1972. The Munich Olympic Games. 121 Nations. 7,123 Competitors. Over a billion viewers…and 8 Palestinian Terrorists.
A friend of mine once explained to me the difference between a "movie" and a "film." To him the difference was simple: a film teaches us something. Using his definition, One Day in September is a film of the finest kind. It not only conveys information, the dry facts and figures of the events, but also their full emotional weight. In the process it holds the viewer spellbound, a feat few documentaries can manage.
Facts of the Case
The film starts innocently, with promotional footage that must surely have been commissioned by the Munich tourism bureau. The footage has a na&239;ve, travelogue feel and seems a product of a simpler time, seems much older than it really is. We are treated to images of the scenery, architecture, cultural richness of the city and its attractive, friendly inhabitants. As the piece closes, the narrator wishes all a hearty "Willkommen!" to Munich, considered to be "a German paradise."
It is with this sense of warmth and optimism that West Germany welcomed the games of the Twentieth Olympiad to Munich in 1972. The German hosts were at pains to show a kinder, gentler, democratic Germany, a country that had exorcised its demons and repented of the horrors it inflicted a mere thirty years previous. Here, in the city that gave birth to National Socialism, the Germans would attempt to erase the world's distasteful memories of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and their use as a propaganda tool for the Third Reich.
These 1972 games held a special meaning for the Israeli participants as well, a significance that also grew out of the events of the first half of the twentieth century. It was a chance to return to Germany, to Munich itself, and to march in the opening ceremonies under the Israeli flag bearing the Star of David. It was a chance to show the Germans and the world that the Jewish people were the equal of anyone, and that they had survived. A memorial service at Dachau, a mere six miles from the Olympic stadium, underscored the symbolism of these games for the Israelis and their hosts alike.
In their efforts to present the new face of Germany, the German government took an incredibly lax view towards security for the games. Fearing that the sight of German police officers would make people nervous and evoke memories of militarism, the Olympic organizers instead commissioned a force of non-threatening, unarmed security guards, dressed in specially designed baby blue uniforms that must be seen to be believed. Uniformed or armed police were barred from the Olympic sites, including the Olympic village where the athletes were quartered.
In the early morning hours of September 5, eight Palestinian terrorists posing as athletes snuck into the Olympic village, climbing over the fence with the unwitting help of a group of American athletes who were returning from a night on the town well after their curfew. These men made their way to the apartments where the Israeli contingent was housed, and stormed in with machineguns. They took eleven athletes and coaches hostage, demanding that Israel and Germany release over 200 "political" prisoners. If their outlandish demands were not met, they would kill the hostages.
The ensuing drama played out live on television screens around the world, unfolding minute by agonizing minute, narrated by commentators who had gone to Germany expecting to cover sporting events, not a major world crisis. The drama, the terror, and the dread of these events are captured forever in Kevin MacDonald's One Day in September.
I have no firsthand knowledge of the events of September, 1972; it would be another three months before I was even born. This being the case, I cannot help but feel that I am part of the perfect audience for this film. I had heard vague references to these events before, but I had never known exactly what had happened, or what the final outcome had been. I was able to hold out a shred of hope that there might be some glimmer of a happy ending, however small, no matter how much the tone and tempo of the film told me otherwise. When the end finally came, I felt much the way people all over the world must have felt watching these events unfold on television.
But in truth, this experience is probably more whole, more complete than watching it live on television. It is more concentrated and visceral in its impact, as we see things that television viewers at the time could not have seen. We are treated to interviews with relatives of the murdered athletes, their wives and children. The bulk of this material is provided by Ankie Spitzer, wife of slain fencing coach Andre Spitzer. We are given access to General Ulrich K. Wegener, who was part of the German effort to free the hostages. Perhaps most chillingly, we meet the lone surviving Palestinian terrorist, Jamal Al Gashey, face to face and hear his proud and unapologetic account of the events.
In a film full of shocking information, perhaps the most appalling revelations are those that show the gross ineptitude of the German government in dealing with the situation. The rest of the world was content to rely on the German reputation for ruthless efficiency to resolve the crisis; it quickly became apparent that such faith was misplaced. The Germans rejected Israeli offers to send a special Mossad strike team, but amazingly had no such unit of their own on which to rely. I watched, my mouth gaping, as the authorities tried a variety of methods to gain access to the prisoners, most of which seemed cribbed from the Marx brothers. I watched in horror as the events careened to their tragic conclusion through a series of tactical blunders. I watched in disbelief as I learned how the German government later staged the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet and used it as an excuse to free the surviving Munich terrorists without ever bringing them to trial.
Beginning with the promotional clip mentioned earlier, and continuing on through home movies and wedding photos and finally to the Olympics themselves, One Day in September starts slowly but soon builds into a cascade of information and emotion. Kevin MacDonald's construction of the film is fast-paced and brilliantly edited, weaving archival footage, new interview material, and even computer simulations into a seamless tale of horror. MacDonald is fond of montages set to music as a way to convey a particular mood. Early in the film we are treated to a masterful montage of Olympic events set to an electronic version of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" that captures the passion and excitement of the games perfectly, and reminds us of the reason we start watching the Olympics when we are young. Later on there are darker montages set to the classic rock of the era that convey a feeling of despair, of events spiraling out of control.
The picture quality is outstanding. Some of the source material is grainy or a bit faded, but MacDonald and his crew did an amazing job with the materials at hand; some of the footage looks like it could have come from CNN yesterday. Columbia TriStar's transfer of this material to DVD is outstanding. It is an anamorphic transfer in the original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Every frame is sharp and clear, with solid blacks, faithful colors, and no noticeable digital flaws. Columbia TriStar also did a great job with MacDonald's carefully constructed audio environment. The audio here is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. Every word is clear and easily understood, and the rear surrounds actually get quite a bit of use, for the musical tracks as well as directional sound effects of helicopters flying by and so forth.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are some who will criticize the makers of One Day in September for removing this event from its political underpinnings and insulating it from the context of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such critics seem to suggest that the actions of that fateful day in September, 1972 are somehow more understandable or even justifiable in the context of a "struggle" or a "cause." This is patent nonsense, and I am sickened by such apologists. The crimes committed in Munich in 1972 did not serve a military purpose or achieve any sort of strategic goal. It was murder in the name of ideology, effected for no other reason than the nationality of the victims. In this it is not far removed from the crimes that the Germans themselves were trying so hard to forget.
There is one area of the story that I wish had been developed more fully. There is a tantalizing statement early on in the film that seems to suggest East German cooperation in the terrorist plot. Apparently the leaders of the terrorist force were allowed by the East German team to gain access to the Olympic village in order to reconnoiter the layout and locations. Whether or not their assistance was intentional or unwitting is not clear. At any rate, it is mentioned only once and then forgotten.
One complaint about the disc itself; there seems to be an error in the titling. In order to see the normal titles at the bottom of the screen that would let the viewer know what is pictured or who is talking, it is necessary to turn on the English subtitles provided on the disc. This is a small inconvenience, but is slightly annoying. On the other hand, I watched the film with the subtitles on anyway, just to better understand what some of the interviewees with heavier accents were saying. I expect many American viewers will need to do likewise.
Extra content on this disc is skimpy. There are brief talent files for director MacDonald, producer Arthur Cohn, and narrator Michael Douglas. There are trailers for three other pictures under the Sony Pictures Classics banner. For those with DVD-ROM drives there is a direct link to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. That's it. I would have liked more, perhaps a brief profile on each of the slain athletes and each of the interviewees at the very least. On the other hand, One Day in September is so powerful by itself that perhaps it doesn't need a lot of extra features to get its message across.
One Day in September is a moving, gripping, horrifying, infuriating, heartbreaking experience. I felt emotionally drained after watching it. It is a record of a senseless act of inhumanity, and it brings the human consequences to the viewer in full force. Terrorism remains a disease of our times, almost thirty years after Munich. Anyone who lives in our present world owes it to himself to watch this film. Immediately.
One Day in September stands acquitted of any charges leveled against it. Columbia TriStar is acquitted as well, on the strength of the audio and video presentation. However, this court wishes they would have taken the time to include a bit more supplemental information on the DVD; One Day in September is certainly a film that warranted more effort.
After a moment of silence for the victims of senseless violence everywhere, we stand adjourned.
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