Thursday, December 29, 2005

Munich

Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” has haunted my heart since I left the theater last evening. I feel so terribly fucking sad and the feeling will not go away. So, I thought I’d write about it. Rattle and hum on the keyboard for a little while to shake the mental sheets. Exorcise a demon, maybe.

Spielberg’s getting a lot of credit for Munich, and that credit is deserved. Munich is powerful, disturbing, sorrowful filmmaking. But much of the credit also goes to Tony Kushner’s screenplay. It allows no easy resolutions, no pat moralizing, and no redemption. The circle of violence is unbroken, and Kushner and Spielberg remind us of that with Munich’s final shot – actor Eric Bana left standing alone in a desolate, deserted playground with the Twin Towers hovering like ghosts behind his solitary shape.

On its face, Munich is about the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists. But like most of the film’s I find most affecting, Munich is about far more than any one event. It is about the way that violence degrades and dehumanizes us all. It is about the way that vengeance – righteous or otherwise – delivers the slimmest of reassurances.

Like George Clooney’s similarly admirable (though far less involving) Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich is about the present as much as it is about the past. It reminds us that History repeats itself. That history repeats itself. It questions the results of “eye for an eye” retribution. “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” goes the old saying, and there is no one left unblinded in Spielberg’s film.

What begins as a clearly monstrous terrorist act devolves into a moral and ethical quagmire of immense and frightening proportions. The surety of righteousness melts in the heat of cordite and plastique as a mission of deceptive simplicity becomes a killing floor of unanswered questions and uncoiling fear.

Munich dares to ask what the results of retribution – justified or otherwise – truly are. Eric Bana’s broken Mossad agent finds himself tearing into mattresses and lying awake in fear despite all he’s done, and despite Israel’s “strong stance” against Palestinian aggression, their actions appear only to have increased the violence and conviction of their enemies.

But to both Spielberg and Kushner’s credit, and despite their inarguably firm end-position, they give all sides of this too, too pertinent argument a clear voice. When Daniel Craig’s coolly loyal fellow agent defends their actions by saying, “The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood,” he means it and his character stands for millions of people who believe that the interests of their nation come before all else. When Bana’s Avner shares a stairwell smoke with an unsuspecting Palestinian, that Palestinian’s motivations for what he does are laid out in such a way that only the hardest and most narrow-minded of people cannot understand what those motivations are.

No one in Munich is a two-dimensional monster. They are simply people fighting for “Home;” a concept as abstract and misleading as it is comforting and desirable. Some folk have already called this approach into question, maintaining that “evil” does exist in the world, and that “evil” is definable.

I would suggest, with humble trepidation and an awareness of my own “liberality,” that if “evil” exists, it does not choose sides any more than the Lord chooses sides. Evil exists everywhere. It is our nature to succumb to the temptation to do harm – to wreak bloody vengeance upon those who have done us harm – and so long as there are men and women who meet escalating violence with violent escalation, evil continues unabated.

For all the shocking violence of Munich (and there is blood in spades – not the cartoon violence of an action film, but the disquieting crimson interruptions of real carnage), the most appalling act comes during a quiet conversation between a Mother and her son. When Avner returns “home” after years spent pursuing an ever-receding conclusion to his appointed task, he meets with his mother in the hospital. She tells him that she’s proud of him for what he’s done for their country.

“Do you want to know what I’ve done,” asks Avner, his tone suggesting that he needs to share the horrors he’s perpetrated and endured. “No,” answers his mother.

Avner’s mother wants vengeance, or retribution, or justice, but she wants it on her terms. Would hearing about Avner’s actions alter his mother’s perception of his heroism? Would the knowledge of the betrayals, the insecurity, and the blood muddy her convictions and her passion? It very well might, and Avner’s mother chooses the comfort and philosophical security of ignorance over the troubling, gruesome specter of her son’s new reality.

It is Avner’s mother – his true, original home – who stands in for every man and woman who just wants to be told that they are safer, better, stronger, without worrying about the costs and future implications of what has been done in order to give them those feelings. Avner’s mother does not truly want understanding. She does not want a world without violence. She only wants a world she can understand without moral equivocation.

And that world, safe and comforting as it is, collapses once Avner moves beyond the frumpily dignified setting of Golda Meir’s living room. It dissolves into a frustrating shadow land of convenient economic allegiances and fervent mistrust. No one and nothing is what it seems when you are playing on the world-stage. Was Avner’s bomb-building compatriot murdered in an act of retribution? Was he killed by his own work? Did he kill himself in grief over what he had helped to do? The answer is unavailable to us. Only the symbolic import of the moment speaks – showing us how his past literally blows up in his face.


There is no safe harbor for Avner or his family in this world. There is no righteousness when we become the thing we fear. The sense of community and belonging, so important to Jewish culture, is decimated in this film. “Will you break bread with me in my home?” Avner asks this of his Mossad “handler” in the film’s final moments. He tells his handler (played with great skill by Geoffrey Rush) that breaking bread is what Jews do. He asks in a moment of personal, private desperation. And Rush’s answer to him is as mournful as it is utterly chilling. “No.”

When Avner's "source," the enigmatic and supposedly non-political "Papa," calls to tell him that if Avner or his family are harmed, that harm will not have come from him, that promise rings slight and unconvincing. After all, "Papa" knows Avner's real name. How? And why? And even if his words are sincere, they are selective. Simply because "Papa" himself will not harm Avner does not mean that he has not sold Avner out to a third party. Midway through the film, Papa tells Avner, "You could have been my son. But you are not." With two seemingly sentimental sentences, Papa lets Avner know that this is simply business. And he plays no favorites in business.

Munich paints a world in which brotherhood, be it by blood or country or experience, is an illusion. In a world subsumed by the impulse to revenge – to right wrongs by committing other wrongs – brotherhood is a bedtime story told to keep people like Avner’s mother feeling safe at night while the world grows ever wilder and more terrifying outside her door.



Spielberg and Kushner’s film is a masterpiece, made more powerful for having such direct implications for our present-day existence. It is strong, moving work guaranteed to provoke discussion and thought. I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay it. It’s my fervent hope that watching Munich will encourage us to break bread with one another – to put to shame the isolation that Avner ends the film in.

I believe in community, and in communion. I have hope for our world. As utterly devastating as Munich is, it leaves me with the desire to confront its thorny moral briars. Those who believe that discussion is pointless and that violence is the only language that certain people understand would do well to remember that for Br’er Rabbit the briar patch ended up being the safest place of all. Toss us into it, I say. We may be scratched, and bruised, and bloodied by the experience. But in the end we may find that home lies directly within it – at its center.

11 Comments:

At 11:07 AM, Blogger Ben Miro said...

Excellent commentary, man.

I had a near-identical reaction to the film.

 
At 12:13 PM, Blogger codemorse said...

Thanks for the kind words, Katanga. Glad to hear that you "enjoyed" it too.

 
At 2:22 PM, Blogger Jabawacefti said...

Excellent commentary, how can one not agree?

I am about to get on a plane, so let me share one, shall I say concern, about the commentary.

I agree that much of what you say is true. But at the end, my concern is that we go too far toward an absolute moral equivocation. That there is no right or wrong, that morality is only relative, and all we have is our own perception. That scares me because it seems to demean those that suffered from the most horrible murders and the most miserable circumstances.

In short, how can you stop a Hitler without violating "an eye for an eye" justice? Do you think it's possible? And isn't it necessary?

Blind vengeance is clearly wrong. But isn't blind morality?

 
At 3:18 PM, Blogger codemorse said...

Blind anything tends not to work out so well.

I think Speilberg and Kushner answer your question directly in their film. They have a young beatnik woman talking about Hegel, and how "good" and "evil" are limited, man-created terms.

Murder is a crime, but not when you do it for your country. You're excused if you've done it defending your family. Our country kills its criminals lawfully.

Whether or not murder is "evil" depends a lot on why you've done it, and the acceptable motivations for that depend on a complex set of societal agreements that vary from location to location.

War against Germany became necessary, but it didn't necesarily have to be. Would Hitler have risen to power if the world had taken a little pity on Germany after WWI? Would it have been possible for a madman to have rallied the German people in the way he did without appealing to base fears and prejudices not-at-all limited to Germany?

Possibly. But I think he'd have had a much harder time of it. The country of Germany wasn't "evil."

I understand the fear implicit in moral relativism. I think it scares most people, myself included. But I also think it's possible to be both moral, and relative.

Killing civilians for any sort of a political cause is monstrous, no matter the justification. But unless we are willing to treat the underlying causes of that immorality as serious and worth discussing, those killings will continue.

That killing is, to me, immoral. And it's because I see it as immoral - as something that needs to be stopped - it's imperative that understandings are reached. Take away a terrorist's gun, and he'll go get another gun. But if you take away the reasoning behind having the gun?

 
At 3:19 PM, Blogger codemorse said...

Have a safe flight!

 
At 11:02 AM, Blogger Jabawacefti said...

Blind only works out well if it's Ray Charles' music.

And I guess, to set the record straight, I understand that "evil" is a human construct, not some nefarious "First," that thoughtlessly tries to kill anything in sight (particularly Vampire slayers). [Note: my fiancee bought me the entire Buffy series for Hanukkah and now she's hooked as well. It appears I've chosen wisely.]

Nevertheless, I think it is important, and gravely so, that we collectively and individually identify those action that are so morally reprehensible and so unjustifiable as to be considered "evil." Of course it is my construct. Yours may be different. So will the next guy's. And girl's (didn't mean to forget you, ladies). I just do not think we should abandon the entire enterprise because there is not necessarily going to be a uniformity of understanding of what constitutes "evil."

Germany is always a good place to start. If you are going to get uniformity of an understanding on evil, slaughtering millions of innocent civilians for racial purity has got be a good place to start.

Was the country of Germany evil? Of course that answer requires "Chapters," and we do not have those here. But what Germany did have were a lot of people that did want to do "evil" things (if we agree wanting to slaughter millions of innocent people) and a whole lot of other people that were willing to look the other way, so to speak. I think there's a book on it called "Willing Accomplices", or something like that.

There may have been several underlying causes for Hitler's rise. And while I agree that Germany's draconian punishment after World War I might have been an additional cause, the World's desire to appease him for several years after might also be a "cause." By which I mean, without the World's appeasement, millions might not have had to suffer their untimely fate.

But here is my fear, that in looking for the underlying justifications, we come too close to justifying the act at all. And I think it unintentionally minimizes the horror that the innocents have been forced to endure.

Here's the problem: You and I may be reasonable (to a point). But not everyone else is. Let's go back to Germany. After Germany was forced to face its punishment after World War I, the rest of Europe thought that the best way to stop the rising militarism from Germany would be to allow for a certain level of pushback. Which is, Europe recognized that it had dealt with Germany harshly after World War I, and thought it best to grant some of Germany's requests. Hitler used the harsh limitations that were set against Germany in the Versailles Treaty as a pretext for Germany's right to acquire land where German-speaking people lived.

First Austria. Then Czechoslovakia. Ok. Fine. We were mean, take these countries and call it a day. But he didn't. And consequently, neither did Germany. And while the Versailles treaty may have caused a seriously high level of unemployment, a bunch of German's thought that the Jews and Gypsies had a hand in it too.

At the end of the day, the Germans were transporting millions of people to camps to have them exterminated. At some point we have to say, "I don't care if you had to give up the Sudetenland, slaughtering millions of innocent people is evil, end of story."

Because if we do not, we come dangerously close to repeating the same mistakes. The Germans say that they were treated harshly, and we rightly want to remedy that, because in some ways it's true. Do we then give them what they ask for? That's what we did. And it didn't work. And all the while, Hitler kept on talking about erasing the race of mongrels from Germany's midst. "But this is the twentieth century," people thought, "he can't be serious." Twelve million innocent people will tell you otherwise.

And today we have Bin Laden. He's got some legitimate gripes, some pretty nasty leaders are running the Arab world. Just get out of Saudi Arabia, he says. Mecca should not be defiled by the infidels. Oh, and by the way, kill all Jews and Americans. Half the Pakistani population thinks this guy is a hero. And while we look to the underlying causes, he's past it. And so are his followers. Kill all Jews, Americans, British and Westerners. "Surely this guy can't be serious," we say. And he gets twenty zealots to fly planes into the World Trade Center.

And while we're trying to remedy the underlying causes, the Iranian President starts talking about the Holocaust as a myth. But if it was true, Germany was justified. And here we are again, right back to where we started, "surely this guy can't be serious." Looking for the underlying causes.

At some point you have to say, I do not care what you're angry about, the intentional killing of innocent people for political purposes is evil. Period. Everyone's got a cause. And everyone's got a reason. But I think we lose our way if we indulge what is unquestionably and undeniably intollerable by all civilized people.

I choose not to do that. And I do not think any of us should.

 
At 5:18 PM, Blogger Jabawacefti said...

http://www.nationalreview.com/goldberg/goldberg200601040824.asp

Here's Jonah's take on Munich, most of which I substantially agree with.

 
At 2:11 AM, Blogger codemorse said...

I hadn't realized you'd seen the film.

I found his take on the movie a little too dismissive to be too persuasive.

Golberg opens his review by citing Hitler and, by extension, Nazi Germany to point out that "appeasement" is folly when you're dealing with a "Scorpion."

Then he closes his review as follows:
"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?"

You just gave us that evidence, Jonah. It was called Nazi Germany. MUST it happen? Perhaps not. DOES it happen? Obviously.

Criticizing the film for featuring Jews only as reluctant or eager killers sort of leaves out a lot of the film's characters. Who aren't either. It's a little like criticizing Boys In The Hood for featuring blacks only as reluctant or eager gang members.

Goldberg's viewpoint, while as usual both intelligent-sounding and rationally laid out, also sort of proves Spielberg's point. In his unwillingness to consider the validity of anything the film has to say, Goldberg assumes the same stance as the various individuals and nations in "Munich," who cannot part from their own closely-held and carefully-protected ideologies to recognize any possible common ground.

Finally, much like your fiancee probably would, I'd argue his claim that Munich's merit as art is "debatable" is pretty specious. He's fairly clearly upset by some of what the film has to say (referring to the film's POV as "childish," for instance), and I'd say that pretty much proves Munich to be art, whether "good" or "bad." It provoked a strong emotional and intellectual response. It provoked discussion. Is it "Good" art? That's entirely subjective.

 
At 9:11 AM, Blogger Jabawacefti said...

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At 9:13 AM, Blogger Jabawacefti said...

I think that's exactly his point re: violence as corruption. Goldberg did not say that violence never deranges societies. He merely takes exception with the moral equivalence of Spielberg, that the violence of Nazis is the same as the violence of those killing Nazis. That it must corrupt. America as a society may have been damaged from its use of violence against Nazis. But it doesn't make them Nazis.

Frankly, I did not entirely understand what he meant by the fact that the film was good as "craft," but flawed as "art." I will, as always (to both you and my fiancee), take exception to the claim that art is art insofar as it provokes discussion.

 
At 7:12 PM, Blogger codemorse said...

Then we have a fundamental difference of interpretation. I don't believe that "Munich" is saying violence is not justifiable. I think it's illustrating the problematic consequences of using violence as a solution to deeper problems.

As long as the underlying issues remain, then the violence can never truly end.

I think this probably makes Goldberg uncomfortable, because it suggests a knottier, thornier set of problems, as opposed to the more clear-cut, visceral response of "Well, but sometimes violence works." Of course it does. But sometimes, violence doesn't work. And when it does work, it comes at a serious cost - even when its justified (as it was in WWII).

I think what Goldberg means re: "Craft" v. "Art," is that Munich LOOKS good (i.e.: nicely shot, well acted, good use of color), but that the film didn't do anything "good" for him, therefore, he's hesitant to call it art. That's understandable. I just disagree.

 

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