A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Munich” (2005) – The 15th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: A 15th Anniversary Celebration Of “Munich”. In 2005 the legend himself Steven Spielberg, released two movies only months apart. His global box office summer blockbuster “War Of The Worlds” and his criminally under seen masterpiece “Munich”. Based on the true story of the 1972 Summer Olympics that saw the Palestinian Black September terrorist organization kill and take hostage eleven Israeli athletes, coaches and officials in their apartments. Spielberg’s film shows the aftermath, of the five men chosen to eliminate everyone responsible for that fateful day. Spielberg takes one of the boldest and most aggressive assassination plots in modern history and presents it in a taut, tense, vivid detail that takes audiences into a hidden moment in history. At nearly three hours long, Spielberg tells the true story through the realms of several genres including the tone of a spy thriller (it plays almost like a John le Carré novel) and never forgets to give us both a human drama, with human emotion. Learn all of the secrets of the films production, the period accurate detail and how Spielberg used a then new technique called “skip bleach”. While “Munich” was one of Spielberg’s lowest grossing films, it managed to get 5 Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture & Director). It even sparked controversy as being called an attack on the Palestinians and Spielberg being rebuked as “no friend of Israel”. His direction echoes some of the classic paranoid thrillers of the ’70s. He doesn’t shy away from the violence, making it as extreme and disgusting as it should be. It’s suspenseful, efficient, absorbing, effective, thought provoking, relevant, incendiary and important. Films like “Munich” is proof why he is one of the defining game changing filmmakers in the business. It’s brilliant, masterful and the reason why movies get to be called masterpieces.

Part 1: The 1972 Olympics

The 1972 Summer Olympics were only the second Summer Olympics to be held in Germany, after the 1936 Games which had taken place under the Nazi regime. The West German Government had been eager to have the Munich Olympics present a democratic and optimistic Germany to the world, as to be proven by the Games’ official motto, “Die Heiteren Spiele”, meaning “The Cheerful Games”.

The 72 Olympics were largely overshadowed by what has come to be known as the “Munich massacre”. Just before dawn on September 5, a group of eight members of the Palestinian Black September terrorist organization broke into the Olympic Village and took eleven Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage in their apartments. Two of the hostages who resisted were killed in the first moments of the break-in; while the subsequent standoff in the Olympic Village lasted for almost 21hours.

Late in the evening that same day, the terrorists and their nine remaining hostages were transferred by helicopter to the military airport of Fürstenfeldbruck, ostensibly to board a plane bound for an undetermined Arab country. The German authorities planned to ambush them there, but underestimated the numbers of their opposition and were thus undermanned. During a botched rescue attempt, all of the Israeli hostages were killed. Four of them were shot, then incinerated when one of the terrorists detonated a grenade inside the helicopter in which the hostages were sitting. The 5 remaining hostages were then gunned down.

All but three of the terrorists were killed. Although they were arrested and imprisoned pending trial, they were released by the West German government on October 29th 1972, in exchange for a hijacked Lufthansa jet. Two of those three were supposedly hunted down and assassinated later by the Mossad. Jamal Al-Gashey, who was believed to be the sole survivor, had lived and went into hiding in an unspecified African country with his wife and two children. The Olympic events were suspended several hours after the initial attack, but once the incident was concluded, Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee president had declared that “the Games must go on”. 

A memorial ceremony was held in the Olympic stadium and the competitions resumed after being held off for 34 hours. The attack prompted heightened security at subsequent Olympics beginning with the 1976 Winter Olympics. Security at the Olympics was heightened even further beginning with the 2002 Winter Olympics, as they were the first to take place after the 2001 September 11 attacks.

The massacre led the German federal government to re-examine its anti-terrorism policies, which at the time were dominated by a pacifist approach adopted after World War II. This led to the creation of the elite counter-terrorist unit GSG 9, similar to the British SAS. It also led Israel to launch a campaign known as “Operation Wrath of God”, in which those suspected of involvement were systematically tracked down and assassinated. This was the basis for Steven Spielberg’s “Munich”. 

Part 2: Development 

At the center of the story is the young Israeli patriot and intelligence officer Avner (Eric Bana). Still mourning the Munich massacre and infuriated by its savagery, Avner is approached by a Mossad officer named Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) who presents him with an unprecedented mission in Israeli history. He asks Avner to leave behind his pregnant wife, relinquish his identity and go completely underground on a mission called, “Operation Wrath of God” to hunt down and kill the 11 men accused by Israeli intelligence of masterminding the murders at Munich.

Despite his youth and inexperience, Avner soon becomes the leader of a team of four very diverse yet highly skilled recruits: the brash, tough, South African-born getaway driver, Steve (Daniel Craig); the German Jew Hans (Hanns Zischler), who has a flair for forging documents; the Belgian toymaker-turned-explosives-expert, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz); and the quiet, methodical Carl (Ciaran Hinds), whose job is to “clean up” after the others.

From Geneva to Frankfurt, Rome, Paris, Cyprus, London and Beirut, Avner and his team circle the globe under a cloak of extreme secrecy, tracking down each man on a closely guarded list of targets and carrying out intricately plotted assassinations, one by one. Working outside the rubric of international law, adrift without home or family, their only connection to humanity becomes one another. But even that starts to fray as the four men begin to argue among themselves about the unsettling questions that just won’t go away: Who exactly are we killing? Can it be justified? And will it stop the terror?

“Munich” would mark Spielberg’s 25th feature film. The 2005 based on a true story thriller came at the height of Spielberg’s creative peak during the 2000’s. Starting with 2001’s “AI: Artificial Intelligence”, 2002’s “Minority Report” and “Catch Me If You Can”, 2004’s “The Terminal” and then 2005 saw both “War Of The Worlds” and finally “Munich”, released only a matter of months apart. 

The master filmmaker takes one of the boldest and most aggressive assassination plots in modern history and presents it in a taut, tense, vivid detail that takes audiences into a hidden moment in history. The “Operation Wrath of God” is still considered controversial and is a heavily debated targeted assassination program that would ultimately have killed at least 13 men without prosecution or trial.

For film producer Barry Mendel, the events of Munich were always a vivid, harrowing memory for him. The more he learned about the event, the more it haunted him and is why he began to envision in setting up a suspense thriller about the “Operation Wrath Of God” assassinations. Barry Mendel recalls the events of the day, saying “I remember Mark Spitz winning all those medals and the next morning we woke up, turned on the Olympics and there was Jim McKay telling everyone what had happened. And that was it. My whole family was suddenly riveted to the TV. We spent the whole day together watching the events unfold and it was something I knew the world would never forget”.

Mendel tried to develop the project for four years. Spielberg’s frequent collaborator and producer Kathleen Kennedy heard about the project from Mendel, with whom she had previously worked on the M. Night Shyamalan thriller with, “The Sixth Sense”. Kennedy had brought the story to Spielberg, who decided to take on the project fresh off the heels of his apocalyptic blockbuster “War of the Worlds”.

Kennedy felt the story was an ideal match for Spielberg and she was right. Spielberg is eclectic and always has that focused storytelling power. Kennedy said “Steven has the facility to be such a great storyteller and with a piece of material like this and a subject matter that carries so much importance, I became very excited by the possibilities. I couldn’t think of anybody better suited to this story”. 

Kennedy continued “Today, we’re bombarded with so much information and there are so many events happening on a daily basis, I think that to really go back in history and get perspective is something that storytellers and filmmakers can do-in order to make sure that we don’t forget where we have been. I think that’s an important reason why Steven decided to do this movie. It’s an event that sheds light on a lot of current events and it allows us to step back and ask what happened 33 years ago and what did we learn from it? At the same time, it is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that would be compelling, even it weren’t based on truth”.

Spielberg had previously explored resonant moments in history with such epic films as “Empire of the Sun”, “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”, just to name a few. Much like actor and director Ron Howard, Spielberg is a real storyteller who loves to tell stories about people and has a real gift for telling true stories. I have to agree with Kennedy who had roughly stated, that Spielberg was an ideal choice to direct “Munich”.

With any event like this, the story of Munich also seemed to raise vital questions about the world. This is what partly drew Spielberg to explore the now (in 2020) 48 year-old event in a human detail. During the press tour for “Munich”, Spielberg also recalled his own intense memories of 1972, saying “I remember exactly where I was, the television set I was watching it on and how I was watching-like everybody else, when this incident took place. It made an indelible impression on me and I think that impression was redoubled years later when I saw the documentary ‘One Day in September’”. 

Spielberg the skilled filmmaker he is, saw  a way to tell the story in the realms of several genres through suspense, the tone of a spy thriller (it plays almost like a John le Carré novel) and in both human drama and with human emotion. But in typical Spielberg fashion, he became intrigued by a question that had never been publicly addressed about the mission: How did the covert mission affect the men who were assigned to carry it out? 

Part 3: The Screenplay

To explore those questions, Spielberg hired Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner to work on the screenplay after screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump” and “The Insider”) wrote a draft that was inspired by the book “Vengeance” by Canadian journalist George Jonas.

Kushner met with producer Kathleen Kennedy and was intrigued by the concept for “Munich” that she presented to him. “I saw that what they were proposing was a very murky, problematic and complicated story not about the massacre itself, but about the aftermath and about the policy of targeted assassination and I became very interested”, Kushner recalls. At first Kushner simply wrote notes for Spielberg on the existing screenplay, declining to give a try to a feature film. Spielberg relentlessly pursued him and Kushner accepted the challenge.

For Spielberg, Kushner’s participation was key. “I wasn’t really sure I was going to make ‘Munich’ until I began reading Tony’s words and then everything immediately coalesced for me”, says Spielberg. Kathleen Kennedy added, “I think Steven felt he was now in a creative partnership with someone who really understood the complexity of these issues. He knew he was on the way to having a screenplay he would feel comfortable shooting”.

Kushner who also lived through the 1972 Olympics, he used his own memories that he drew upon as he began the movie. “It was a transformative moment. I was 17 years old and it was a very stark thing for me and my family. It was heartbreaking and devastating. I remember a lot of anger in America and especially a great deal of rage that the situation had been blown so badly”. Kushner approached the story with as much of a blank slate as possible. Kushner came at the film without just one singular point of view and tried to answer the more provocative questions. 

“It’s a story filled with paradoxes and contradictions. It’s also a story about a covert operation, so nothing is entirely known for sure and most likely nothing ever will be. So, we gave ourselves some permission to invent and to deal with these characters on a more human level. I feel we have created a very scrupulous piece of what I would call historical fiction”, said Kushner. 

Keeping the protagonists in a humanized form, was a challenge for Kushner. “I always like to do difficult things. And the big difficulty of writing this story, was made clear from the beginning that our protagonists, are five guys who are assassinating people. So they had to be plausible as secret agents, not in the James Bond sense, but in the sense of real field operatives working for an intelligence agency and at the same time, there is this question of, `Who are these guys really?’ So what was fascinating for me was calibrating these characters, especially Eric Bana’s character”. 

“I like the simplicity of it because I think this is a film that starts with a stark, historical fact and then it shows that there’s nothing simple about it at all and that all the certainties that might seem to surround it can also be questioned”, Kushner explains. “There’s also an immense resonance to the name Munich. It’s the birthplace of Nazism and of the Munich of 1972, all at once. It has a kind of iron ring that seems appropriate to the relevance of the story”.

Kushner was excited to see where Spielberg would take the story once the cameras started rolling. “No one does suspense better than Steven,” he comments. “In all of his films you know you will be put directly in the middle of what’s happening. The interesting thing is that inside this suspense thriller, you also get pulled intellectually into questions that lead into even more questions. I think he found a way to blend an amalgam of various forms that will make for a very interesting film”.

Spielberg had a definitively clear vision of the story, so much so that there were no storyboards made for the film. He worked in a spontaneous manner, seeing the needs of each scene as they unfolded before him on set. The way Spielberg was working on set, it became a collaborative one for both the cast and crew. Future James Bond star Daniel Craig, who plays one of the hit men, said “Steven was absolutely fluid in his directing style. He would see something happening and immediately try to take advantage of it, which is a very exciting way to work. It’s also very scary. But if you’re going to be in that situation, it’s good to be doing it with Steven Spielberg, because he brings such a wealth of knowledge about every aspect of cinema to the process”. 

Part 4: The Casting

Casting director Jina Jay began an international search for actors to play the nearly 200 parts. Armed with only a general description of the film’s story and the promise of working with the legendary Steven Spielberg, Jina Jay traveled the globe looking for fresh and interesting faces. Throughout her search, her focus was to carve out real characters, rather than relying on high profile actors to drive the film’s story. Not to say that there isn’t star power in the film. 

Steven Spielberg said, “There are more speaking parts in this film than any I’ve ever directed, including ‘Catch Me If You Can’. Having this many characters in a multi-layered story that spans a couple of years and numerous countries, it was very important to me that even the smallest character be as interesting as the most central character. This story portrays a very painful and tragic part of our collective history, and I wanted to have an amazing ensemble to tell it”. An amazing ensemble it is! 

“We were helped and facilitated by wonderful casting contacts all over the world”, says casting director Jina Jay. The casting brought together actors from diverse places as Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Albania, Austria, France, Germany, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, the U.K., the U.S., Canada, Japan and as well as local actors from both Malta and Hungary (where the film was primarily shot).

The core of the casting lay in finding the hit squad itself-the five utterly diverse men who, in the wake of the hostage massacre at the 1972 Olympics, agree to upend their personal lives, give up their former identities and take on an unimaginably perilous undercover mission on behalf of Israel.

Spielberg had a vision of what he was looking for in each of the main leads. “I felt it was very important not just to find different looks for each of the five men, but also to find five different acting styles, five different accents, five very unique personalities”, says Spielberg. The leader of the group, Avner is also its youngest member and the only native Israeli. Avner is intensely devoted to his country, but has never had to kill someone before this mission. 

To play Avner, Spielberg had in mind actor Eric Bana, who up to that point had “Black Hawk Down” and “Troy” to his credit. But the film that caught Spielberg’s attention was the less than stellar Ang Lee’s adaptation of “Hulk”. What attracted Spielberg to Bana’s performance in “Hulk” was this…”When I saw him in ‘Hulk’, I saw a warmth and a strength and even a little trickle of fear behind his eyes, which I think makes him very human. I was very determined that I was going to humanize the character of Avner in this story, so Eric was my first choice from the outset”.

Bana who was in Los Angeles finishing his role in Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” with Brad Pitt, in the fall of 2003 when he got the call that Steven Spielberg wanted to see him. After meeting Spielberg on the set of the Tom Hanks film “The Terminal”, Bana was taken aback to learn that Spielberg wanted him to take the lead role. “I was shocked and surprised and thrilled and scared, of course”, says Bana.

Even though he was born and raised in Australia, like many of the cast and crew he had his own very personal experience of the Munich Olympics. He noted, “I was only four or five at the time, but I always remembered some of the images and it was a story that became very familiar to me through the years. It’s an event that keeps coming back at you, because it still seems so current”. 

Bana started to research the role intensively, reading about the incident in Munich, life as a Mossad agent and the complex history of the Middle East conflict. As he did so, he became intrigued by Avner’s personal crisis as the mission begins to shake his very foundations. “Avner goes through a real evolution,” Bana observes. “He starts out as someone who is obviously very angry about what occurred in Munich. Then he becomes a young man who is given a truly overwhelming task and has to learn very quickly how to lead. He initially questions what the team is doing, but then something interesting happens: he hardens. As the rest of the group is softening in their resolve, we see Avner do the opposite. But by the end of the movie, we see him becoming more and more torn about the journey he’s been on and what he’s allowed himself to become”.

Bana enjoyed the close friendships that developed on the set between the five actors playing the members of the assassination squad. The five stars, each hailed from different countries and backgrounds, arrived together early in Malta and soon formed a tight-knit connection that surprised even them. “I hope that unique camaraderie really comes across, because it was 100 percent genuine”, Bana says. “We all came from different parts of the world and had very different points of view and we’d get into all kinds of amazing discussions, but we also really respected one another. It was really cool to experience this”. 

British actor Daniel Craig had just come off his 2004 international hit “Layer Cake”. Around the time of “Munich”, Craig made global headlines when he was announced to take over the role of the legendary 007 in 2006’s “Casino Royale”. The British born Daniel Craig, is the group’s toughest, bravest and most unwavering member. “Steve is a character who, on face value, seems to be very strong and very in control of his destiny. Like all the guys, he believes in this job because he believes in Israel. He believes some action has to be taken because of this terrible act at Munich”. 

“And he’s someone who has always dealt with life like a bull in a china shop, he just dives in headfirst and deals with the consequences later. So Steve at first is very gung ho, but as the movie goes on, he suffers because of the terrible acts that they commit. And that’s what interested me so much about doing the film; he’s a flawed character, and he doesn’t expect to feel the emotional turmoil he starts feeling” says Craig.

Craig was too young to remember watching the 1972 Olympics, but he has been aware of the events that took place. “I think the repercussions of that time have really molded all of our lives”, he says. “It was a kind of worldwide end of innocence and we’re still dealing with the consequences of that. It’s one of the most significant events of the 20th century and I think Munich finally puts a human face onto it”. 

While Craig is an Englishman playing a South African. French actor and filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz (director of the excellent thriller “The Crimson Rivers”) plays Robert, the Belgian member of the team. A talented toymaker, Robert is equally skilled at building deadly explosive devices. An accomplished filmmaker, Kassovitz had retired from acting, telling his agent not to call him about acting jobs unless it was for Spielberg. Kassovitz comments, “I was blown away by the screenplay and by the structure of it, by the subtlety, by the intelligence, by the power and the guts. I think it’s a very smart movie about the concept of vengeance itself”. 

Kassovitz continues, “Robert is an interesting character, because like all the characters in the group, he is not a trained killer. He’s more somebody who is committed to the cause of Israel and therefore believes he is ready to fight for his land and his beliefs. He joined the army during the Six Day War and because he’s a toymaker and very good with tiny mechanics, he became a bomb dismantler. But it isn’t easy for him”. Kassovitz’s Robert becomes more emotionally unhinged than the others by the brutal nature of the job facing them. He went on to say “He is a little more sensitive. He can’t always cope with the violence. Even if he’s part of the mission, there are things he can’t quite bring himself to do”. 

Rounding out the five leads is the meticulous, organized and cautious Carl, played by veteran Irish actor Ciaran Hinds. “These five guys are all very disparate, with different ages, different backgrounds, different upbringings. Some have been raised in Europe and some in Israel. And they’ve been purposely selected for their different qualities. Within this group, Carl is the one who wants to be absolutely specific that the targets are clean, that there’s no collateral damage, that nobody innocent gets hurt. He truly believes there is a right way to do the job, no matter how awful it is”, says Hinds.

Growing up in Belfast, where political turmoil was constant, Hinds saw the events of the 1972 Olympics as part of an entire world in disarray. “I was quite sporty when I was young so I always watched the Olympics. Due to what was happening in Northern Ireland, I was very aware of this kind of violence as a global thing. Because of this, the whole idea of Munich was very interesting to me. It has a way of looking at history that isn’t black and white. I think Steven presents a story that asks a lot of questions but doesn’t serve the answers up on a plate and that is very important”. 

The 5 men is only allowed official contact with their mysterious case officer Ephraim. To play the role of Ephraim, is Australian Academy Award-winner Geoffrey Rush. “Tony Kushner is a great dramatist and he has focused in on the very complex workings of what makes this story such a significant piece of history. As you meet the character of Ephraim, you might think he’s just another fairly faceless bureaucrat, but in fact he becomes an unusual mentor to Avner as he goes through his very difficult trials as an assassin. Ephraim is like this ghostly figure that comes in out of nowhere to answer the big questions, whether moral or otherwise”.

The entire conception of the film was of great interest to Rush, who remembers watching the Munich massacre on television at age 21 in Australia. “I saw Munich as an international espionage thriller that is based on very real and very relevant events and weaving through it all is a stimulating debate as these characters undergo a harrowing journey of self-revelation”. In his research for the role, Rush found far more than he expected, saying “We ended up meeting people who were able to offer a tremendous amount of advice and anecdotes and history. I felt it was really my responsibility to enrich the character with as much cultural detail as I could”. 

Part 5: Filming

To capture the visual style of “Munich”, Steven Spielberg turned to his longtime collaborator, the two-time Academy Award-winning (both Oscars won for Spielberg films) cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has worked with Spielberg on eighteen previous films. Kaminski, a Polish teenager in 1972, had watched the events of Munich from a somewhat different perspective-through the veil of the Iron Curtain. Kaminski says, “In Poland it was seen of course as a tragic event, as it was all over the world,” he says, “but the news that we got through official sources indicated a certain bias”.

Kaminski believes that one of the most fascinating elements of the events surrounding Munich is that nearly everybody has both a uniquely personal memory of it. “We all have our own experience with this event”, he says. “Even if you weren’t born yet, you’ve seen bits of it on television or in history books. Or you’ve been introduced to it through recent events. But whichever way you come at it, it is very relevant”. 

Kaminski applied the same usual work ethic whenever he works on a Steven Spielberg movie. Kaminski shoots a series of photographic tests to find a look that both he and Spielberg feel that best suite the intense mood and suspenseful structure of the film. “Steven and I are at a point in our relationship right now that we have to discuss things very little”, Kaminski notes. “He knows and trusts my judgment and I know his aesthetic sense very well. We converse a little, mostly about what we really shouldn’t do, but pretty much the visual style is left for me to determine. So I went to Paris in 2004 and started experimenting with various color schemes, various filters, various lenses, various lighting and various chemical processes”. 

Kaminski further developed the film’s visual style, by giving each country depicted in the movie a different look. “There are 8 different countries in the film, and I decided to give each a different look, very subtly, and each with a somewhat different color palette. This way each country has its own individuality, even though most of them were shot in Malta and Hungary. So everything that happens in the Middle East is more colorful, warmer, sunnier. But once we leave that part of the world for Paris, Frankfurt, London and Rome the colors become cooler and more de-saturated. And each of those European cities have their own character and colors”. 

Kaminski points out that for the scenes in Cyprus he emphasizes more vibrant, sun-baked yellow tones, while in Athens the color palette veers towards Aegean blues and then in Paris, the palette becomes much softer with an ambience of rainy skies. The lighting also shifts in the film, starting with a friendlier tone as the hit squad first gets to know one another at an intimate dinner and moving to a harsher photo-chemical process that’s full of darker shadows reflecting the characters’ inner turmoil as their mission becomes more frightening and filled with doubt. 

Even each of the assassinations is shot in a unique manner, which is how Spielberg had envisioned the film unfolding. “I wanted every assassination to be different, because as the team experiences each one, their views about what they’re doing change, the group dynamics shift, they change their feelings about themselves and each other, and there’s more and more stress, anxiety and pressure”, Spielberg explains. “So each of the missions has its own personal character”. 

To achieve a 70’s style of filmmaking, Spielberg’s choice of lenses was influenced by what they used in the ’70s. “Steven insisted, rightfully, that we use zoom lenses”, Kaminski notes. “He felt that ’70s cinema was so full of zooms that if you start zooming in and out you’re allowing the viewers to feel like they’re watching a film made in that time. It’s a very effective way of creating the sense of period”. Kaminski cited ‘70s thrillers such as “The French Connection”, “Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor” as inspirations for “Munich”.

As with any movie of this caliber is in recreating the real event. That was Kaminski’s biggest challenge for “Munich”, in re-creating the Olympic hostage situation with accuracy and riveting it with tension. Scenes from the Munich Olympics open the film but are then revealed in much greater detail through flashback sequences that form dramatic re-creations of the events mixed in with vintage documentary footage.

Spielberg felt that the flashback sequences would keep the emotional motivation behind all the events palpable throughout the film. “I felt there needed to be a constant reminder of what this story is hinging on, lest we forget what started this round of blood-for-blood”, he notes.

But shooting the re-creations was very emotional and wrenching. “You can imagine how difficult it was,” he says. “I hired Arab actors to play the Palestinians and Israelis to play Israelis… and they took it very much to heart. It was a very emotional catharsis and I wasn’t thinking so much of technique as I was about just holding this cast and crew together and keeping everybody on an even keel. It was a rugged couple of weeks.”

For the opening sequence, Kaminski focused on a searing, unadorned realism-“it’s a little bit flat, almost void of color,” he explains-but for the flashbacks he used a process known as “skip bleach” (most notably seen in the Jake Gyllenhaal war film “Jarhead”) which gives a harsh, grainy, color-saturated appearance to the scenes. “The flashbacks are darker, grainier, more foreboding. I wanted them to feel quite different from the present time”, Kaminski explains. Spielberg adds, “The bleach bypass is particularly effective in this film because it is inter-cut with the rosy grace notes of more standard lighting and set-ups. It tells you that you’re going somewhere else, inside Avner’s head and back into the past”. 

While “Schindler’s List” was a different kind of violent. Spielberg’s “Munich” is probably his most violent film alongside “Saving Private Ryan”. Kaminski understood that Spielberg didn’t want to hide any of the brutal nature of the events involved. “I think in this film, violence is purposely presented to the audience without any abstractions”, he says. “If you think of ‘Saving Private Ryan’, that movie was also extremely graphic but the audience realized it was there to convey the tragedy, the horror of those historical events”. 

Kaminski continues: “I think this is a movie that tries to deal with a very serious subject in a mature and objective way. But it’s also a suspenseful movie, so that also created a very important need to stage the scenes in an unusual way. The way Steven created certain scenes was really amazing because he can convey suspense in just three shots. He uses zooms, he uses reflections, he uses extensive blocking, he uses cars wiping the frame revealing another portion of the scene. He’s a very skillful director when it comes to the camera”.

Part 6: Design

Munich takes place across 14 European and Middle Eastern countries in the course of the story, from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt, from Haifa to Paris, all during the early ’70s. Shot entirely on location, the film required the creation of more than 120 sets, so it was essential the filmmakers find a home base that could offer them a variety of looks and landscapes. Spielberg and his Academy Award-nominated production designer Rick Carter had found nearly everything they needed within the borders of two of the newest members of the European Union: the Eastern European nation of Hungary and the Mediterranean island of Malta. 

Malta provided locations that could accurately double for all the Mediterranean and Middle East locales, while Hungary provided an ideal setting for the more than the half a dozen different Northern European cities. Malta which is a small island off the coast of Sicily, stands at the crossroads between Southern Europe and Northern Africa. It has found itself wrapped up in many historical events, including: the wars of Rome to the battles of the Crusades to the Cold War. For the film, Malta was able to double for Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon, Greece, Italy, Palestine and Spain all with production designer Rick Carter having to build some 40 sets there.

Malta was used because of it’s Mediterranean culture that allowed Spielberg and his team to find areas that look like southern European locations in one spot and areas that look like Israel or Beirut in another. Production designer Rick Carter explains “It actually gave us a way to visually divide the movie between the look of the hot, sunny, southern landscapes and the very different palette of the Northern European locations”.

The production moved to Budapest, the beautiful, architecturally rich city on the river Danube. These environs provided Carter and his team with locations they could transform into a London street, a boulevard in Paris, a houseboat in Hoorn, a café in Rome and a small country shack in Belgium. 

While in real time it takes hours to travel from Rome to Paris by car, DP Rick Carter was able to make a similar journey in only a few minutes right in Budapest. “This one street in Budapest (Andrassy Boulevard), across from the Opera House was the best Paris-looking location that we could find. What was interesting is that literally half a block away was the best Rome!”, Carter commented.

Not only did the two countries provide a variety of landscapes, they also provided a window back into time. As Carter explains, “The story takes place in the ’70s, which was still the post-WWII era, when there was a lot more grime and grit on the streets of Paris and London. Budapest is in its post-Communist state right now, so it shares some similarities with a Western Europe still coming back from the war in the early ’70s. In Budapest, we were able to find the look of 30 years ago”. To prepare for the shoot and get more hands on, Carter actually traveled to each of the cities where the assassinations took place, giving him a richer sense of what he was trying to re-create. 

In keeping with the film’s overall design themes, Carter’s color palette switched repeatedly, as scenes moved from one country to the next. However, he did have one consistent metaphorical color in mind: “There is the presence of red throughout the movie just as a reminder, subliminally, of the blood that runs through the movie on both sides of the equation,” he comments.

While Malta and Hungary were the film’s primary locations, additional scenes were shot in the inimitable atmosphere of Paris. There was also another place for which Carter could find no double: New York City, the stirring skyline of which brings the film to a close and, in a sense, full circle. “In the quest to find a home, Avner eventually moves his wife and new baby to Brooklyn,” Carter explains, “which is like a new frontier, a place where he wants to start life over and leave everything he’s gone through behind him. We clearly couldn’t replicate that anywhere else, we had to go to New York”. 

Costume designer Joanna Johnston was also faced with a challenge in crafting five different looks for each of the men on the hit squad that would reflect their individual background, personality and age of each character. In addition to creating individual palettes, Johnston also forged geographic palettes for each country to match the work of DP Rick Carter. Johnston said “I used a lot of patterns and warm tones in Tel Aviv but the further north we went, the cooler and plainer the clothing became”, she notes. “Every country and city had an identification regarding its style and color. It was all very tightly choreographed”. 

Creating about 85 percent of the costumes from scratch with her team in Munich, Johnston emphasized a more European and less clichéd ’70s fashion aesthetic. “The cliché ’70s are wild and crazy, but in Europe they were beautiful, elegant in a way. Steven said to me that I made it look `sophisticated with a twist’”, Johnston recalls. “The costumes that Joanna has made are remarkable”, says “Munich” star Ciaran Hinds, “Because she’s not defined just who these men are, but somehow has given a sense of how they think as well”.

“Rick Carter and Joanna Johnston did an absolutely remarkable job capturing the time and setting for this movie”, producer Kathleen Kennedy says. “Their work comes through in a very understated, authentic way that strongly emphasizes the realism that Steven wanted to bring to the story. More than anything, I think that much like ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Steven wanted to capture a sense that this isn’t just a movie but a story that is based on something that really happened. If the film gets people around the world engaged in discussion, then I think we’ve succeeded”. 

Part 7: The Films Legacy

“Munich” received five Oscar nominations that includes: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Score. The film made $130 million worldwide but just $47 million in the United States, making it one of Spielberg’s lowest-grossing films domestically. In 2017, the film was named the 16th “Best Film of the 21st Century So Far” by The New York Times. 

Steven Spielberg’s “Munich”, has been called an attack on the Palestinians and he has been rebuked as “no friend of Israel”. Spielberg unfolds his film in three separate realms: the public events of the Munich Olympics, the extremely secretive and shadow-laden world of the Mossad and its unacknowledged hit squad of the five diverse assassins themselves. Spielberg’s vision, confidence and his love for cinema with his years of experience, allows him to direct “Munich” with a somewhat different approach from his previous films.

Spielberg’s masterful direction echoes some of the classic paranoid thrillers of the ’70s. He doesn’t shy away from the violence, making it as extreme and disgusting as it should be. It’s suspenseful, efficient, absorbing, effective, thought provoking, relevant, incendiary and important. Spielberg added yet another masterpiece to his legendary career. Films like “Munich” is proof why he is one of the defining game changing filmmakers in the business. “Munich” is brilliant, masterful and the reason why movies get to be called masterpieces. It is still one of Spielberg’s ten finest films. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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