MUNICH. Outstanding first hour, and then?

Joseph K. joins Mossad – about Munich by Steven Spielberg.

Paweł Marczewski

22 November 2023

A few sad young men with tanned skin stand by the wire fence surrounding the Munich sports stadium, discussing something and looking somewhat helplessly towards the buildings of the Olympic Village. It is the year 1972, and in a moment, the Israeli delegation will be abducted, and the world will hear about the Palestinian organization Black September. For now, however, we have only a few men who seem lost and undecided. Well, the grotesque and terrifying drama of Joseph K. has just begun in his own bed… Spielberg took on an incredibly ambitious task—to tell the story of the spiral of violence, to show all the hands that fuel it, from the hands of the military and politicians to the toil-worn hands of ordinary people working in kibbutzim or carrying water in camps for Arab refugees.

Avner, the main character, is a kind of link between various levels of this story. He was raised by a mother who instilled in him the cult of ancestors and the land for which they shed blood. He barely knew his father; this hero of the struggle for the independent state of Israel spent long years in prison. Although Avner tries to be an exemplary husband, performing bureaucratic work for the army and taking care of his pregnant wife, he soon has to confront all the myths of his childhood. The intelligence agency and the military turn to him with a request that is also a nearly business proposition (you’ll open two accounts in a Swiss bank…) and an ultimatum (the oppressive atmosphere of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s salon, who could be his grandmother). Eliminate the leaders of Black September, you have one day to decide. If you can’t decide in 24 hours, you won’t be able to make a decision at all. After a sleepless night spent next to his wife, who suddenly seems incredibly distant, as if he were on the stadium in Munich and she in Israel, Avner is ready to give an answer. Joseph K. allows himself to be led out of the house by mysterious officials. The hunt begins.

For the first hour, Munich has the makings of an outstanding film, with flashes of genius in some later scenes as well. Above all, Spielberg has succeeded in showing the dirty, down-to-earth side of the work of secret agents and paid killers. Death here has nothing of pathos; it is sudden, dirty, repulsive. Eliminating targets resembles work in a slaughterhouse; on the faces of the characters, you can see physical and mental fatigue. Several particularly successful sequences reveal the moral ambiguities of the path chosen by the protagonists, such as the remarkable revenge subplot on a paid assassin sent after Avner and his subordinates. The creators manage to create an overwhelming atmosphere of ubiquitous danger. The world here turns into a place where complex, multi-layered intrigues intersect, the meaning of which remains hidden even for those participating in the game. The actors deserve praise. Eric Bana bravely battles the image he created with the role of Hector in Troy, and Geoffrey Rush squeezes all the juices from the small role of Ephraim, the communication officer of the agent group that officially does not exist. John Williams also did a very good job. With the compositions composed for Munich, he departed from the lofty, uplifting motifs towards slightly more subdued music, with occasionally noticeable oriental influences.

Unfortunately, the film is also tainted by unbearable Hollywood pathos, especially in the final scenes. Spielberg clearly seeks a way to summarize this story, tries for a spectacular punchline, but it eludes him and turns out to be out of place. The director also lacks ideas for some supporting characters (the underdeveloped character of the main character’s wife). The film also lacks intellectual background; the creators try to reconcile the reasons of Israel and the Palestinians but struggle with the gravity of the issues they decided to tackle, as evidenced by the unconvincing conversation between Avner and a Palestinian terrorist who mistakenly takes him for a German, implying a member of the Red Army Faction or another leftist terrorist organization. Despite all the reservations, Munich is worth watching. It’s a film that may not be entirely successful, irritating with attempts to fit some threads into Dream Factory schemes, but still provocative and bold.