In the middle of Stephen Spielberg’s film Munich, there is a conversation between Avner, a disguised Mossad agent, and a Palestinian militant whom he will kill soon after. Why, Avner asks, do Palestinians fight so hard over a barren piece of earth? The Palestinian answers: you ask because you do not know what it is to have lost your home. Avner persists: But what of the Israelis? Have they not suffered? And do not they deserve a home? Perhaps, the militant replies. But such questions are better directed to others. What have we to do with European anti-Semitism? Why do we merit dispossession?
These questions hang in the air, but not for long: they are plot device, rather than substance. The importance of the conversation lies not in its content, but in the effect it has on Avner: raising doubts about his mission to kill the planners of the 1972 Olympic attack. Here too begin the controversies: around the veracity of the events Munich depicts, and their associated normative questions. Part morality play, part shoot-’em-up, Director Steven Spielberg is accused of raising specious moral comparisons, and of playing fast and loose with facts. Munich’s appropriation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is instrumental, a parable for a distinctly American-domestic political debate. Spielberg’s interest is not the policies born of September 5, 1972, but those of another pedigree, viz., September 11, 2001. His audience is not Israelis and Palestinians, but Americans generally, and among them American Jews as well. That he has chosen the Munich attack as a vehicle to address both his larger audience and his smaller one is telling, and merits a sustained look.
The difficulties of dramatizing ‘important’ stories – stories that speak to collective memory, history, and identity – are well known, to Spielberg in particular. He has undertaken many such projects already: Amistad, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan. The last two have spawned further projects: the semi-documentary television series Band of Brothers, and a documentary project to record the stories of holocaust survivors. Spielberg thus stands at the head of a remarkable series of initiatives intended to develop and disseminate moral, ethical and political consensus around some of the most important issues of our times: slavery and freedom, genocide and remembrance, world war. And to do so not merely through exposition, but through dramatic exposition: through fictionalized retellings of real-world events.
These films are powerfully evocative. I first saw Amistad, Spielberg’s portrayal of the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, while living in Israel. The reaction I got from my non-American friends was surprising: “you Americans, you really did some terrible things. We had known about slavery in some abstract sense, but we had no idea how bad it really was.” I was too ashamed to admit it, but though I had studied the story as a schoolboy in the US, I had not realized it either. Of course I had known that slavery was bad, but never as bad as all that. For this, I have Spielberg to thank.
A similar experience, in reverse: when visiting the US some years prior, I was taken by a friend to see Schindler’s List in Chicago’s Hyde Park. On my way out, I was approached by an African-American audience member: was I Jewish? We began to share reactions: we both found the scene where the camera makes a long pan over a street paved with uprooted gravestones difficult to watch. I knew about the Holocaust, he told me: I knew it was bad. But I had no idea just how bad. Another remarkable conversation; we were perhaps a dozen blocks from Louis Farrakhan’s home on the South Side.
To open up new possibilities of self-examination, communication, or fellow-feeling, such films require that we take them seriously; that we view them as more than mere diversions or entertainments. This is bought (and dearly bought) through a dense verisimilitude: painstakingly researched location shots, international casts, careful attention to detail. In this Munich succeeds as well as its predecessors, creating images and characters...