How Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ is a timeless exploration of the Israel-Palestine conflict

Although Munich is based on events that took place in 1972, the themes explored by Steven Spielberg can meaningfully resemble the Israel-Palestine conflict today. The Israel-Palestine conflict remains one of the world’s most tragic and ongoing conflicts, stuck in a relentless and destructive cycle of violence, with the civilians the ones to pay the heavy price. Whilst Spielberg is renowned for his stories featuring ordinary people in awe-striking worlds, Munich is a cold and unsettling film, retaining that atmospheric intensity despite globe-trotting across distinct cultural hotspots like Paris, London, Rome, Cyprus, and Spain. Spielberg’s choices were brave – the film proved controversial in Israel, with Zionist groups calling for a boycott, due to the critical lens the film uses to assess the Israeli government’s role in the failure to achieve the peace. But crucially, the film never makes a definitive statement, but rather paints a nuanced portrait to allow the viewer to understand the complex and morally grey nature of the conflict.

The film never makes a definitive statement, but rather paints a nuanced portrait to allow the viewer to understand the complex and morally grey nature of the conflict

Set in the aftermath 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where eleven Israeli athletes were tragically murdered by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, Munich follows a team of five Mossad agents enlisted to assassinate those who are seemingly implicated in the attack. Spielberg captures the opening scene in a devastating fashion, immediately immersing us in the events through the eyes of the unsuspecting Israeli athletes, as they are cruelly lead to their deaths. This elicits a sense of understandable rage in us, evoking what the Israeli agents and citizens would have felt. However, as the film progresses, our expectations are subverted as we are drawn away from the initially straightforward premise of a traditional revenge story, and we start to grapple with doubts and unease regarding the role of our protagonists.

All five members of the IDF team that we follow offer different perspectives to the situation, illustrating the diversity of thought that resides in Israelis and Jews across the globe regarding the nuances of the conflict. Throughout history, anti-Semitism has often manifested in reducing ‘the Jews’ to a monolithic entity, stripping them of their individuality and ability to make independent choices. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner carve out distinct personalities for all our leading characters: Carl, a former Israeli soldier who has experienced with his own two eyes the atrocities inflicted by both sides in the struggle, constantly questions the morality of their actions, whilst Steve, portrayed by Daniel Craig, states outright that ‘the only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood’, reflecting the view of the far-right factions of the Israeli government, which has grown under the wing of Netanyahu in recent years. The main protagonist, Avner Kaufmann, straddles the line between these areas, initially convincing himself that what he is doing must be for the greater good, but his conscience becomes increasingly burdened as the story unfolds.

Ali astutely points out that ‘his father didn’t gas any Jews’, highlighting that the Palestinians need not pay for the sins of the European antisemites who persecuted the Jews and necessitated a Jewish state for protection

One of the most poignant scenes is the conversation between Avner, and Ali, a PLO member who is unaware of Avner’s Israeli identity. Likely for the first time in his life, Avner is able to hear the perspective of a Palestinian. Ali astutely points out that ‘his father didn’t gas any Jews’, highlighting that the Palestinians need not pay for the sins of the European antisemites who persecuted the Jews and necessitated a Jewish state for protection. Their conversation underscores that both sides are driven by a longing for a home, a concept foreign to Western Europeans, who have never experienced such struggle. Despite this heartfelt conversation, Ali is killed in a skirmish the following night with the Mossad agents, demonstrating the futility of understanding in this never-ending cycle of violence.

Throughout the film, glimpses of humanity shine through among the so-called Palestinian terrorists, causing a flicker of doubt to appear in Avner’s eyes. In Paris, Hamshari is shown to having a loving young daughter, whilst in Cyprus, Hussein defies the stereotypical appearance of a terrorist, having a friendly conversation with Avner, unaware of who his true identity. Neither the audience nor the Mossad team are given a definitive answer regarding the guilt of these men, leaving us speculating whether these seemingly civilised men were the masterminds of such a brutal terrorist attack, or merely political PLO opponents framed by the agency. Steve points out to the rest of the team that their doubt comes from the fact that these men don’t fulfil the stereotypical appearance of a terrorist, a phenomenon pertinent to our reading of the situation today.

Commonly labelled the Lillehammer Affair, during the real-life Mossad operation in response to the Munich massacre, an innocent Moroccan waiter was assassinated in Norway, due to an intelligence failure mistakenly identifying him as connected to the Munich massacre. Spielberg purposefully doesn’t directly refer to this incident, presenting the ambiguity that any of the men killed in the film could have suffered the same fate as the waiter. The film also demonstrates the human cost of the conflict, as Israel’s response to Palestinian attacks usually involve mass shelling of suspected targets, leaving behind a large civilian body count. This difficult moral choice is portrayed, as the Mossad agents are forced to kill an innocent witness in Lebanon. The Israeli government are forced to deal with this recurring dilemma daily, pondering whether their actions, which involve targeting both Hamas operatives and causing harm to civilians as collateral damage, constitute an act of serious malevolence or they are saving lives through a utilitarian endeavour.

Throughout the film, numerous unanswered questions remain. By the end of the film, Avner and Steve are the only members of the team remaining alive. The deaths of the remaining three remain unanswered, with ample reason being given to suspect the PLO, the CIA, the KGB, and the Mossad themselves. In the mission’s aftermath, Avner is a truly unsettled man, haunted over the doubts that remain over his mission and suffering with extreme PTSD. This partly stems from the futility of the mission, as all the individuals who were assassinated are swiftly replaced by even more radical figures. The only seemingly feasible solution is to eliminate these replacements as well, demonstrating that the violence is perpetual, costing both sides, and the only way to break the cycle is diplomacy.


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