Only a Movie?

The Bad Man's 15 minutes: <i>One Day in September</i>

The Bad Man's 15 minutes: One Day in September

A few minutes after 4:00 a.m. on September 5, 1972, a group of American athletes returning to Munich's Olympic Village from a late night of carousing stopped to help a group of men clamber over a wall. The Americans, drunk as they were, happened not to notice the bulky sports bags their newfound friends were carrying. Nor did it occur to them that someone who was supposed to be in the Village wouldn't need to scale a wall to get there. Thinking nothing of the incident, the Americans went to bed. The other group, whose bags happened to be full of machine guns and hand grenades, made their way to the unguarded dormitory of the Israeli team, where they shot two athletes to death and took nine more hostage. In hindsight, the mildly absurd beginning of the infamous Munich Olympics hostage crisis was exemplary of the whole affair; it was almost as though, in their innocent act of camaraderie, the Americans began the chain reaction of blunders and coincidences leading to the bloodbath on Fürstenfeldbrück airfield 18 hours later.

The Olympics massacre didn't really begin on September 5, of course. As is made clear in One Day in September, a documentary about the incident by Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, the young men constituting Black September--a freelance faction of the PLO--were both the products and the collateral damage of Israel's untenable policy toward Palestine. Nor did the Munich affair end with the murder of the hostages and the arrest of the terrorists; indeed, it is still being played out on the streets of Jerusalem. Yet for all its reverberations, the event itself remains like a latter-day Rashomon: No one--least of all those involved--seems to have any idea how or when things got out of control. Macdonald's film, assembled from archival footage and interviews with surviving participants, is a careful, dispassionate narration of the day's events: Dramatic effects are limited to a shaky first-person re-creation of the initial raid, a computer-generated simulation of the climactic airport shootout, and snippets of Philip Glass in between. But, perhaps because of this limited scope, Macdonald only circles around the central question of the Munich affair--namely, how what began as a comedy of errors could spiral into a tragedy with geopolitical implications.

The event, as surreal as it was sensational, welcomes allegorical interpretation. Germany, which was just emerging from its long postwar funk, was determined to make the Munich games into a fresh national start; everything about the Village, from the lack of security to the open planning, was designed to reflect a modern democratic state as well as to purge memories of Hitler's 1936 Berlin games. To make that point, Macdonald prefaces his film with promotional clips featuring smiling, wholesome Bavarian girls. This is the image Germany wanted to present; what they got was globally broadcast pictures of more innocent Jews being murdered on German soil. It's not hard to buy Macdonald's charge that, in the aftermath of the incident, the German government staged an airline hijacking in order to get the surviving Black September terrorists out of the country. All Germany wanted was to forget.

Blameworthy as they are, however, Macdonald also makes the point that the German police force's staggering incompetence was exacerbated and magnified by the gaze of millions. In one sequence, for instance, a German team attempts to raid the terrorists' room from the roof, only to realize that their movements are being broadcast live by a television crew across the street--and thus are perfectly visible to the terrorists via the TV set in their room. German rescue operations are again confounded when a traffic jam of gawkers enticed by live coverage keeps armored cars from intercepting the terrorists en route to the airport. Indeed, the lasting image of the crisis is of one of the terrorists leaning out over the hotel balcony to pose for the cameras. It's a chilling, revelatory scene: Like Godard's children of Marx and Coca-Cola, the Black September militants have become media images of themselves. They are The Bad Men.

To the millions watching the events play out on television, the crisis was a cinematic experience, with a sympathetic cast of characters, cuticle-chewing tension, and a neatly symmetrical Hollywood plot trajectory. This was perhaps the first time that media coverage mediated an event for the entire world. And, like the pursuit of O.J. Simpson's white Bronco two decades later, the audience watching it unfold on TV must have felt as though it was, at least in part, being performed for them: Like any good televisual spectacle, it was both immediate enough to mesmerize the viewer and remote enough to allow disassociation from the bloody consequences. The crisis was a new phenomenon, now familiar: a news event packaged and consumed as entertainment.

In Macdonald's most poignant archival clip, a female Israeli athlete, a teammate of the hostages, makes an appeal for restraint. "This is not a movie," she keeps saying. She was both exactly right and tragically mistaken.