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An adroit balancing act

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A moral issue?: Eric Bana and Geoffrey Rush in Spielberg's
A moral issue?: Eric Bana and Geoffrey Rush in Spielberg's "Munich". Photo: AP

M.K. RAGHAVENDRA

"Munich" has all the elements required of a thriller. But why is it not constructed as such?

THE cinema from Hollywood concerning Jewish issues and history is, by itself, a huge category requiring study. It is now acknowledged that historical films are really vehicles through which the concerns of the present are projected back into the past and this is perhaps also true of the Judeo-Christian mythological. "The Ten Commandments" (1956), "Ben-Hur" (1959) and "King of Kings" (1961) appeared and spoke for the Jewish homeland at around the time of Israel's Suez War with Egypt, when it was isolated among its neighbours and looked to the West.

Underplaying differences

The three films are ostensibly about Christianity but they also go to great lengths to underplay the differences between Christians and Jews. Nicholas Ray's "King of Kings", for instance, informs us that King Herod was not Jewish actually, but Arab! The Holocaust film from Hollywood is, likewise, an argument for Israel's moral legitimacy rather than a simple depiction of the horrors of Nazism. Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (1993) or Polanski's "The Pianist" (2002) are more visceral in their cruelty than the earlier East European films - also about the Holocaust - like Jan Kadar's "Shop on the Main Street" (1965) although Eastern Europe and not Hollywood experienced Nazism at its most brutal. The Holocaust films from Hollywood are perhaps attempts to gloss over Israel's political conduct when it is becoming less and less defensible. (Israel's leaders also invoke the Holocaust to defend themselves and Ehud Olmert did just that on July 31 after Israel had bombed school children in Lebanon.) But whatever Hollywood's efforts may have been in support of Israel and its cause hitherto, its blockbusters must be commercially viable first, and they must be attentive to public sentiment. Israel as a cause emotionally spent is suggested by Steven Spielberg's "Munich" (2005). "Munich" was released in India several months ago and this is not a "review" of the film. It is, rather, a look at the curious way it is poised - one would have expected a Hollywood statement about the aftermath of the terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics to be more blatantly in favour of Israel. In the film, Avner (Eric Bana) is a Mossad agent entrusted with the task of hunting down and liquidating the 11 Palestinians suspected of having planned the Munich massacre, those taking part in the actual terrorist action having been killed already. Avner has a team composed of individuals with different attitudes towards their task. After a merciless operation lasting several years, the contrite Avner rejoins his wife and child - in Brooklyn, as if to suggest that Israel might not be the apt place for his compunctions! To those predisposed that Israel is on the side of righteousness, the film is about how combating a ruthless enemy and employing his methods can damage one's soul. But to those not so predisposed "Munich" appears, rather, a series of adroit balancing acts. The search and destroy mission of the protagonists does not stop at liquidating those planning Munich but includes others who are simply nominated the 'enemy'. If this is allowed, why isn't a similar argument from the PLO side - that the Israeli athletes were targeted because they were the 'enemy'? In another episode, a telephone bomb is planted in an apartment to kill a PLO operative but the mission is aborted when a little girl picks up the telephone. This is an apparent device to underline the assassins' concern for innocent lives. But, as if to render them more credible as murderers, their killing of a Dutch woman assassin hired by the opposite side is made highly sadistic. The film draws sympathy for Palestine by having Palestinians state their cause directly but uses ploys to help us identify with the Israeli viewpoint. A ruse, for instance, is to make Avner a sniper in Munich at the time of the massacre and recalling the event vividly time and again. This legitimises repeated flashbacks of the "original sin" so that each subsequent killing by the Mossad squad is rationalised.

Achieving "balance"

The way "Munich" achieves its "balance" perhaps points to the realisation that it is easier to draw sympathy for the Palestinians than for the Israelis, who must be satisfied with the empathy that Hollywood's heroes summon up for them. Sympathy and empathy may appear the same but sympathy is sharing an emotion while empathy is merely projecting oneself into someone else.The representation of Israelis by white Hollywood stars also has significance although Spielberg did not intend this. Israel's moral plank has always been its opposition to "anti-Semitism". But when white actors represent Israelis - and are accepted as such - and Arabs and Palestinians are played only by their own kind, it is an admission that the conflict in the Middle East is actually between Whites (claiming Semitic status) and true Semites. In India, Israel might be like a person with a false caste certificate arguing vociferously for reservation.

Oppositional readings

Since "Munich" has all the elements required of a thriller - a dastardly crime followed by vengeance - why it isn't constructed as such? John Frankenheimer's "Black Sunday" (1977) was also about the Mossad and Black September and structured explicitly as an adventure film. Media theorists argue that texts are not always read in the "preferred" way and there could also be "oppositional" readings - readings different from the intended one. To illustrate, a black African watching a Tarzan film among white Europeans may not react as they do. A suspect who has undergone police torture may also read a police thriller in an unintended way. I believe it will be difficult to construct an adventure film today about the Mossad and the Palestinians as in 1977 because too much is publicly known about Israel's policies. Extending the argument, can we not say that public awareness of the Holocaust film being misused for Israel will also prevent it from guaranteeing the emotional responses it once did? E-mail: mkragh@bgl.vsnl.net.in


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