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By Alyce Barry

Munich is director Steven Spielberg's film about the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics where Palestinian terrorists murdered eleven Israeli athletes in Munich, Germany.

Based on George Jonas's book, Vengeance, the film tells of the Israeli government's secret team of assassins given the job of hunting down the perpetrators. The team leader is Avner, played by Eric Bana.

Munich is an important film, I think, for what it says about what killing does to you inside — the real toll that revenge takes on a human being.


I remember reading in a biography of Alfred Hitchcock that he made a point of showing in his films that it wasn't easy to commit murder — for a simple reason, namely, that the human body doesn't die that easily. Hitchcock believed it was his moral duty to show how difficult murder really is, as it was to ensure that no murderer in any of his films got away with his crime.

Spielberg's real accomplishment in Munich is showing that it isn't easy to kill a person for emotional reasons either. Throughout the film, the assassins unexpectedly meet their targets as ordinary people who are really quite likable. You can see it pass across their features that they must avoid seeing their targets as likeable because that will make it much harder to kill them. With each of these meetings, Spielberg is showing us, Here the assassin has a choice to know his target as a person and be merciful.

At the beginning of the film, news footage shows what the world saw of the events inside the Olympic Village, which wasn't much. The rest of the 1972 events are told through reconstructions. When the terrorists reached the Furstefeldbrook airport, where they thought they were getting a flight to safety, the German authorities opened fire on them instead.

For me, one of the film's most lasting images is the face of one of the terrorists when he realizes that it's his job to kill the hostages seated inside the helicopter. It's clear he hadn't planned on this. He can't look at the athletes' faces for more than a moment because he knows if he does, he won't be able to kill them. You see him switching off his humanity so that he can follow orders.


There's something unusual about the gunfights in Munich as well, in the way bullets strike bodies, and the way the bodies react to being shot. I don't normally watch films with a lot of gratuitous violence, so it's possible that I'm just out of touch with bullets in movies today.

The gunfights in Munich aren't gratuitous, they're central to Spielberg's point: that violence becomes pointless. Listening to the bullets striking bodies, I had a felt sense of Spielberg's message. He uses bullets to tattoo on his audience his message about the pointlessness of vengeance.


The turning point of the film comes when Avner persuades his Israeli contact to allow the assassins to travel to Lebanon where an important terrorist is staying. In the horrific gun battle that ensues, I felt suddenly annoyed that I couldn't tell who was who — where were Avner and his men, and where were their enemies? I realized that Spielberg didn't want me to know because it didn't matter. The killing had become killing for killing's sake, and it no longer mattered which side you were on.

For Avner, Lebanon is a turning point of another kind as well. He kills not just the men on his most-wanted list but a young Palestinian man he has just met. They've shared a conversation while smoking a cigarette outdoors. The young Palestinian tells Avner that if the Palestinians act like animals, it is because their treatment by the Israelis has made them animals. When Avner learns not longer after that he, too, is being hunted, it's clear that he is now an animal as well. He is a hunted, haunted man who can no longer rest, much less feel at peace. No one in this conflict has a home any more.

Spielberg might have told a simplistic, black-and-white story in which the Israelis are heroes and the Palestinians are evil. Instead, he has told a complex story about the killer inside all of us.

Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach, and a writer, in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago Read more about Alyce.

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in February 2006. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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