gradually tells us what “actually” happened in Munich , he comes to the conclusion that the massacre of the Israeli athletes was not entirely the Palestinian terrorists’ fault. Except that we do not know that this is really what happened: if this is indeed what happened, how does it become a memory of Avner’s when he was nowhere near Munich at the time? Or how does he find out about it? Is it a divine revelation? And if it is just his own construction of the events, is a hunch enough evidence to drive him to make the momentous decision of not wanting to return to his mother land?

    The status of the flashback (or succession of flashbacks), therefore, is never clear. Spielberg’s answer to these questions might well be, as he once said about his films of the eighties, that it doesn’t matter. The films are just entertainment and are not to be closely analysed, not be taken that seriously. But, while this may be true of the Indiana Jones series, how can it apply in the case of such an “important” movie as Munich, or as his other “transcendental” movies – A.I. (2001), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Amistad (1997) or, of course, Schindler’s List (1993)? Yet, in a sense it still does, and regardless of the ideological discourses activated by the different films, Spielberg has remained the skilful child playing with expensive toys, or making expensive toys. No matter what important issues it deals with, Munich is still, like its Indiana Jones precedents, primarily a blockbuster. Its main concern, therefore, is to move the action forward, no matter what narrative inconsistencies may arise, and no matter what thematic “blocks” may be used to construct the story.

    The issue of Israeli national identity may be very close to the director’s heart, and indeed a crucial issue in the world’s current geopolitical scenario, but the relentless action of his movie is far more important. A traditional view of the family may remain his most recurring ideological discourse but the sacrosanct family must be momentarily sacrificed if the action demands it. Avner may have been a marginally more interesting hero if he had been seen to succumb to the minor temptation of a one-night stand with a beautiful stranger, but that would have taken the film in an undesired direction. He may have been tempted but the issue is dropped by the film. What the incident provides the film with is an object on which to discharge some of the adrenaline before moving swiftly on, and since neither the Israeli secret forces nor the Black September terrorists, not even the French family organisation which has been disillusioned with the outcome of World War Two (and has turned that disillusion into a very profitable business), will do as such objects because they might all offend political correctness, the young Dutch woman is the safest bet. The Dutch do not offend easily and women are well used to it. As for the flashback, it may not be narratively very consistent but, in such a flurry of excitement, the filmmakers hope that the spectators won’t notice or, if they do, won’t really care. That’s entertainment. 








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