This Christmas my wife gifted me the 100 Years of Olympic Films box set from Criterion Collection. I’ve been pulling out documentaries from it pretty much at random and recently I landed on Visions of Eight, the somewhat experimental documentary about the 1972 Munich summer games with segments directed by Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, Man on the Moon, and more), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Claude Lelouch, John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man), Mai Zetterling (a director of feminist films in the ‘60’s), Kon Ichikawa (Fires on the Plain, Tokyo Olympiad), Yuri Ozerov and Michael Pfleghar. This is an incredibly artistic film but it doesn’t really highlight the achievements of the biggest stories of the games and practically mentions in passing the tragedy of the killing of the Isreali team by Black September.
Visions of Eight (1973)
Visions of Eight is an incredible Olympic Film. Soviet director Ozerov opens in the film with the sight of the rising sun, cutting to close ups of the sun, its corona on full display, then cutting to a running lighting the Olympic Flame. There is mention of the tragedy that is soon to occur not far away from the Opening Ceremony, but it is only alluded to. This movie was released in August, 1973 and won the Golden Globe for Best Documentary. The pole vaulting segment is shot in slow motion, out of focus and silent, in an Impressionist view of documentary film. Forman’s installment on the decathlon mixes a scene of traditional German music and dance with the most grueling event of the games. The tragedy at the games is only seen in any level of depth during the marathon segment from Schlesinger where he follows a British runner’s preparation, the distraction of the loss of life and danger in the Olympic village from his event and his seventh place finish behind an American runner’s historic victory. It makes no mention of Mark Spitz’s historic games (as a Jewish athlete, he was well aware that he was in danger as the Isreali team was kidnapped and killed), USSR’s dramatic last second win over the US in basketball, or Steve Prefontaine’s lone Olympic appearance in his short life.
One Day in September (1999)
Oddly, it is in the Oscar winning documentary One Day in September that chronicles the whole incident that these highlights are touched on as a bit of a survey of the Games before tragedy struck. On September 5th, eight members of the pro-Palestinian group Black September jumped the fence at the Olympic Village and took the Isreali team and their coaches hostage. Two Isrealis were killed in the apartments, one escaped and nine more were killed during an airfield shootout where a grenade was thrown into a helicopter with half the team and the other half of the team were gunned down in another helicopter. Five of the terrorists were killed that day, and three were captured. More on the captured fellas a little later.
Kevin Macdonald, Scottish director not from Kids in the Hall, followed up this Oscar winning documentary with Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland, and State of Play. One Day in September uses interviews with the surviving spouse of one of the coaches, an interview with a surviving terrorist, pictures of the bodies and destruction. While Black September was horrific in their acts, security and law enforcement in Germany made critical mistakes with every decision. Security in Olympic village was unarmed and lax, the military wasn’t allowed to intervene, the police weren’t trained for tactical response, police tactical response was unplanned and uncoordinated. They planned a raid on the apartments only to abort at the last minute when they realized the terrorists were watching them on TV, dressed in tracksuits, fiddling with air ducts and old military helmets. The whole world was watching, and so were the terrorists. The police were unprepared for the number of terrorists at the airfield, the ground team backed out at the last minute without informing the snipers and they forgot to call in the armored vehicles that got caught in an extra hour’s worth of traffic, stuck behind spectators, while a shootout was going on. In the end, three terrorists were detained, but they never faced trial. A Lufthansa plane was hijacked a few months later. It happened to be mostly empty, no women or children passengers, and the hijackers demands were only to have the three terrorists turned over to them and sent to Libya. In his interview, the only living terrorist revealed that the whole thing was an act by the German government to make a deal so that they wouldn’t be at risk for future attacks from the group. In the post-script we learn that two of those released terrorists were hunted down and killed and the only one surviving was living anonymously with his family somewhere in Africa. Hunted down and killed? That sounds like a movie all to itself…
Steven Speilberg’s Munich tells the story of Isreali assassins tasked with finding and killing the perpetrators of the attack while showing dramatizations of the hostage taking and murders throughout the story as though they are haunting the Eric Bana character. The team carries out assassinations of people involved in the Black September attack while the Black September group that was involved is almost completely killed off and the organization merges into something more international than the PLO. Bana’s character later learns that many of his targets were not connected to the attack but were involved in other attacks. Most of the Isreali team was killed off and their killings inspired retaliations of many more attacks and hijackings. They weren’t evening the score, they were extending the tit for tat. Speilberg’s movie finds that revenge killings may punish wrongdoers but they also make good people do bad acts and they are either scarred from their actions, or no longer good themselves. Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds supposes a world where Jewish soldiers are able to fulfill a fantasy of getting revenge for World War II, and Munich shows that in similar real world revenge, healing doesn’t just become harder, new wounds are opened up.
One of the best classes I took in undergrad was a class on the history of terrorism. The Munich games of '72 was a key moment that kind of kicked things off for a generation of international terrorists. The tactics for dealing with terrorism changed because of Munich, and the motives of perpetrators, kinds of attacks and kinds of responses to terrorism all changed with the first bombing of the World Trade Center and 9/11. This is much more than just a chapter in history, the lessons are way too necessary today than they were even a month ago.