Let the games begin
Friday 27 January 2006
Steven Spielberg's Munich arrives here after sustaining a hefty barrage of international flak, and the fact that it has alienated both Israeli and Palestinian commentators suggests that the director must have done something right. It is certainly a bold film for him to have made: Nazis and dinosaurs are (we hope) a thing of the past, but terrorists - or, if you prefer, freedom fighters - are an ever-present in today's headlines, and the merest hint that someone of Spielberg's stature is "taking sides" would always be likely to provoke howls of execration.
The film begins with the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes by the terrorist cell Black September at the 1972 Munich Olympics, but its real subject unfolds in the aftermath. A revenge hit squad is assembled and, under the aegis of the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, is dispatched to Europe to hunt down and execute those allegedly responsible for the massacre. The squad leader, a young man named Avner (Eric Bana), is forcefully reminded that his mission is so hush-hush that even Mossad won't admit its existence - though he must make sure to get receipts for everything. The provisional, makeshift nature of the operation is reflected in Avner's motley band of recruits, who include Ciaran Hinds in thick specs and porkpie hat, and Daniel Craig trying to disguise himself with a Sith-ifrican accent.
So begins a whistle-stop tour of capital cities - Rome, Paris, London, Athens - wherein one Palestinian plotter after another is targeted and slain. The suspense of these assassinations generally concerns the unreliable quality of their explosives, for their bomb "expert" (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a toymaker by profession. But the moral precariousness of their mission only gradually dawns on Avner and his cohorts. Can they know for sure that their targets were the men behind the Munich killings?
Their uncertainty is made explicit during a night-time raid on a hotel where the hitmen come armed with photographs of the suspects and, matching them by torchlight to various terrified faces, proceed to open fire. Indeed, the first Palestinian they kill in Rome, the poet Wael Zuaiter, turned out to be a case of mistaken identity - of which the script (by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth) makes no mention.
As the film digs deeper into this world of "intersecting secrecies" and shadowy middlemen (Michael Lonsdale plays a kind of terrorist matchmaker who's also a father figure to Avner) Spielberg tries to be even-handed, and at one stage allows a young PLO fighter to talk about his family and the idea of "home". But simply by dint of its hero being an Israeli, and a man loyal both to his family and his country, Munich keeps putting its thumb on the scale. In one of the better set-pieces Avner, realising that a young girl will be a collateral victim of their booby-trap bomb, successfully averts the danger, a nicety of feeling unlikely to be indulged by a real-life terrorist.
Towards the end, the toymaker-bomber offers an eloquent condemnation of what they've been doing when he says: "Suffering for thousands of years doesn't make you decent. We're supposed to be righteous - we're Jews." It's one of the film's few good lines, deflated in the very next scene when Avner leads a brutal revenge killing of a Dutch woman, as indefensible as anything you'll see in an Asian gangster movie.
And, just when you think it can't get worse, Spielberg pays homage to the finale of The Godfather by intercutting Avner having sex with his wife and a flashback to the Munich massacre. It must stand as the most ill-judged sequence of Spielberg's career. Munich seeks to present a balanced view of Arab-Israeli tensions, but all it adds to the picture is blood-spattered piety. Which isn't much use to anyone.
Michael Haneke's Hidden is at once a sensationally disturbing thriller and an oblique meditation on national guilt. Ambitious, you might think, yet it draws us in with a style that outdoes Hitchcock for unobtrusiveness. Opening on a prolonged, static shot of a humdrum Paris street, the house in the centre of the frame, we learn, is home to Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), the presenter of a TV book-chat programme, and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), and the shot of their home is a two-hour videotape that's been anonymously mailed to them. More tapes follow, wrapped in a child's drawing of a bloodied head.
What's going on? One's initial hunch is that Georges is being stalked, either by a loony fan who knows him from TV or else by an adulterous bit on the side who can't let go. But these speculations give way to a much darker backstory hidden in Georges' childhood and, by implication, in France's colonial past.
Haneke is something of an expert at peeling back layers of bourgeois calm to reveal the savagery beneath, and anyone acquainted with the insidious horrors of Funny Games (1997) or The Piano Teacher (2001) will by now be adopting the crash position. Yet the build-up is so carefully, unassumingly orchestrated (without a single note of soundtrack music, by the way) that one could never have guessed the kind of shock Haneke has in store. Georges, hunting for clues on the videotapes, ends up in the dismal apartment of a man (Maurice Benichou) who was once, briefly, his boyhood companion; through sheer malevolence Georges ensured that the boy, the son of Algerian immigrants, would be his companion no more.
Their unexpected reunion in middle age puts Georges' conscience reluctantly back on trial. Nothing here is clear-cut, however, and the riddles the film poses remain elusive; indeed, the closing credits - another static shot, this time of pupils milling about on the steps of a school - dial up the paranoid mood an extra notch. Are we looking for the final clues to the mystery, or is this another surveillance tape by the unseen voyeur? Either way, you need to watch this film.
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