Wednesday, August 24, 2005

On Spielberg and the Mossad assassin

There’s an aspect of commercial film-making that I dislike intensely and it comes up in this article in the New York Times. The subject: Spielberg’s as yet untitled film on the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at Munich 1972. Turns out that Spielberg’s film only opens with the massacre but is mainly about the Israeli retaliation that followed as Mossad painstakingly and calculatedly hunted down and assassinated persons believed to be among the kidnappers.

The Munich episode has already been effectively captured in a documentary that I saw last year – One day in September. One Day, which is narrated by Michael Douglas, recreates an almost second-to-second account of the hostage crisis by inter-cutting actual footage, interviews with officials, onlookers and the relatives of the hostages. It also incorporates interviews with the lone surviving Palestinian hostage-taker, a man who has been in hiding since then and has escaped several Israeli attempts on his life. That documentary was unequivocal in assigning blame – not, however on the moral implications of the Palestinian actions – on West German officials in Munich who were anxious, at all costs to show that they were capable of dealing with the crisis when they clearly were not. Critics have accused One day of being a “thriller” but I thought that the movie was rather detached; in a sense, the makers wanted simply to recreate the nightmare that was Munich 1972. Beyond highlighting the incompetent West German actions, they clearly did not want to get into any kind of discussion on the morality of the parties in question, since any discussion on the Israel-Palestinian takes only seconds to get inflamed. (At Columbia, where I studied, any article on the dispute in the Spectator meant publishing at least four letters subsequent day with a different interpretation of events).

But back to the offending paragraph in the article:

The film, which is being written by the playwright Tony Kushner - it is his first feature screenplay - begins with the killing of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. But it focuses on the Israeli retaliation: the assassinations, ordered by Prime Minister Golda Meir, of Palestinians identified by Israeli intelligence as terrorists, including some who were not directly implicated in the Olympic massacre. By highlighting such a morally vexing and endlessly debated chapter in Israeli history - one that introduced the still-controversial Israeli tactic now known as targeted killings - Mr. Spielberg could jeopardize his tremendous stature among Jews both in the United States and in Israel.
Yes, it’s called losing stature (the aspect of commercial film-making that I hate). That’s probably why any commercial film-maker will never make a film that engages with politics beyond the superficial. Ridley Scott – a director with magnificent visual skills – made Kingdom of Heaven on the Crusades. Yet his movie is stultifying in its political correctness – both sides are essentially humanists/multiculturalists – and the reason for that is simple: Scott doesn’t want to come across as anti-Christian or anti-Islam. (See David Edelstein’s scathing review in Slate).

Michael Oren (who recently argued in a stimulating New Republic article that the new German film Downfall merely gave Germany and Germans a guilt-free pass) has this to say:

"I don't know how many of them actually had 'troubling doubts' about what they were doing. It's become a stereotype, the guilt-ridden Mossad hit man. You never see guilt-ridden hit men in any other ethnicity. Somehow it's only the Jews. I don't see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden. It's the flip side of the rationally motivated Palestinian terrorist: you can't have a Jew going to exact vengeance and not feel guilt-ridden about it, and you can't have a Palestinian who's operating out of pure evil - it's got to be the result of some trauma."
The guilt-ridden Mossad assassin is also the center-piece of the new Etyan Fox movie Walk on Water. As the film begins, we see Eyal, who comes back after a “job” to find his wife has killed herself. Recovering from a depression, he is given a small assignment. To keep an eye on two visiting German siblings – Axel and Pia – who are the grand-children of an absconding Nazi war-criminal. Assigned as a guide to Axel, Eyal takes a liking to the young man (played in a lovely performance by the German actor Knut Berger). He is confused when he discovers Axel is gay and furious when Axel picks up a young Palestinian in a gay bar. Male bonding is clearly Fox’s forte and Walk on Water sparkles in the Israel scenes. The slender waif-like Burger and the tough Lior Ashkenazi are an attractive couple and the actors sparkle in their scenes together which are lovely and unforced (it’s astonishing how physiognomically similar these two are to Fox’s Yossi and Jagger).

Yet when Eyal is forced to follow Axel back to Germany (in a torturous plot twist), the movie self-destructs spectacularly. The tone turns melodramatic and the narrative turns into an archetypal tale of redemption; clearly not Fox’s best genre. The fault has less to do with Fox’s direction but instead with his use of narrative clichés, so at odds with his naturalistic direction. We know that the tormented Eyal will have to choose – between the human being he is and the killing-machine he has become. We also know that his wife’s suicide had something to do with his “occupation”. Yet the finale is wooden and not remotely convincing.

I should admit at the outset that I have rather a soft spot for Fox (Yossi and Jagger is a little gem of a film in my opinion). His characters are clearly like him: idealistic, passionately political and without an element of irony or cynicism. Walk on Water is only a small misstep for him but I hope he keeps on making his kind of films.

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