Origins of Munich
November 8, 2005
The origins of Munich go back to a family vacation we took in the summer of ’72, though as you’ll soon see, it goes back further than that, too -- I guess I’m like most other Jews, when things turn serious, we see Hitler lurking in the mist. But that’s jumping ahead, this is the pre-story, how the film came to be.
My father (Werner), two older brothers (Billy and Dickie) and I flew first to Rekyavik, which was buzzing about the Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky chess match taking place there in a week’s time. It was by far the biggest chess match ever, the mercurial, iconoclastic American against the icy, invincible Russian, the Cold War hanging in the balance. But we were just passing through. Dickie’s best friend, blonde, blue-eyed Helgie Helgeson, was the son of a pilot for Icelandic Air whom my father had swung a deal through, and we had to lay over on our way to Europe. By the time we got our rental car, it was ten in the evening, and the drive from the Rekyavik airport was surreal -- it doesn’t get dark there in June, a sort of endless sunset on barren, moon-like terrain. Lots of rocks. At the hotel, excited about the trip ahead, none of us could sleep. It was just us guys alone, too, so we celebrated the midnight sun by playing poker until it was time to head back to the airport in the morning, my first all-nighter, I was nine.
The next day we landed in Luxembourg and proceeded directly to Wollstein, West Germany, my father’s home town, near Mainz, his first time back since he was three. We knocked on the door of the little house where they’d lived, right on the main drag, and the middle-aged couple who answered were nice enough to let us in to look around. But before I get into that, first, one of many diversions about my father, who as you’ll soon see, was central to the genesis of the film. But here, just to note that he was totally jazzed to be back in Germany. This was our second trip to Europe, on the first he’d gone directly to the factory in Stuttgart upon arrival to buy his first German car, a Mercedes, which he’d sold before this trip, so he could go back to the factory to buy another; in fact, from the day he could afford them, he owned only German cars until late in life. He reveled in his German-ness, wore Zeiss sunglasses and used to order us around the house in German, ìLinke! Recht! We, his foot soldiers.
Wollstein was a tiny hamlet built before the birth of motorcars. Consequently, it had no sidewalks, and from inside the house, the proximity to street-life was startling. In the front room, a large pantry of sorts with big picture windows, people, bicycles and even cars whizzed by, inches away. My father remembered sleeping there.
Later in the day, in a butcher shop, a man asked my father something in German, and they talked for a while. It turned out the man had lived in Wollstein his whole life, recognized my father, apparently (according to my brother Dick, since I don’t remember this), he’d babysat him. Still, strange. How could he recognize my father or our family genetic features thirty-four years later?
When we got home to America at the end of the summer, I was excited to tell my father’s parents about our trip to their old house. Up to this time, we never brought up the War in front of them. They never talked about it either. But I’d always been very curious. I told my grandmother about my impressions of the town and their house, especially the front room, the big picture windows so close to life in the street. She confirmed this was where my father used to spend the night, that he’d insisted on it, because when he couldn’t sleep, he could always entertain himself looking out the big window. Then her first words on the War -- that in the end, there’d been some trouble in town with the Nazis and that one day, she’d had a feeling, a premonition that it wasn’t safe for my father to sleep in the front room anymore. So that night, she said, he slept in back. She said that the next morning, they awoke to find a large rock had been thrown through the window and landed right where my father’s bed was, where his head would have been. Naturally, my grandmother was spooked, and she turned to my grandfather and said, ìAlbert, we’re leaving,î and she’d meant it.
Only my grandmother ever discussed the War, though. Not then, nor in his lifetime, at least in my presence, did my grandfather ever utter a word about those days. In future sessions with her, I learned how the rock incident had happened after something more serious -- my grandfather had been taken away to Buchenwald. My father’s brother (Uncle Ernie) told me he saw him disappear down the road in the back of a truck. But my grandfather managed to bargain his way out of Buchenwald by forgiving a debt the Commandandt’s father owed from a cattle deal. After the rock incident, they gathered the family and planned their escape, though my grandmother said that when they’d packed up and finally got going in the car that momentous day, they suddenly felt something was missing and horrified, remembered, Wernerschein! In the scurry to leave, they’d forgotten my father, who was playing at the neighbor’s next door. They went back for him and eventually came through Paris, the German authorities a day behind, and made it safely across the Atlantic by ship.
Over the next couple of years, whenever we’d visit, I’d try to get my grandmother alone to answer my questions, and she began talking more openly, mentioning family members who’d been lost and others who’d made it out and so forth. I planned to get a tape deck to record her recollections, to create an oral family history, but unfortunately, I didn’t move quickly enough, she died suddenly, of a heart attack, and I never got the chance.
From Wollstein, we met up with my mother (Jane) and younger sister (Susan) back in Luxembourg, and headed for the south of Spain, to Estapona, from which on a clear day, the Atlas Mountains are visible across the Strait. We spent the summer there, also taking quick trips to Morocco, Italy and Yugoslavia. It was a great summer, though by the end of August, my sister and I missed our friends and wanted to go home. But my father had his eye on the Olympics, the first in Germany since Berlin in ’36. So it was decided, my mother would take the two of us back to New York while my father took my two older brothers to Munich.
My mother, sister and I had to fly out through Luxembourg and spent half a day there, waiting to get a plane home. I’d just begun avidly collecting coins, and wandering around, we spotted an American Double Eagle, a long-defunct piece of American currency, gold, worth $20 in its time, from the era before paper money, being sold for only $95, an incredible deal. Apparently, gold prices had just taken a radical dip. I begged my mother for a loan, but she didn’t have the money. Within months, the coin was worth double and only went up from there, which is a lasting joke between us.
Back home in New York, I watched every hour of the Olympics, hoping to catch a glimpse of my father and brothers on television. I hadn’t remembered anything of the Mexico City Games in ‘68, I’d been only five at the time. By nine, I liked sports and not just coins, but maps, flags, languages, geography. So these Olympics were a major discovery. It seemed both a higher form of sports and bigger than sports, too, I was in thrall of the whole Olympic ideal. After Jewish-American swimmer Mark Spitz won his record-setting seventh gold, my brothers and father came home. Unwittingly, they even brought a numismatic consolation prize, a set of silver Olympic Commemorative coins, shiny and beautiful. The whole family was tuned in when Jim McKay announced what had happened with the Israeli team.
Previous to this, Olympics and other major events had been broadcast with tape delay, so if ever anything gruesome happened, it would be caught by the studio before we saw anything. For the first time, since this was live, via satellite, as the athletes sat behind those windows tied up, with German sharpshooters on the roofs, policemen in tracksuits trying to somehow break in and free them, we had no idea what we’d see. Bloodshed, murder? These past fifteen years, we’ve seen O.J. on the run, the bombing of Baghdad and 9/11 on live television, we’re used to seeing events as they happen, real-time history under strict news-room control, beamed into our living rooms. But this was a first, we didn’t know what would happen, and as a viewing audience, we’d never been in that position. Like the rest of the world, my family stayed glued to the set all day, until the end, and I remember it all vividly.
Three years later, my father took me to see Dog Day Afternoon. In those years, he took us to see all the great films featuring actors from the Method scene, the new generation who’d taken the mantle from the early days of Kazan, James Dean, Brando and later, Paul Newman. By this time, DeNiro was king, but there was also James Earl Jones, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, James Caan. My father loved great acting, and he’d show me great performances when certain movies would come up on television, like Brando in The Young Lions, the complex Nazi. He took us to serious ones like Network and Serpico and fun ones like Blazing Saddles and all the 007s. And at least with me, I remember he’d then contrast the great performances with the lesser ones we’d see on television, to help me understand the power of great acting. Today, I realize how these conversations helped me form a set of creative values, later explored in a decade trying to learn how to play and record music, and then further when I began in film. I’ve come to believe that what we think of as gut instincts or creative instincts, those inner guides we blindly reach for in the dark, really begin emotionally and from very early on, before we turn thirteen or fourteen, after which our learning tends to become more rational and brain-oriented. Hopefully, we always continue developing them, but at least for me, it was there begun.
This period was all part of a five year sabbatical from Wall Street my father had the good fortune to be able to take. When we weren’t traveling, he was pursuing an interest in human behavior, mainly his own. He sampled the latest in therapy, Group, Primal Scream, Gestalt, Analysis, as well as flotation tanks, EST, Colorology, Kenesiology, Biofeedback, Hypnosis, Numerology, Buddhist meditation, Hindu meditation -- ah, New York in the Seventies. He became a disciple of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh for a few years, wearing at all times only red clothing, including socks and underwear, and a pendant of the guru in wooded beads around his neck. And that’s not the half of it, really, you name it, one after the other, each eventually discarded but never discredited. He was also volunteering at hospitals and hospices and soup kitchens and as a waiter at a small private restaurant run by an eccentric old lady who only served privately, she wouldn’t open to the public.
But his other big thing was studying with Lee Strassberg at the Actors Studio. It was just for the fun of it, he had no intention of acting professionally but had been in some plays and found the process interesting. He made good friends there, and it became a big part of his life. He even had three of us kids in an avant-garde production of The Old Woman’s Brood, he played a blind dentist, and we were pieces of garbage, literally. We came on, each in a wheelbarrow filled with crumpled-up newspaper and were dumped casually on the stage, after which we were supposed to lie there motionless until the end. One night my sister Susan fell asleep, and when the old lady threw her beloved doll at the climax, it landed near Susan and stunned, her head popped up. She got a laugh. The whole thing was abstract, existential, theater of the absurd, though understandably, my mother, who later became a therapist, didn’t much like it. ìYou’re letting them play garbage?î
But my Dad was totally into it, he’d come home exhilarated after a day at the zoo studying the behavior of an orangutan, and an evening then imitating it in class. As for Dog Day Afternoon, I thoroughly loved it, the expression on Sonny’s face as he throws wads of stolen bank money into the crowd, whipping them into a frenzy. Attica! Ironically, I saw the film recently and noticed in that scene how the shot of Sonny throwing the money -- it seems like the money would travel no more than four feet -- and the shot they cut to of the bills floating down over a vast crowd -- some of whom are fifty feet away -- are totally incongruous. But in 1975, such technicalities didn’t matter, and the moment worked, stayed with me. Still, what struck me most seeing it that first time was the ending, Sonny and his boyfriend, in the car heading for airport, set up by the police, sitting ducks, knowing they were doomed, any feeling of security left behind at the bank with the hostages, having been promised a flight out of the country. As their car finally made it out onto the tarmac, I leaned over to my father, whispering, ìthis is just like Munich,î which turned out to be a good guess, it was the same tragic ruse.
That was the year my parents got divorced, and my life and the life of our family changed. My father moved into Manhattan, at first to a dreary one-bedroom in Murray Hill, though he eventually settled into an okay studio on the Upper East Side. The trip to Europe turned out to have been the last vacation we all had together, the six of us, the apex of an idyllic phase for our family.
In 1997, he was out visiting my Santa Monica apartment from his new home in the Catskills, and we were having an uncharacteristically awkward visit, perhaps the only one I’d ever call that. He’d quit Wall Street altogether, remarried and put his life savings into a health spa, but he was nonetheless the same, a seeker, still not having found. I think part of what he loved about coming out to visit was the respite from that -- the settled domesticity of my household, my then-wife Lisa’s lovely home-cooked meals, warm hospitality, time away from everything -- his new job, his rocky home life – plus just the quality time with me.
I’d hoped to have a serious talk about his marriage, he was struggling, and also about some of the ups and down he was experiencing in his relationships with my brothers and sister, to help him get what he wanted and also just to let him know I cared. But I never seemed to find the right moment, leaving a kind of muted, numb silence in the air throughout. He woke up the first morning upset, too, his bed and the whole room was infested by ants, and panicked, we sprayed, an overreaction, the fumes hovered the rest of his stay.
I was also just starting to try to produce films and struggling badly, failing to get anything going, no foothold, worried I’d torched a solid career as a literary agent, unable to focus on much else. It was a rough time, I was in retreat from friends and family, embarrassed, preoccupied, scared. For a full two years, I wasn’t great company for anyone, really.
On the last day of his visit, a Sunday, I woke up and braving the chemicals, went into his room, where he was making the best of it. Characteristically, he was up, lying on his side in bed, television on, half paying attention and playing bridge. He could never sit still. A documentary on A & E was beginning on Munich, so we started watching, reliving the experience together again, both grateful for a way to feel connected. To our surprise, the section about the Olympics was over quickly, and the rest of the program turned out to be about a history unknown to either of us, the reprisals Israel made against a list of Palestinians whom Israel had held responsible for the attack. I remember the feeling I had watching the program when the first Palestinian target was assassinated. It was a surge of adrenaline, an empowering feeling of justice rising up in me. It was like yes. But in the next moment, I felt revolted, not so much with the Israelis as with myself and what I’d just felt. I was tuned into a brief moment, like a scientist who’d isolated a chemical compound: that surge, in that moment of feeling empowered, I wondered if this same feeling precedes all acts of human violence (and also condoning violence). I don’t know if you can call it an insight, but whatever it was, this was the key to wanting to do Munich. Not simply the desire to tell this particular story, per se, but wanting to tell a story which explored the emotions violence provokes, all violence, political andpersonal, right down to being mugged or robbed or threatened. I wanted to try to tell a story which would recreate that response -- that progression of feelings: anger at being violated, desire for retribution, the surge of adrenaline and empowering feeling that comes with perceived justice – then revulsion, self-revulsion at feeling this way. I thought, how rare to go through such a progression, questioning ourselves, from watching a film.
Still. How to respond to such violence? Strike back, and surely, retaliation would follow. Do nothing, show weakness, and you would surely be trampled again. The legal system didn’t work, even the Munich fedayeenwho killed in front of a live global television audience were freed only weeks later by their comrades hijacking a plane and demanding their release. Throughout the ‘70s, all apprehended ìterroristsî were easily freed. This is what stared Golda Meir in the face after Munich, and as I thought about her predicament, emotionally, morally and politically, I wondered what my various heroes Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and John Lennon might have said. Giving peace a chance is much easier from the sidelines, to be sure.
Justice. In my youth, it had comforted me to know there was a universally recognized legal response to even the worst international crimes, due process of law – the Nuremburg Trials and United Nations were like twin pillars, Twentieth Century progress toward a more peaceful, civilized future. But as I grew older, I observed how even the most well-intended institutions become politicized or otherwise fail and also how my own emotions sometimes got caught up in various causes, and I became conflicted. It was an era of change. Cassius Clay became the outlaw Muhammad Ali and gave up his title to protest the war. In New York, we had the Woman’s Bank, for women only – they were becoming liberated, getting out of the house, demanding respect, justice, equality, at work, in the bedroom, everywhere. There were political assassinations. Race riots. Corruption. Protests. Students gunned down. Malcolm X. Black Panthers. Vietnam. For me, the line between criminals and outlaws blurred, many of the people and groups vilified by the establishment weren’t out for themselves nor even rebels without a cause, they were thinkers, fighters, revolutionaries, demanding a fair shake.
And that was just America, overseas were hijackings, bombings and other acts of violence. And Munich was seminal: eleven Jewish athletes, in Germany to participate in what had been officially called The Games of Peace and Joy, were murdered after a twenty-one hour hostage stand-off, broadcast live to a worldwide television audience, 900 million in 134 countries, launching a new era of violence as effective political publicity. In a day, eight well-dressed, good-looking proud young Arab men armed with grenades and machine guns succeeded in capturing the attention of the world. To many they were cowards, but to others, they were heroes, putting their lost cause back on the map. At the time, Yassar Arafat was a wanted criminal fronting an illegitimate terror network. Within three years, he was speaking before the U.N. Security Council, the PLO having been officially recognized. In other words, Munich worked.
Israel’s response, taking matters into their own hands, outside the boundaries of international law, sending assassins who could do the job but leave no trace, worked, too. They got their men, and terrorism against Israeli civilians ebbed for years to come. Still, the injustices against Palestinians lingered.
So there it was, the untold story of Munich and a secret revenge mission, buried in the back pages of history. It raised a lot of intriguing emotions and issues, and I said it seemed like a good idea for a film. My father agreed.
We said goodbye the next morning. I went directly to the office, sat down and typed him a long letter saying all the things I wished I’d said during the visit, about his marriage, his relationship with his other three kids, my advice on it, where I was at with him, about the trouble I was having in my work, and ultimately, expressing my love and support of him in his travails. The P.S. mentioned the Munich project, rekindling the one bright spot in an otherwise disappointing visit, that it in the cold light of morning, the time when you often see what’s wrong with your ideas, it still seemed worthwhile. I dropped the letter in the mail, then turned my attention to the project itself, taking the first steps on an eight year journey, feeling excited about it but never imagining it would blossom the way it did, nor how history would intervene in September 2001 to alter its context, nor that my father would soon be struck down, in the prime of life, two major strokes back-to-back and a cardiac arrest that wreaked havoc on his brain.
The last years of his life, my father lived in a hospital, but really in an impenetrable Oliver Saks netherworld, not outwardly unhappy but unable to recognize or make sense of anything going on around him. It was hard. A lifetime of memories and his sparkling intellect deserted him, only his basic sweetness and affection remained. One silver lining was that without the ability to focus his mind, he also had no stress, except whatever inner knowledge he might have had about his predicament, it was impossible to tell. But physically, he seemed relaxed, he wasn’t searching anymore, for six full years, he was just being, and the last few times we visited, he looked somehow younger and well.
I recently took out a copy of the letter I sent him the Monday after our Santa Monica visit and noticed the date, it turns out he died exactly eight years to the day after we watched that documentary together, two days before we started shooting the film.