Steven Spielberg on Munich and controversy

From ET to War of the Worlds, Hollywood's most successful director is best known for his family-friendly blockbusters. But with his latest thriller, Munich - an account of the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes - he finds himself under attack. Steven Spielberg tells Andrew Anthony why he made the film - and why he stands by his story

Steven Spielberg is not a name one associates with controversy. Opinions may differ over ET, Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark but their maker has never been in the business of offending interest groups or audience sectors. Aside from alien abductees, nobody was going to denounce him for his favourable portrayal of extraterrestrials. But now the world's most successful director finds himself in the middle of the world's most uncompromising dispute.

In Munich, his 24th feature film, he examines the aftermath of the Munich Olympics massacre, in which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinians from the Black September group. The film follows an Israeli hit squad set up by Israeli prime minister Golda Meir to avenge the atrocity. Led by a man named Avner, played by Eric Bana, the agents kill a series of Palestinians identified by Mossad to be the architects of the attack in Munich.

Members of the Israeli government have accused Spielberg of 'moral equivalence' in drawing comparison between the terrorists and counterterrorists. Palestinians such as Abu Daoud, one of the surviving members of Black September, have lambasted the film for focusing on the 'Zionist side alone'. On top of that, Spielberg was also charged with 'humanising demons' by George Jonas, the man who wrote the book on which the film was based. What was it like for a consummate populist to get it in the neck from all sides?

'I think it proves that we've succeeded,' he says cheerily. 'A silence would have marked our failure and I would have felt that I'd wasted the last six years. The good news is that the vast majority of the Jewish community have embraced Munich, and many Palestinians have as well.'

I spoke to him the morning after the Golden Globes awards at which Munich ended the night unburdened by triumph. If he was disappointed, it didn't show in his conversation. He sounded upbeat and keen to defend his corner. He recalled watching the Munich Olympics in his early twenties with his father, and the 'rage and frustration' they felt when the Israelis were killed. 'Here were Jews being murdered on German soil again,' he said.

When Spielberg first looked at making a film about Munich, back in 1998, he was motivated, he has said, by a wish to establish a tribute to the murdered Israeli athletes: 'The silence about them by the International Olympic Committee is getting louder for me every four years.'

In the event, the film is certain to focus attention on Munich once again but it would be a stretch to describe it as a tribute to the athletes. For one thing, most of the audience will leave without knowing the name of any of the murdered Israeli Olympians. For another, the core of the drama deals with the human cost of avenging their deaths. Spielberg believes the overall effect will still be one of remembrance. 'The dramatisation of the torture the athletes had to endure, the physical and mental torment they went through, is so graphic that it is not likely to be forgotten. The athletes are with us in our hearts and hopefully seared into our memory.'

As a Jew himself, Spielberg has inevitably had to confront questions regarding his impartiality. Had the master of unseen terror, the man who made us think twice about venturing into the sea, been some Hamas-supporting Palestinian, he might have made a movie in which a ruthlessly efficient killing machine moves through the shadows, destroying its unsuspecting prey. Not Jaws, as it were, but Jews.

Instead, as a decent Hollywood liberal, he has made an action thriller that is also something of a morality tale: what happens to a good man, it asks, when he is asked to do bad things for a good cause.

To the question of whether being a Jew in any way skewed or hindered his approach to the subject, Spielberg responds: 'It would have been much more problematic had I been Steven Smith. I made this picture as a committed Jew, a pro-Israeli Jew and yet a human Jew. I made this movie out of love for both of my countries, USA and Israel. It was a struggle to make this picture. I tried to avoid making it and yet I feel that my filmography would not have been complete without this story in some fashion being realised on film.'

Soon to be entering his sixtieth year, Spielberg recently divested himself of DreamWorks, the Hollywood studio that produced American Beauty and Shrek and which he set up in 1994 with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. Although he is estimated to have amassed personal wealth of over $2bn, and is one of Hollywood's few living legends, he was never cut out for the part of a mogul, if only because his natural place is behind a camera rather than a desk. It's not thought that the move will affect Spielberg's selection of films, though he maintains that for the moment he has no plans in mind. 'I made two movies last year - War of the Worlds and Munich - and I'm absolutely fried. My kids are really pleased I'm home and I feel like I need to devote a lot of time to them, so I don't have anything knocking down my door right now.'

Best known for his family entertainments, like ET and Raiders, he enjoyed his greatest critical success with the infinitely darker material of Schindler's List, a harrowing glimpse into the Nazi death camps, for which he won an Oscar for best director and best picture. Made in 1993, as Spielberg entered the self-searching heart of middle age, it marked a major turning point, not only professionally but personally. He had tackled 'adult' subjects before with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. But this was different. Having for so long been the chronicler of suburban middle America, which effectively meant Gentile America, he got in touch, as they say, with his Jewish roots. As a result he established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, a resource that has recorded 50,000 survivor testimonies.

It would be wrong, however, to see Munich as some kind of direct continuation of that project. Whereas Schindler's List was a meticulous work of art, Munich is much more of a dramatic genre film. One reason for that is Spielberg's decision to base the story on a book, Vengeance, whose doubtful claim to veracity is such that when it was first published back in the Eighties it appeared in both the non-fiction and fiction bestseller lists. The film begins with the catch-all disclaimer 'inspired by real events'.

In addition it has been asserted by a number of experts in the field that Yuval Aviv, who is said to be the source for both Vengeance and Munich, is a conspiracy theorist who never worked for Mossad, much less took part in the 'Wrath of God' operation, as the revenge assassinations became known. Nonetheless Spielberg remains loyal to his man. 'I know people have attempted to discredit him but I don't doubt him at all. I have to rely on my intuition, and as a filmmaker I had to commit to my feelings that the real Avner was the real deal, and I really in my heart and soul believe he is.'

This sounds like Spielberg the storyteller speaking. His almost childlike capacity to believe the unbelievable is a quality that underpins some of his most affecting films. Indeed, thinking of the Richard Dreyfuss characters in both Jaws and Close Encounters, outsiders who are wrongly ignored, one can imagine that it is Aviv's apparently solitary voice that Spielberg finds most convincing.

All the more ironic, then, that the one other person who has stood by 'Avner' - namely Jonas, the author of Vengeance - has become one of Spielberg's fiercest critics. 'With due respect to pop culture and its undisputed master,' wrote Jonas with lofty disdain, 'one doesn't reach the moral high ground by being neutral between good and evil.'

Though the director prefaces his comments on Jonas with a friendly - 'I certainly expected him not to agree with me' - it's the only point in our dialogue at which a note of irritation creeps into his voice. 'I find it kind of astonishing that people who don't like this movie are saying that I'm trying to humanise terrorists,' he says, adding in exasperation, 'as if it was ever acceptable for me to dehumanise anyone in any of my pictures. Some political critics would like to see these people dehumanised because when you take away someone's humanity you can do anything to them, you're not committing a crime because they're not human. This film clearly states that the Black September of the Munich murders were terrorists. These were unforgivable actions but until we begin to ask questions about who these terrorists are and why terrorism happens, we're never going to get to the truth of why 9/11 happened, for instance.'

The 9/11 reference is telling because Munich may be about the events of the early Seventies but it's very much a film made in the aftermath of September 2001, as is made clear at the end. For all his strengths as a filmmaker, Spielberg is not known for his excessive subtlety. When the action moves to Paris in the film we are left in no doubt where we are by dint of the whacking great Eiffel Tower in the background. Similarly, it's no coincidence that the final scene sees the Twin Towers dominating the screen like a ghostly warning of the altogether more potent terror to come.

Which does not mean that Spielberg is trying to make a simplistic link between Black September and 11 September or Israeli and American responses. 'I don't think you can look at the Palestinian desire for a homeland in the same way you can look at [al-Qaeda's] desire for an Islamic world and their attack on the Twin Towers. You can't speak of them in the same breath. But terrorism informs terrorism, and certainly the planners of the 9/11 attacks had to be aware of Munich when they plotted their arrival on the world stage. So if there's any linkage at all it's the way terrorism is demonstrated before the cameras.'

It has been said that Spielberg's previous work, The War of the Worlds, lacked his customary feelgood smoothness. As the man himself noted of that film, 'In the shadow of 9/11 there is a relevance to how we are all so unsettled in our feelings about our collective futures.'

Munich is not a film that seeks to settle those feelings. It was written by the improbable duo of Tony Kushner (the Angels in America playwright), and Eric Roth (who gave us Forrest Gump), Kushner inheriting the screenplay from Roth. The temptation is to credit Roth with the action and Kushner with the angst, but whoever was responsible, the two never quite meld together. It's as if the energy of the drama is sapped by the weight of the message, though what that message might be is never fully articulated.

Both Spielberg and Kushner insist that they wanted to make a film that raised more questions than it answered. Is that a reflection of an encroaching pessimism?

'I'm not pessimistic,' he corrects me, 'but I'm frightened. I'm not pessimistic because I really believe there will be peace in Israel and Palestine. I think that's going to happen within most of our lifetimes. But I'm frightened by ... I'm frightened by ... so many things. I think as I get older - and I have seven children, - I'm much more protective of them. I think that the world they're growing up in is more dangerous than the world I grew up in, even though I grew up in a world of potential nuclear holocaust. And for some reason I feel that the age of terrorism is more frightening to me than nuclear terror.'

In March, Spielberg will make his own contribution to lessening fear in the Middle East by distributing 250 video cameras to Palestinian and Israeli children. He made a similar gesture in Los Angeles, handing out cameras to kids in the 'inner city danger zone'. The idea is that they make films about themselves which will then be shown to one another. 'I just thought it would be interesting to let young Israelis and Palestinians talk about who they are, what music they listen to, what they watch on television, what they want out of life and who they love. These are the important questions.'

It would be particularly interesting to hear their views on Munich. Spielberg has often been accused of emotional manipulation but with this film he says he was not aiming to guide his audience in any direction. 'They can argue, they can debate, they can discuss. If they do any of those things we will have achieved a tremendous success.'

Munich is not without its flaws but the least that can be said is that it will provoke argument. At this moment in history, and with this subject, that's all any filmmaker could hope for. Agreement will have to wait for another time.


Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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