“You’re the Only Home I Ever Had” – On Munich and the Meaning of Home in an Unpredictable World

In 2005, Steven Spielberg released two films that were very different, at least on the surface. One was War of the Worlds. It starred Tom Cruise doing a lot, and I mean A LOT, of running. The other was Munich, which profiled Israel’s violent response to the massacre of Israeli athletes by the Palestine Liberation Organization at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Although varying wildly in terms of story, both films riff heavily on the ramifications of 9/11.

Yet this is not Munich’s main preoccupation. Instead, Munich is primarily concerned with exploring what the concept of “home” means. This exploration is not limited to how violence such as terrorism typically triggers a more fervent relationship between humans and homelands, nations and nationals. Munich’s topical worth is larger, connecting to the recent rise of autocrats like Trump. It explores people simultaneously hold many definitions of “home” and how these definitions jostle, intersect and compete. According to Munich, this is particularly true in a violent, decentralized and disconnected world, which leads to misery and isolation.

In the context of this essay, I see the concept of home relating to where human beings find safety, identity, gratification and some form of belonging. In Munich, home can refer to something as large as the geographical nation where one possess citizenship, to something that can be as incredibly small and individualized as one’s interpretation of religion or one’s familial circle. It is important to note that these different definitions of home are not purely binary or confrontational; they can and do overlap and contain one another. However, it’s  undeniable in Munich that confrontational relationships exist between large and small versions of home. The film creates a sort of continuum for the idea, with hardliner perspectives occupying each end.

Spielberg’s film begins by exploring the idea of home being, first-and-foremost, one’s homeland, which is where its applicability to events like 9/11 comes into play. The initial scenes, which detail the attack at the ’72 Munich Olympics and its immediate aftermath, illustrate how salient this definition of home can become in times of national crisis. It is at these moments when leaders like Israeli’s flinty Prime Minister, Golda Meir, must establish the definition’s dominance. This is the only way in which an entity like a nation state can possibly respond the way Israel responds in Munich. By successfully establishing the salience of the homeland, the nation state is able to successfully galvanize the human bodies it needs to carry out violence.

This goal is at the core of Meir’s statements to her national security team following the attack, which characterize the slaughter as a proxy attack on Israel and the Jewish people. She states, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Continuing, she notes that, like Eichmann, the infamous Nazi Obersturmbannführer and professional simpleton who “didn’t want to share the earth with the Jewish people,” the Jews can’t be expected to share the earth with the architects of Munich. To Meir, the homeland has been attacked and must be defended. Additionally, other conceptions of home (such as an individual’s or a society’s values) must be subordinated to the geographic notion of home – which is of primary importance. This triggers the operation “Wrath of God,” a covert, off-the-books operation designed to track down and eliminate those involved in the massacre.

This odious task is assigned to the film’s main cast of characters: Avner, Steve, Carl, Hans and Robert. For a time, these men all appear enthusiastically committed to the cause. Although we only ever see the private life of the team leader Avner (played brilliantly by Eric Bana), we assume that all of the Wrath of God members joined the operation at the cost of their other versions of home. They all willfully sacrifice time with families and communities to pursue a risky, international, and multi-year mission, adopting, completely, the absolutist and nationalistic view of “home as geography” projected by the Israeli government.

Watching the film it becomes obvious that such a galvanizing moment, where the individual offers up their personalized version of home to the collective definition embedded in the wishes of the nation state, is not overly sustainable. Spielberg, along with writers Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, make it abundantly clear that smaller conceptualizations of home are also a powerful force, one whose influence is impossible to deny. Munich depicts this by giving voice to another view of home that is just as absolutist as the Israeli government but is simply on the other end of the continuum.

In order to make progress with the Wrath of God mission, Avner and his team utilize a family of French informants to provide them with the names of the Munich conspirators. Headed by a man named Louis (Mathieu Amalric) and his father Papa (Michael Lonsdale), this family vehemently professes that it “doesn’t much care for governments” and view the notion of home as one that is small, insular and tribal. They are devoted solely to themselves, an attitude precipitated by Papa’s experience in World War II. That global conflict resulted in him losing his family for no reason except so that “Vichy scum could be replaced by Gaullist scum and that the Nazis could be replaced by Stalin and America.”

Initially a highly-functional relationship, tension eventually develops between Avner’s team and Louis’s group after Wrath of God threatens the family’s sense of autonomy. In order to ameliorate this, Avner travels to Papa’s home to discuss the infraction in their working relationship. Papa immediately recognizes a kindred spirit in Avner, despite the younger man being technically an agent of the Israeli government. He says to Avner that, “The world has been rough with you, with your tribe. It’s right to respond roughly to such treatment.” Papa seems to admire Avner’s simple earnestness, the love that he has for the Jewish people and, on a smaller scale, the love and sense of obligation he has for his family. Before they part ways, he even says to Avner, “You could have been my son,” before warning him with, “But you’re not. Remember that. We’ll do business, but you aren’t family.”

Papa’s words hang over much of Munich, suggesting an extreme view of home that is equal to if not greater than the nationalistic and geographical view harbored by someone like Golda Meir. The filmmakers’ perspective is that neither one of these viewpoints can be actually adopted by most people – at least for a protracted period of time. Most of us are like the characters caught up in the Wrath of God operation: We fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum, and these various definitions of home must be navigated and negotiated throughout different stages of life.

Munich explores this process primarily through its lead character Avner, and many of the film’s early scenes are devoted to developing his conflicted, dichotomous nature. Like his father, a famous Israeli war hero, Avner is strongly committed to Israel’s safety and autonomy. He is a “Sabra,”a child of Israel, and his fellow countrymen are his “tribe.” Yet it’s clear that this is not the only way he defines home. Avner is also devoted to his pregnant wife; she and his future child are also a home for him, equally if not more important than Israel.

When he first meets with Golda Meir to discuss leading Wrath of God, Spielberg depicts Avner as somewhat torn by the proposition. Following the meeting, he and his wife have sex. Their home setting is warm and safe. But, even at this moment of ultimate connection, Avner cannot get the state of Israel out of his mind. He vulnerably explains to his wife  that he doesn’t think he can “live with” himself if he refuses Meir’s request. (Worst pillow talk EVER!) This prompts his wife to outline how he (Avner) seems to think that “Israel is [his] mother.”

Her statement cannot be dismissed off-hand, as it indicates how some imbue the nation state with maternal or paternal attributes – particularly when the security of a state’s peoples is called into question. It signifies, more or less, the deep hold a country can have over its citizens: the capacity to prompt them to give up everything, including their values, their families and even their lives.

Such rootin’ tootin’ nationalism is obviously a powerful, almost overwhelming force; but Munich indicates that it’s a temporal one at best. Not long after Wrath of God covertly deploys to Europe to begin the mission, the team begins displaying more of an allegiance to other versions of home. One of these is their small group of assassins, a development visualized beautifully in the many dinners the team eats together, which possess a palpably familial essence. Their growing allegiance to their own fraternity is illustrated by their refusal to reveal the sources that provide them with the locations of the Munich conspirators; and by the decision to involve themselves in an assassination operation in Beirut, despite being instructed to stay out of Arab countries. Finally, they lethally retaliate against an independent Dutch contract killer who had murdered Carl (Ciaran Hinds) earlier in the story.

Spielberg insinuates that these developments can be partially blamed on Israel’s eye-raising pursuit of “plausible deniability.” Avner and his team have no clear-cut relationship to Israel during Wrath of God; they aren’t official soldiers, and their actions aren’t backed by law. This idea is expressed perfectly by the team’s handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), who explains to Avner just how off-the-books Wrath of God truly is. He states repeatedly that the team is “officially unofficial, unemployed and uninsured” and that the contract they sign exists purely to indicate that “there is no contract.” In short, the team does not feel a sense of accountability to obey every edict of the Israeli government. There is a disturbing lack of clarity to their actions. Who they are specifically targeting and what agenda they are furthering are questions that remain ambiguous throughout the operation, making it impossible to maintain strict allegiance to the homeland.

Another reason that Wrath of God becomes disillusioned with the idea of home as homeland is because their enthoreligious identify as Jewish men is undeniably powerful; it habitually threatens their commitment to the mission. Spielberg stages several scenes where they bicker over the morality of their actions while on the job. This circular process eventually culminates with Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) becoming overwhelmed by the sheer barbarity of their actions and how they’re irreconcilable with the tenants of Judaism. Robert’s plea to Avner is that Wrath of God, despite being ostensibly designed to protect the home (Israel), is in fact destroying another type of home (his Judaism).

Robert’s distress helps establish the diversity in how people define their different senses of what home is, while also showing the potential for these definitions to come into conflict. Spielberg visualizes this through the contrast of Avner and Robert. At the point in the story when this conversation takes place, Avner is still lethally committed to the idea of home as homeland. When Robert tells him that, “Jews don’t do wrong because our enemies do wrong,” he responds by saying that the Jewish people “can’t afford to be that decent anymore.” This indicates Avner’s willingness to modify his Jewish identity to the fit within the demands of the post-Munich world and place one definition of home before another. His stance, essentially, echos the one held by Golda Meir, and is a concession Robert is incapable of making.

Looking at their conversation in a decontextualized vacuum, it would be hard to characterize Avner as anything aside from an extremist, asshole hardliner. Yet Spielberg never loses sight of the character’s three-dimensional nature. As mentioned, Avner is as conflicted over the definition of home as anyone, particularly in regards to his family.

This comes out in key moments. By becoming increasingly involved in the Munich mission, Avner begins developing full-blown paranoia over whether something might happen to his family in retaliation for his actions. The apex of this occurs when Avner asks his wife to move herself and their new child from Israel to New York. This request is not met favorably. His wife claims that, “Israel is [their] home,” before inquiring, “Don’t you want your daughter to be an Israeli, Avner?” “You’re the only home I ever had,” Avner says in response, before adding, “She’ll always be an Israeli.” This statement possesses a synergy with Robert’s statement regarding Judaism. Just as the Jewish homeland may not always act as a perfect reflection of Jewish values, one does not have to live in Israel to embody Israel traditions, qualities and attitudes. This indicates that what makes someone a citizen of a country is harder to define than whether they occupy a specific piece of land. Instead, it is a mixture of tangible and untangible attributes and these attributes are occasionally unaligned.

The film does not overlook the possibility that being able to hold such a variety of definitions of home may be predicated on privilege. Although subjected to great suffering, Avner and his team take their homeland somewhat for granted. They are not like Ali, the Palestinian who Avner talks to midway through the film, who succinctly states that, “Home is everything.” They also do not appear similar to Avner’s mother’s generation, one of the last generations to know what life was like before the creation of the Jewish state in 1947. Late in the film, she comments to a distraught Avner that his actions with Wrath of God had merit: “Whatever it took, whatever it takes. A place on Earth. We have a place on Earth.” This statement echos Ali, indicating that “home as land” is a very real thing to many people – a sentiment that Avner does not appear to fully hold or understand.

This array of factors – from their lack of identity as an official Israeli fighting force, to their belief in the separation of a country from a country’s cultural values – eventually compound on Avner and his team. Nearly all of the Wrath of God members leave the operation before the film’s conclusion – either of their own volition or by body bag. Avner himself eventually becomes sickened by his bloody involvement with Wrath of God, finally leaving after killing eight men. Moving to New York City to be with his wife and newborn daughter, Avner appears, on the surface, to have comfortably embraced the position of Papa and his family: a perspective on home that is clannish, insular and small.

Yet just like fully embracing the nationalistic idea of home as homeland is a proposition fraught with difficulty, retreating into an idea of home defined purely by family is no easy task. This is even more painfully true when, like Avner, one is dealing with a family unit that is borderline dysfunctional. Avner’s relationship with his parents certainly carries these connotations. His father, the famous war hero, is a phantom and never appears on-screen. His relationship with his mother is also tense and disconnected.

This is visualized in two key scenes. Spielberg utilizes a subtextually-rich blocking pattern during one conversation between Avner and his mother. During this exchange, he has Avner’s mother sit and Avner pace back and forth. Not until the end of the conversation do the two characters’ faces appear in the same frame. Another scene that indicates their fractured relationship is when Avner is welcoming his baby daughter to the world directly after his wife has given birth. Holding her, he walks over to the recovery room’s door. His mother is visible through the door’s window, capable of seeing her posterity but blocked from real physical or emotional engagement.

Even without such troublesome dynamics, Munich never makes the case that one can shun larger conceptions of home with a devil-may-care attitude. Such a hunky-dory belief is nowhere to be found in Munich. In its place is a portrait of fear, paranoia, guilt, desperation and real psychic pain – with Avner directly in its center. Shortly after leaving Israel, the character begins being pressured by Rush’s bi-speckled Ephraim to reconsider. He also begins to fear that Israeli agents may be trying to eliminate him for unknown reasons. This culminates with him breaking into the Israeli embassy to scream at the top of his lungs at an Embassy official. “I won’t hesitate to kill other people’s children if you hurt my child. Understand?” he hollers like a lunatic, before continuing,  “[…] I’ll go to the newspapers. I’ll give every name of everybody who was in the meetings. I’ll tell them everything if you don’t leave my family alone! Ok!”

But it is perhaps the film’s infamous final sex scene, which occurs directly after Avner’s confrontational episode at the Israeli Embassy, where the film truly gets at the heart of the complex relationship between different conceptions of home. This dark, semi-violent, and, yes, unintentionally hilarious scene is starkly contrasted with the tenderness of the earlier sex scene where Avner informed his wife that he would be joining the Wrath of God operation. While robotically making love, Avner cannot stop imagining the Israeli athletes being massacred on the tarmac of the Munich airport. Scenes of their destruction penetrate his thoughts, stealing him away from what was once the most blissful, secure and life-affirming aspect of his home life.

Such a scene indicates that the national pain of Israel has become Avner’s psychic pain; and indeed, Avner appears to be in real agony during these remembrances. When taken together with the fear and paranoia discussed above, Spielberg is able to convey that, while one’s homeland can provide the benefits of identity and security, it can also imbue the opposite in the individual and degrade the quality of their other conceptions of home.

____________

Munich parses the uncontrollable tragedies set in motion when a country and a people respond aggressively to an act of terror. However, it also moves beyond such an obvious dynamic to investigate the relationship between something as large as a nation and as small as a family or social group. It grapples with the variety of ways humans define home, which can manifest as the physical, such as a country; the immaterial, such as an ethnoreligious identity; or as the personal, such as with a family or professional circle.

These conceptions of home interact and compete, often dramatically. Avner and his team are compelled to move away from their home lives by the Munich massacre – yet only temporarily. The idea of home as homeland doesn’t fully stick, with affinities towards family, friends and religious faith disrupting the absolutist view of home Israel seeks to encourage for their retaliatory operations. It’s suggested that this inability to fully embrace home as homeland is due to a variety of factors, from the fact that Wrath of God is not an official Israeli military operation, to the groups’ lack of belief in nationality or ethnicity being purely constituted by physical, tangible land.

Spielberg evokes that this lack of absolutism may be predicated on privilage; Avner and company are not like the homeless Palestinians, nor are they like Avner’s mother, whose generation experienced a genocidal dictator intent on wiping them off the face of the planet. Spielberg expands on this idea by showing how the ambivalent attitudes of the Wrath of God members leave them in the middle of a continuum in regards to the definition of home, lost somewhere between the nationalistic conception held by the Israeli government and the tribal conception held by Papa’s family. By film’s end, Avner and his team have been largely destroyed by this middle-of-the-road sensibility, incapable of continuing with Wrath of God or fully returning to the homelife they once enjoyed.

Since the election of Donald Trump, it has been hard to avoid making connections between the films I watch and the shitstorm currently engulfing the country. Many of the connections I have drawn have been insipid and probably apocryphal. It’s hard to deny, however, Munich’s important applicability to the now. This correlation does not simply relate to the fact that millions of people put party over country – although that certainly was the case – and definitively chose one “home” over another. The more important connection lies in how deeply Munich explores the fragmentation of culture. This splintering in society has led to the inability – one I’d wager has been steadily growing since at least the second World War – to have any agreement on universals for a society, even down to something that shouldn’t be up for debate, like facts and figures. With such systemic problems in place, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that autocrats like Trump have risen into power both in the United States and in Europe, just as it shouldn’t be a surprise when the world suffers as a result.

Disconnection and the horrors it ferments are themes Spielberg intuitively conveys with Munich’s incredible final scene – which showcases the director at his most cryptic, humane and mature. The final moments of the film involve Rush’s Ephraim coming to New York City, both to mollify Avner’s paranoia about whether the Israeli government is hunting him and to make one final push for him to return to Israel and Wrath of God. In the shadow of the World Trade Center, two men largely spend this time debating the merits of the operation, utterly failing to come to some sort of consensus on its meaning, morality and impact. At the tail-end of the conversation, Ephraim attempts to establish a connection, pleading to Avner to “come home” to Israel, the place, according to Ephraim, where he belongs and where his loyalties should lie. Conversely, Avner appeals to Ephraim with a different conception of home, evoking their shared Judaism and inviting him to his home to “break bread” with him. Ephraim sadly declines this offer, indicating that, despite their shared country of origin and their shared faith, the two men have next to nothing in common.

This, then, is the point. Munich depicts the search for home in all of its amazing complexity, suggesting, again and again, how integral it is to a human being’s sense of individual safety, happiness, identity and values. It also heartbreakingly shows something else. People have the ability to align their conception of home in order to reach a common and deeply important understanding. Or not.

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